Should African states bar citizens from using social media during elections and other major political events?
The trend of switching off or limiting internet usage during elections and other major political events is catching up with some African nations.
Although the numbers are trivial, over the recent past, groups of African governments have blocked social media during elections, citing it is a matter of security.
According to ‘How Africa Tweets’ report carried out by Portland Communications, African tweeters tend to be more political, and carrying activism messages. The report, which analyzed 1.6 billion tweets and 5,000 hashtags from 2015, found that politics-related tweets in Africa were increasingly on the rise compared to entertainment and commerce. In general, political tweets from Africa topped those in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Social media provide a platform for political discourse for Africans, something that some governments although they would not admit, fear could topple their leadership through revolutions or enormous protests.
They maintain that their decision to pass a total social media blackout is to maintain safety during such events.
The latest country to join the bandwagon is Ghana.
Though considered one of the most democratic nations on the continent, Ghana’s decision to shut down social media on voting day, caught democracy watchdogs by surprise.
Last week, the country’s police chief declared that come November when the country is set to vote, the government will give a total blackout to social media “from 5 am to 7 pm to ensure social media are not used to send misleading information that could destabilize the country.”
But some people, including Dominic Nitiwul, deputy minority leader in parliament from the New Patriot Party, said banning social media use would be illegal. According to him, it would inhibit constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.
"There is no law that allows the police to take such a unilateral decision without first going to court or without having the law to back them," he was quoted by VOA as saying. "So clearly this is a suggestion that cannot work,” he said adding that the police should not be seen as breaking the law they swore to uphold. He said that his party would fight any such move in court.
Other Ghanaians however, are in support of the move saying that if the social media would be used to propagate hatred and violence during the vote, it should be banned. They welcomed anything that would ensure that the West African country maintains its territorial integrity, peace, law and order.
Earlier on, governments such as Congo-Brazzaville, Chad and Uganda also enacted the ban of social media during elections.
According to the Congolese officials, the ban was meant to prevent the "illegal publication of results."
But Joe Washington, president of the Ebina Foundation, an activist group told Newsweek that "(the decision is bad because) there are other things to think about besides elections. Everything is being done so that the election is not transparent."
Blocking the use of social media and mobile phones during polls means that the results which were initially shared through such platforms by local observers, would not take place with ease. Thus, observers would not be able to know in advance if results were being rigged.
On the morning of the polls, Ugandans woke up to find that they could not access Twitter, Facebook and to some extent WhatsApp, and mobile money transfer system. Uganda’s, President Yoweri Museveni maintained that blocking social media during the election was to "stop spreading lies."
In less than three months after the February election, Uganda ordered internet service providers to block access to Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, during President Museveni’s inaugural ceremony.
A report on how social media can be used for election communication and monitoring in Nigeria presents some insights on how governments and other agents can use these platforms at different stages: pre-election, during the election, and post-election.
In pre-election, the platforms can be used to identify potentially influential voices and accounts which might be important to engage with or listen to. Given that these platforms are increasingly becoming important in the society, they can be used for campaigns prior to elections and as education tools about elections as well as how to use them to monitor or communicate during and after elections.
On the day of elections, they can be used to identify and understand emerging events including rumors which can then be used for the benefit of the masses. Social media can also be used to supplement existing media monitoring research work. Identifying citizen reports about electoral misconduct is made easier and faster through social media.
On the polling day, posts from the identified accounts or individuals would allow researchers to identify the most common complaints or concerns about electoral misconduct, or better determine citizens’ experience of voting. That can be used, with accompanying demographic data and caveats, as a valuable research tool.
Image credit: Skyler Reid
Are you impressed, have any concerns, or think we can improve this article? Comment below or email us.