Ugandans are angry that the government has followed through with its threat to tax them for using social media, which the president, Yoweri Museveni, has on several occasions derided as a good for nothing rumor mill. Now they cannot, literally, puff curls of smoke that look like glistening halo emojis without coughing an extra dime.

Smoke and mirrors

Social media is at best described as a long pipe of smoke and mirrors. On one end, users mirror a facile image of themselves, they are living the perfect lives and are the source of envy. On the other end, users send (smoke) signals to promote their businesses, social causes, name it, for the world to engage.

In both cases, the majority of the users are addicted to social media platforms in profound yet in ways that might altogether be self-destructive.

The government of Uganda enacted the Excise Duty Act, that among a raft of taxes, qualifies social media, bundled alongside other Over-The-Top (OTT) websites and apps, for mandatory taxation. Effective 1 July 2018, over 50 websites, including Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, and even LinkedIn, are blocked and can only be accessed upon payment of UGX 200 (about $0.05) as social media tax.

Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) classifies any OTT service that has a semblance of social communication and messaging as a candidate for social media tax, although the list has not yet been officially gazetted by the government. However, defiant citizens have made it a point to dodge paying this tax through the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) clients. Even though UCC has warned that VPNs will be blocked, there is little or no evidence that indeed these threats have exercised.

Droves of Ugandan social media users have taken to social networks to share tips and tricks on how to evade the tax through the use of VPNs, proxies, unblocked apps, among others. Also, while some have obliged to pay the tax, there are no official statistics from telecommunications companies, let alone UCC, on how this tax is faring yet.

Amid the citizen backlash and outrage, at a high-profile meeting convened by the UCC, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), and mobile network operators (MNOs) on 2 July 2018, among the key takeaways, it is reported that UCC promised to sensitize the masses on social media tax as they prepare to review the tax in a fortnight. However, the UCC called upon telecommunications companies to swing into action and block VPNs.

"The tiger does not shout its tigritude, it acts." - Wole Soyinka

In the meantime, UCC has entered a propaganda overdrive; while they have threatened that VPNs will be blocked, they have miserably failed to act on their threats. In return, more and more citizens are believing the VPNs are some sort of kill proof service that enables them to circumnavigate any form of censorship. Now propaganda peddlers have it that VPN clients consume more data than the obligation to pay a paltry UGX 200.

Indeed, VPNs certainly almost consume more data because of their underworking – they encrypt traffic before it leaves one’s device to a secure location before rerouting it in disguised forms through telecommunications infrastructure to circumvent any form of censorship. However, the extra data due is about (10 - 15) % of the total data bundle. Which many have found easy even gallant to evade.

Individually, social media tax is insignificant for an average middle-class Ugandan. In fact, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) estimates that the social media tax will cost the lowest income group up to 40% of their average monthly income.

While other governments, particularly in the European Union (EU), are increasingly accosting big tech to comply not only with punitive data privacy and protection laws but also honest tax responsibilities, the government of Uganda has, in a world first, instead, pointed the guns to its citizens to redeem tax alms it would have typically demanded from Big Tech in corporation taxes.

The spirit behind the social media tax is informed by the president’s letter to the finance ministry instructing that the government needed resources “to cope with the consequences” of social media “lugambo” (lies, gossip, falsehoods). The directive to impose a tax on OTT services proposed that up to UGX 400 billion ($108 million) could be collected through the taxes per annum. Projections for the fiscal year 2018/19 indicated that up to UGX 486 billion ($131 million) could be collected annually by 2022.

However, given the citizen resistance, a conservative estimate of social media tax compliant 1 million Ugandans would amass to UGX 73 billion ($20 million) per annum – four times higher than what Facebook paid to the government of UK in corporation taxes last year – but certainly lower than projections. If statistics are anything to go by, compliance to the tax by a considerable percentage of the 18 million Ugandans reported to be on the internet could instantly make the government’s coffers grow from pitiful to shapeless.

The dynamics have changed

Granted, the dystopian version of the future of free information flows on the Internet (and by extension social media) has already been illustrated by the frequency of successes in the recent past. For instance, the 2011 Arab Spring is the most pronounced example. Now governments all over the world are afraid of what weapons of collective action could be molded out of gathering intermediated by Big Tech. Rather so, in imagining what the dire consequences a united populace poses towards absolute authority, it’s natural for the government to imagine what enormous information power would mean if it was in their sole control. The government is afraid of something exactly like it.

What would citizens do with unlimited power?

The government in the last century had a monopoly on media, but not anymore. However, it still has a monopoly on instruments of coercion and violence.

When its power is threatened it resorts to statecraft of the highest order. Not every collective citizen action threatens to harm or undermine authority, in fact, some campaigns targeted at social good such contribution to community schools and hospitals have demonstrated what happens when good intentions are pooled. However, with the democratization of the media, suddenly everyone has become a media house, and as far as we can remember, the media has found great success in selling mundane and terrifying stories, which usually translate into more advertising revenue.

As simplistic as it may sound, fleeting moments of fame have warranted similar stories in today’s media landscape by bloggers, influencers and sundry. Government especially has been relegated to the punching bag because it often lacks the countervailing bandwidth to override the stories.

What social media and tobacco corporations have in common

In the mid-1920s. Edward Bernays (nephew to famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud) reinvented wide-scale manipulation of masses. In the golden age of mass-produced goods and mass democracy, appealing to people’s unconscious biases was demanded to sustain the conveyor belts. Soon, people would have all they needed, but engineered desire would have them wanting more and more.

In particular, men had invoked a taboo against women smoking in public, and the American Tobacco Corporation (ATC) reported at least loss of half of their market at the time. At the tutelage of Bernays, they developed a campaign to connect women smoking cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power. Psychologists previously termed cigarettes as phalluses [on fire] to signify male supremacy.

At an annual parade in New York, Bernays organized a small club of daring women who’d hide cigarettes under their dresses and light them during the march under Bernays’ instructions. Earlier, he informed the press that a group of suffragists was preparing to protest by lighting cigarettes dramatically what they called ‘torches of freedom’. He knew that the press would be anxious to witness and show the world what these ‘torches of freedom’ were.

Ensuing, all the constriction placed on women were broken by young women and debutantes, smoking in public with their newly found ‘torches of freedom’ which some even related to the American statue of liberty. The news rocked not only New York but the whole world. Sooner, cigarette sales skyrocketed because women smoking in public was now socially acceptable.

Even though the idea that made smoking acceptable was actually irrational, what Bernay sold was that smoking made one feel better, powerful and independent.

While tobacco smoking can be harmful to one’s health, so is the impetuous use of social media to one’s mental health. Collectively, both have their merits. To a careful reader, this article does not argue or discredit either. It basically sheds light on human behavior which in many cases is beastly and animalistic. Human-animal instincts are in many cases held back in slowly-eroding civilization stories we tell ourselves through religion, money, and law. However, these instincts are far more dangerous when humans, especially in crowds, are triggered.

Prominent Ugandan journalist and social commentator, Daniel Kalinaki, defined social media “as the silent thief of corporate time, the crouching tiger devouring the attention of employees, the hidden dragon slicing through productivity.” He adds, “Yet it has also provided opportunities for businesses, both big and small, to be seen, and for them to have conversations with potential customers. Beyond turning us all into socially awkward misfits, social media has had some profound impacts on society and power relations. Social media has democratized the space for citizen engagement and given the governed the opportunity to directly challenge those that govern them.”

That is why Uganda’s ire towards the social media tax is writ large its threat to one of the few spaces they find joy, expression, and power. Whether they hurled invectives at government officials or anybody if they wished so or shared leaked celebrity nudes. – that’s all on them. If they chose to forge better livelihoods through digital media, expanding social capital, and campaign for social change, that’s because they have the power to do so.

To combat propagation of what they’d like to term “gossip”, contrary to social media users’ definition let alone intent, the government is believed to be hatching several other strategies to combat freedoms of expression and irreverent questioning of its authority. In 2016, the government blocked social media and mobile money services on two occasions during the presidential election period in the name of ‘national security’. Recently UCC ordered all online content creators to register else face dire consequences, sophisticated surveillance tools have been procured, and the repealing of dirt cheap “social bundles” tied to specific access to WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, humorously marketed as ‘WTF!’. There have not been formal clarifications to explain these moves, but they are largely seen as the last bastion of hope to kill off the ‘rumor mill’ once and for all with costs attached (social media tax).

Cover image credit: iAfrikan Digital

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