Two days before Uganda’s Presidential elections in January 2021, social media networks were blacked out at the government’s order. The action on social media came after the removal of Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s re-election campaign.

This is following an investigation which found public debate being manipulated through coordinated campaigns by “a network of PR firms, news organizations and inauthentic social media accounts."

Before polling booths were opened, the country’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were directed to shut down access to the internet by the country’s communications regulator. The total internet shutdown lasted four days, and even after it was lifted social media networks remained largely inaccessible without circumvention tools, until almost a month later.

Closing down the civic space

It was not the first time people in Uganda experienced information blackouts. The country’s 2016 general election was also marred by social media restrictions.

Information blackouts through shutdowns and restrictions are not the only tactic closing civic space nor is it unique to Uganda. The expansion of surveillance tactics by governments and private actors, legislative attacks, and targeted misinformation/disinformation campaigns are a few more tactics that have also been used to shrink, and even close, civic space in recent years.

These make it clear that there’s a need to better understand the impact of evolving digital technologies on civic space. Especially given how it has been completely reconfigured by the growth of the digital public sphere.

Who are the various actors involved?

What are the terms of participation?

What impact, if any, does the wider social and political landscape have on the impact digital technologies are having on civic space?

These are a few of the questions that could be asked, but too often the available answers are not about the Global South - especially the African continent.

📊 A history of internet and social media disruptions in Uganda.

Positive impact on the civic space

These questions are not only limited to the closing of civic space but also its opening.

Despite the existence of the digital divide across Africa due to various factors, there has been an increase in digital access which has enabled the use of digital technologies. This has opened up the civic space in different ways.

On the night of 20 October 2020, Nigerian Armed Forces shot at #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos. Allegedly CCTV cameras were removed from the toll gate before the shooting happened. Nigerian officials denied that anyone was killed and this could have been the official narrative, had it not been for #EndSARS protesters who documented the massacre in real-time.

"[We] need to relinquish the false binary comparison of a ‘real’ offline world and a ‘fake’ online world. What happens in the digital realm has very real consequences - that threaten even democracy." - Koketso Moeti, Amandla Mobi (Tweet this | Share this via WhatsApp)

It wasn’t the only instance that digital technologies and video evidence proved to be useful for the #EndSARS movement. Starting as an online campaign, it went on to gather “48 Million mentions with 5 million unique authors”, shifting the agenda of mainstream media and spilling to the streets to become the “biggest and longest-running protests in a generation”. This enabled fundraising for medical care, food, and real-time updates about what was happening in different locations.

Beyond the ability to assemble mass audiences, there is a lot to be learned from movements like #EndSARS about moving beyond short-term viral sensations in the digital space to having a sustained impact.

Opening up democratic spaces online

A new publication, ‘Digital Rights in closing Civic Space’, analyses the state of digital rights in ten African countries. Produced by the African Digital Rights Network (ADRN), it’s the first comparative analysis to consider the wider political, civic space, and technological context and identifies “65 examples of citizens opening democratic spaces online and 115 examples of governments closing online civic space”.

📷 Aisha Yesufu during the #EndSARS protest in Abuja, Nigeria. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This highlights the long-overdue need to relinquish the false binary comparison of a ‘real’ offline world and a ‘fake’ online world. What happens in the digital realm, whether the shutting down or opening up of civic space, has very real consequences - that threaten even democracy.

The report underscores several things, including the importance of understanding how these digital technologies are deployed by those whose only interest is political gain and exploitation. Important also is that we develop the capacity, to not only push back but also advance digital rights, as well as solutions for a public policy and digital governance agenda centered on public interest.

As the recent Uganda elections example affirms, digital technologies are not going anywhere, and unless we act now, they will continue to be used by repressive governments and other actors to not only maintain the status quo but also erode the gains being made by people to challenge this.

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