On Monday, January 11, 2021, a few days before the parliamentary and presidential elections planned for Thursday, January 14, Facebook shut down accounts of some top Ugandan officials.
The platform accused several account holders of engaging in activities tagged Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB) to influence the upcoming elections.
Displeased, Don Wanyama, Senior Press Secretary to President Yoweri Museveni, reacted in a tweet tagging it as tech colonialism. In the days that followed, the Uganda Communications Commission retaliated by shutting down social media platforms.
Amidst disapproval from some quarters, the move is considered tantamount to censorship and cancel culture – a modern form of ostracism that takes place either on social media, in the real world, or both.
Admittedly, social media moderation became important with the proliferation of social networks. Because of their reach and how they bring people with differing opinions together, monitoring interactions on online platforms is crucial.
Without a consensus on what constitutes vulgar or offensive content, concerned bodies often decide and define what they consider inappropriate for their community.
Although it sometimes includes vague classifications, social networking platforms claim that flagging content, when not automated, is based on the decisions of independent assessors.
For instance, during the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria in 2020, Facebook began flagging videos and images from the October 20 #LekkiMassacre incident as inappropriate. After public outcry, the company admitted it erred and tendered an apology devoid of an explanation.
Different shades of Internet censorship
Social media is an amplifier of voices and opinions, giving ample room for online or offline feedback. The degree to which this is achieved is a function of an account’s reach; the more considerable the following, the greater the risk of negative press.
In a way, the onus of content moderation is on social media platforms because they can be blamed for fostering falsehood capable of propagating harm.
And though they run the risk of being hated by the censored account’s followers, their reputations are protected by this action. On the other hand, governments take up the responsibility.
The recent blocking of Donald Trump’s social media accounts is an example of the former; with Facebook’s suspension until he leaves office milder than Twitter’s decision.
In an official statement, Twitter claims that a series of tweets from Trump might have instigated the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. Consequently, his account has been permanently suspended for violating its ‘Glorification of Violence’ rule.
Apart from Facebook and Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitch also followed suit, suspending his accounts.
Meanwhile, in what seems like a boycott, Big Tech companies have also come after American alt-tech microblogging and social networking service — Parler. Amazon Web Services (AWS) suspended the social network platform’s services after Apple and Google removed it from their app stores on allegations of violating their terms of service.
At what point does justifiable moderation cross the line to become an infringement on free speech? When does it become excessive?
These are some of the questions thrown at governments that obstruct their citizens’ Internet use. Often explained away as a move to maintain public security, activists term it censorship, and there have been many discussions around this issue common in Asia and Africa.
In Africa, the situation is becoming more disturbing with rising cases of Internet shutdown. Despite the opposition and public outcry, many countries have either launched subtle forms of censorship or are in the process of doing so.
As Uganda enters another voting period, citizens have started to see signs of the government’s typical reaction to online activities. Currently, Uganda’s has shut down all social media platforms ahead of the polls.
It is noteworthy that of the five different Internet shutdowns experienced in the country, three happened for electoral reasons. The other two were to render a protest against social media tax enforcement and an increase in fuel and food prices ineffective.
Despite Facebook throwing the first punch, suspicions are that the move is to take the wind out of the sails of a member of the opposition — Bobi Wine — who pushes his agenda on social media.
With huge followership on Facebook and Instagram, the famous hip-hop star and politician is looking to defeat Museveni, running for his sixth term since getting into power 35 years ago.
Sadly, this is commonplace in Africa where authoritarian governments repress the younger generation. Ironically, they deny this, claiming it is crucial to control electoral violence.
Therefore, it is not clear where those wielding power to moderate are supposed to draw the line as things stand.
Is there a line?
Social media moderation is mostly noticed when popular accounts — people in power or people with numerous followers — are affected. Expectedly, people always try to understand the rationale for blocking an account; and without this understanding, new discussions will begin each time it happens.
Apart from the Ugandan case, there are other African nations — Ethiopia, Gabon, Zimbabwe, and The Gambia — with stricter control measures where the Internet has been shut down for the strangest reasons, the prevention of examination malpractices one of them.
The right to Internet access is a fundamental human right. Perhaps, with this at the back of moderators’ minds, they would make better decisions.
Nevertheless, Facebook and Twitter’s recent moves could further prompt governments to clamp down more on social media use in their countries.
The question about who is in the best position to police the Internet remains unanswered. Is it the platform owners, the government, or the people?