Zambia, Nigeria, keep Africa on top continents banning social media
On Thursday, Zambia joined the rank of Nigeria and other African countries that have either blocked or are currently blocking access to social media, confirming the narrative that the continent is a volatile business environment for social media.
According to Surfshark which tracks social media shutdowns, Africa is the least tolerant of social media globally with nearly half of all countries that have restricted social media access since 2015 coming from the continent.
Thirty African countries have restricted social media access out of a total of 66 globally between 2015 to 2020. In July, Nigeria became the 66th country in the world to restrict access to social media in the last 6 years.
The reasons for placing the restrictions vary from one country to the other. In Africa, most restrictions have to do with riots, elections, and other events of a political nature. About 16 of the 30 cases recorded were election-related and seven were due to protests.
For example, Zambia blocked WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and Twitter during its general elections on Thursday 21 August 2021, according to Internet monitor NetBlocks and digital rights organisation Access Now.
The Zambian government had reportedly considered shutting down internet access before the election day, citing a desire to stop the spread of election misinformation, and appears to have followed through on the election day on Thursday. Netblocks said it spotted a dramatic decrease in election day internet traffic from WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
In the case of Nigeria, the government claimed it placed a ban on Twitter due to “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.”
However, the government had taken action hours after the microblogging platform deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that threatened to deal with separatist groups accused of violence “in the language they understand,” a reference to the country’s brutal civil war more than 50 years ago. Twitter blocked Buhari from tweeting for 12 hours and ordered him to delete the post, which it claimed violated the site’s rules, the BBC reported.
Egypt may have been the first African country to cut off access to Twitter during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Aside from Egypt, Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Mali, South Sudan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe have also restricted access to social media in the past due to protests and demonstrations.
Countries that have restricted access due to elections include the Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Burundi, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Togo, Tanzania, Benin, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Sierra Leone.
In 2021 alone, there have been nine political cases of internet disruptions across the world in Russia (January 23), Myanmar (February 1), Senegal (March 5), Chad (February 28), the Republic of the Congo (March 21), Uganda (January 12), Bangladesh (March 26), Nigeria (June 5), and now Zambia (August 12). Unsurprisingly, six of those countries are in Africa.
Zambia now brings the number of African countries that have restricted to 31 out of 54 on the continent. In other words, 55.56 percent of the countries in Africa have blocked access to social media at one time or the other.
Chad has had perhaps the longest restriction period in Africa. The country has in the past five years placed restrictions on internet access through the local telecom operators acting on government orders. This has accumulated to almost two and half years of internet cuts or disruptions since 2016.
Nigeria’s restriction has lasted for more than two months already. However, the government has recently hinted it would lift the ban following a resolution meeting with Twitter and the social network conceding to some of its requests including setting up a physical office with a representative in the country by 2022.
The Egyptian internet blockade lasted for only a month from January 27 to February 11 but it was one of the strictest. It started with blocking an increasing number of websites from the days leading up to 27 January 2011. On 25 January 2011, the State Security Investigations Service, Amn El Dawla, ordered Twitter to be blocked. The following day, Facebook was shut down. On the night of 27 January 2011, the Egyptian government shut down the internet in Egypt. SMS (Short Message Service) was also blocked. Popular Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) “backchannel” services such as WhatsApp were targeted as well. Renesys, a firm that monitors the internet, reported that nearly all routes to Egyptian networks were taken down at the same time. It was also reported that the Egyptian government shut down official Domain Name Servers.
While many of the governments placing the restriction has sought to assert control over the public communication or keep it from going “out of hand”, like in Egypt, it has hardly worked as a deterrent to people wanting to use social media. In Egypt, the restrictions brought more people out on the streets thereby prolonging the duration of the Arab Spring in the country. In Nigeria, people simply downloaded VPN apps to continue using Twitter.
Zambians still using their Twitter and Facebook on Friday, August 13, 2021, said they were using virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the restrictions on the internet.
The cost of social media shutdown on the economies of the African countries also outweighs the benefits the governments involved derive from placing the restrictions. After two months of tTwitter ban, Nigeria for example is still counting revenue losses on businesses, especially SMEs that leverage the platform for daily operations.
Top10VPN, a British company that reviews VPN usage, recently estimated that the ban on Twitter impacted around 104.4 million internet users in Nigeria with around $366.9 million lost in revenue.
The revenue loss puts Nigeria in the top three positions of countries with the most cost to revenue for putting a restriction on the internet. Myanmar and India are in the top two positions in terms of their losses.
At the moment, apart from downloading VPNs the other way to stop the African government from blocking social media is through the courts. Like in Nigeria, a court in Zambia has ordered the government to lift the restriction. The question on many people’s minds is would the government obey the courts?