Shutting down the internet is one of the ways used by most governments across the African continent to silence opposing voices. However, citizens continue to use the internet to create awareness, organize and plan marches within and outside their countries. They have also come up with innovative ways of bypassing the shut-down.
In January 2019, Zimbabwe shut down its internet after citizens protested against fuel price hikes and the failing economy. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had its internet and text messaging blackout in December 2019 to prevent the circulation of ‘fake’ election results on social media. In Cameroon between January 2017 and March 2018, the Anglophone regions of the country spent 230 days without internet access.
The 2018 CIVICUS report shows that democracy within most African countries hangs in the balance, as many have repressive laws that limit freedom of expression and the right to assembly. The internet is one of the spaces governments close or monitor before, during, and soon after elections to intimidate opposition party supporters. The internet is also used to keep activities of journalists in check, and human rights activists suspected of, or accused of being, the mouthpieces of the political opposition. Yet, despite that governments are passing cyber laws that limit freedom of speech, many people are still using the internet as a space to organize, speak truth to power and hold authorities accountable.
Social media, blogs, vlogs, online petitions, mobile phones and SMS are among other tools used to promote social change. Citizens are innovatively using technology to circumvent repressive regimes through digital activism. In doing so, they also keep the world informed about what is happening on the ground and help to spread information that usually is not covered by mainstream media.
One of the ways in which people use the internet to promote social change is through hashtags in social media. With this strategy, activists create hashtags on multiple social media platforms to plan marches and protests, mobilize fellow activists and to discuss issues with an overarching aim of making change. In most cases, these movements are complemented with grassroot activism. Examples of such movements include #ZumaMustFall which trended from 2015 until 2017 when the then South African president Jacob Zuma was forced to resign, and the #Zimsolidaritymarch which saw Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe stepping down from power in November 2017.
Another way that people are innovatively using the internet can be witnessed from the recent shutdown in Zimbabwe. Connected citizens were able to inform the outside of the situation on the ground by posting and sharing pictures and video clips of different human rights violations. These posts made it difficult for the government to deny that violence had happened during the shutdown. The posts also sparked solidarity from people outside the country who marched to their respective embassies calling for internet restoration, political and economic reforms and non-violence in the country.
In January 2019, James Thompson stated,
“When government played its heavy hand on freedom of speech by shutting down social media space, Zimbabweans were ready to counter it […] live video footage, news updates and breaking news made their way to the world through Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.”
This was made possible by social media activists who created awareness on how to bypass state censorship through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Media activist organizations also took to twitter to recommend VPN and Tor services for people trying to access social media. Others shared tips on how to use Telegram, an anonymous messaging app. Regional efforts are being made to ensure that activists continue to not only stay online during shut-downs, but also to ensure online safety and security at all times. Why? Because the freedom of speech is under attack.