Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation

By Rocio Campos |

Signed by African journalists during a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seminar in May 1991, the Declaration of Windhoek is a statement of free press principles that led to the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) on 3 May by the UN General Assembly in 1993.  This year, the Global Network Initiative(GNI) is proud to join UNESCO, the African Union, and the Government of Ethiopia for the 26th celebration of WPFD in Addis Ababa under the theme, “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.

On 3 May, GNI Policy Director Jason Pielemeier and representatives from GNI members the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Facebook, and the International Media Support (IMS), together with the Ethiopian journalist Abel Wabella will participate in the session: “Understanding Electoral Information Flows: Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation.” This workshop will build on an earlier colloquium organized by GNI and UNESCO titled Improving the Communication and Information Ecosystem to Protect the Integrity of Elections.

In 2019, 62 countries will elect leaders who will govern 3.28 billion people worldwide. Hence, it is paramount to understand the impacts of digital technology on information flows during elections and bring to the table the perspectives of different stakeholders.

Are Transparency and Access to Information Enough to Secure Free Elections?

According to UNESCO “Internet and digital technologies allow candidates a direct means by which to communicate with the voting public. However, some digital technologies used to influence people’s choices escape scrutiny — such as whether, for example, advertising complies with the rules of electoral authorities. Without effective access to information and transparency, the integrity and legitimacy of elections can be compromised. We need technology companies and governments that are more transparent, and that respect the rules and regulations of elections, in order to guarantee free and fair elections.”

GNI information and communications technology (ICT) company members face increasing orders from governments to disrupt networks and restrict access to Internet services. Such orders often take place during protests or elections with significant consequences for users and journalists around the world. GNI members (ICT companies, human rights and press freedom organizations, academics, and investors) work to counteract these trends and protect freedom of expression and privacy rights in a variety of ways. For instance, on the issue of network interference, Netblocks’ Internet observatory has collected evidence of blocking of a political party website in Pakistan in the 2018 election and CIPESA released a report that documents the relation between network disruptions and elections in Africa. Others like the #KeepItOn coalition have developed infographics guiding users on how to install Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) anticipating Internet disruptions, as seen in the Nigerian election last February.

Elections have also become the focus of disinformation campaigns, making online platforms vulnerable targets for the dissemination of divisive and false narratives. Multistakeholder engagement can play a key role to confront this evolving assault on the Internet affecting democratic processes. In July 2017, Google and Jigsaw unveiled Protect Your Election with free tools to help voters get accurate information in the Kenyan election.[1] In the U.S., Pen America recently released a report, which analyzes efforts to counter fraudulent news in the 2018 midterm election, stressing the importance of social media platforms, candidates and political parties stepping up efforts to keep fraudulent news from polluting the 2020 election cycle. Research centers like the Center for Data Innovation are discussing the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to fight disinformation in European elections, while organizations like Freedom House have developed tools that estimate Internet censorship, i.e., Internet Freedom Election Monitor.

GNI‘s session will take advantage of the expertise of panelists and participants to map the different ways in which digital technology impacts election-relevant information flows, as well as the inter-relationships between these impacts. The goal is to help policymakers, companies, elections administrators, elections observers, media, and other stakeholders identify and mitigate risks, improve planning and coordination, and enhance transparency around their efforts to support elections. Active multistakeholder engagement can play a key role to strengthen transparency and access to information and prevent them from being compromised during elections.

Don’t miss GNI’s panel on 3 May at 14:00–15:30 EAT and follow IMS’ @andreasr | Addis Zeybe’s @Abelpoly | CIPESA’s @ChewingStones | CPJ’s @muthokimumo ‏| Facebook’s @emigandhi | GNI’s @pielemeier #WorldPressFreedomDay

Relevant resources:

[1] See: Freeman, Bennett, Shared Space Under Pressure Business Support for Civil Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders, p.74
This article was originally posted here

13 Days Later, Cameroon Maintains Internet Shutdown Despite Global Outcry

By Juliet Nanfuka |

An internet shutdown in the primarily Anglophone regions of north-west and south-west Cameroon is now in its 13th day. The shutdown was first initiated across the country on January 16 and on January 17, internet access was reinstated in the Francophone parts of the country. As of January 30, the blockage in the Anglophone regions including in key towns such as Buea and Bameda remains in pace.
The shutdown was imposed in the wake of ongoing strikes, fatal violence and protest action against the continued “francophonisation” and marginalisation of English speakers who say that “the central government privileges the majority French-speaking population and eight other regions.” Cameroon’s constitution recognises the two languages as equal and calls for bilingualism. Further, the arrest of the activist leaders of the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, Nkongho Felix Agbor Balla and Fontem Neba, have done little to address the perception that government is trying to silence voices of dissent.
Critics of the shutdown have called the shutdown a violation of “citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information”. On January 22, civil society organisations from around the world sent an open letter to the President of Cameroon, and the ministers for telecommunications and communication urging an immediate end to the shutdown. No response has been received.
Indeed, there has been global outcry on the shutdown which has affected the livelihoods of millions of citizens in the affected regions. Mobile Money services providers, microfinance Institutions and banks have also been affected, forcing residents to travel to Francophone towns like Douala to conduct their financial transactions (Listen to iAfrikan podcast).
In the days leading up to the shutdown, the Ministry of Post & Telecommunications (MINPOSTEL) issued a directive to operators to send out messages warning subscribers against the “bad” use of social media.  Operators received backlash on social media for sending the government-directed message which was seen to encourage self–censorship.
However, Philisiwe Sibiya, CEO at MTN Cameroon, argued that the communication was not intended to “curtail customer rights and violate customer privacy.” She explained that the regulator, MINPOSTEL, “may from time to time request telecom operators to carry messages on their networks intended for the general public. This was the case recently when MTN Cameroon, along with other operators, broadcast a message from MINSPOTEL regarding the use of the internet.”

“Dear subscriber, publishing as well as spreading false news,including on the social media, are punishable by the Penal Code and the law

Communiqué sent to users of Camtel, MTN, Orange, Nextell mobile telephone lines from MINPOSTEL

Back in November 2016, the government launched a campaign against social media, calling it “a new form of terrorism”. At the time, Facebook and Twitter users were sharing information, including pictures, about a train derailment in which 80 people died while government maintained silence about the accident.
Whereas language as the basis for an internet shutdown is new, the practice has become common in Africa particularly during political unrest (Burundi), elections and inauguration (Uganda), economic failure (Zimbabwe) and exams (Ethiopia).
Various campaigns are underway calling for the Cameroon Government to reinstate internet access, including this Use your voice! Tell Cameroon to turn the internet back on  and the hashtags #BringBackOurInternet #KeepItOn.
See this Aljzeera discussion titled Is Cameroon persecuting its English speakers? It features Elvis Ngolle Ngolle – Former Minister of Special Duties in the Office of the President of Cameroon. Julie Owono – Head of the Internet Desk at Internet Without Borders and Albert Nchinda – Political Analyst.
Image: Cameroonians in South Africa gathered at the MTN Headquarters in Johannesburg to protest the shut down of internet in its English-speaking regions of Cameroon.
Source: Kinnakas Blog

Uganda Again Blocks Social Media to Stifle Anti-Museveni Protests

By Juliet Nanfuka |
A day before Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was inaugurated for another five-year term, access to social media platforms including Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter was blocked on instructions of the regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC). The directive came less than three months after a four-day blockage initiated on Election Day (February 18) that drew local and international condemnation.
During the February 18 elections, social media in Uganda was shut down following a directive from UCC to internet service providers to disable all social media and mobile money services due to a “threat to public order and safety.” Tech-savvy Ugandans turned to Virtual Private Networks (VPN) in a bid to access and to share information on the elections.
On May 11, internet service providers in the country used social media to inform their customers of the second instruction issued by the communications regulator. They indicated that the regulator had cited “national security” as the reason for the shutdown. The present social media blockage comes on the heels of a May 5 ban on live media coverage of opposition-led activities in protest against what they consider the rigged re-election of Museveni, who has been in power since 1986. Earlier on May 3, journalists and artists decried the declining state of freedom of expression at the national celebrations to mark World Press Freedom Day.
Screenshots of the MTN and Airtel Uganda Twitter accounts announcing the directive received from the Uganda Communications Commission
Last February, CIPESA joined several civil society groups based in Uganda and internationally to submit a joint letter to the African Union, African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) Secretariat, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Secretariat, Uganda Communications Commission, and the Uganda Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, among other authorities. The letter called for “immediate action to condemn the internet shutdown in Uganda, and to prevent any systematic or targeted attacks on democracy and freedom of expression.” To-date, no response has been received.
It is unclear when the social media blockage would end. However, at the time of writing social media activity has remained rife through hashtags such as #M7SwearsIn. Analysis of Ugandan Twitter interaction during the February blockage revealed mixed emotions among Ugandan Twitter users with fear, joy and anger featuring amongst the top sentiments that emerged from the tweets shared with the hashtag #UgandaDecides. See this Analysis Of Twitter Activity On Election Eve And Election Day Uganda 2016 and Analysis of Twitter Activity During the 2016 Presidential Debates in Uganda.