How Weaponization of Network Disruptions During Elections Threatens Democracy

By Evelyn Lirri |

In August 2021, Zambia became the latest country to restrict citizens’ access to social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as the country went to the polls. Citing the need to stop the spread of election misinformation, the Zambian government disrupted the internet in an election that saw an opposition politician defeat the incumbent president.

The disruption of digital communications is a recurring theme in numerous countries in as states pursue their ambitions of controlling information and communication flow during elections and other times of public protest.

Between January and May 2021, digital advocacy group Access Now documented at least 50 internet shutdowns in 21 countries, including in several African countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Niger and Congo Brazzaville. However, there has also been pushback against these shutdowns by various civil society and digital rights actors, alongside users turning to Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to circumvent blockages.

At the eighth edition of the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) that was hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) from September 28-30, 2021, members of the KeepItOn coalition, a global movement to end internet shutdowns, shared experiences from various countries on How Weaponization of Network Disruptions During Elections Threatens Democracy and some of the actions taken to prepare and advocate against election-related shutdowns.

Susan Mwape, an Election Analyst and Executive Director of Common Cause-Zambia, noted that in the lead up to the August 2021 elections in Zambia, the government imposed restrictions on public gatherings in the name of enforcing Covid-19 prevention measures. Consequently, citizens resorted to digital platforms to engage in election-related issues.

Threatened by the increased online engagement and mobilisation, the government hurriedly adopted the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, 2021. The Act was passed amidst criticism that it was primarily aimed at policing cyberspace, gagging freedom of expression and speech, and stifling internet use by opposition groups and supporters ahead of the general elections.

See this CIPESA analysis: Implications of Zambia’s  Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act 2021 on Digital Rights

Anticipating a shutdown ahead of the elections, Mwape said capacity building and advocacy activities were conducted  in collaboration with the KeepItOn coalition.

“We trained over 70 people – civil society, journalists, citizens and frontline defenders on secure tools they could use to stay online. But we also wrote an open letter to the President on why it was important to keep the internet on,” Susan Mwape.

Capacity building in circumvention techniques in anticipation of shutdowns has become a common strategy across the world. In Iraq, Hayder Hamzoz, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of INSM Network, said efforts in this regard not only cover use of specific tools but prior installation of applications to overcome “governments’ first course of action” which is often to disable application stores where circumvention tools can be accessed.

Indeed, this was the case in Uganda, which has experienced various forms of election-related network disruptions – the most recent being a total shutdown during the January 2021 general elections and an ongoing block on Facebook access.

Allan Ssempala Kigozi, the Head of Legal Affairs at Unwanted Witness, explained that while a shutdown was anticipated in the country, civil society actors held a number of engagements with telecommunications companies and regulators on the need to keep the internet on.

“We wanted the government to understand that as the country was heading to the polls, an internet shutdown should not be the way to go because it has a wide-ranging impact on the economy beyond the misinformation that the government says it was trying to avert,” said Kigozi. He further noted that despite the shutdown, there was still an opportunity for misinformation to flow through text messages and added that upon the reinstatement of access, recorded videos and photos were shared thus maintaining the misinformation.

Despite having a long history of disruptions, Chad last April held an election without disrupting the internet. Abdeldjalil Bachar Bong, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of House of Africa in Chad, attributed this to advocacy campaigns including by the #KeepItOn movement, which wrote an open letter to the President and telecommunications providers on the importance of keeping the internet on.

“We told them that shutting down the internet is not a solution. The solution is to educate the public on the benefits of using the internet,” he said. This was complemented by skills and knowledge building efforts targeting human rights defenders and civil society on how to use circumvention tools in the event of a shutdown.

For their part, circumvention tools developers such as TunnelBear have worked with digital rights groups and activists to ensure access to their platform in the event of a shutdown including through providing free bandwidth to use TunnelBear. Shames Abdelwahab, the Advocacy and Community Manager at TunnelBear, noted that in countries where they have done this, there has been a huge spike in the usage of the service. TunnelBear also provides free VPN accounts to activists on the ground. “The aim is to ensure digital activists keep online as they advocate against internet shutdowns,” said Abdelwahab.

Manson Gwanyanya, a researcher with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, noted that with increasing cases of internet shutdowns happening across the globe, more efforts including increased company transparency are being made to ensure that telecommunication companies and internet service providers are held accountable for their actions.

Blocking the internet ahead of the elections undermines electoral transparency, severely hinders the work of journalists, and denies citizens’ access to badly needed information. Governments should thus ensure the internet remains open to provide an opportunity for opposition actors to reach the electorate with information and for a pluralistic media to flourish.

Despots and Disruptions: Five Dimensions of Internet Shutdowns in Africa

Report |
Up to 22 African governments have ordered network disruptions in the last four years and since the start of 2019, six African countries – Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), Chad, Gabon, Sudan and Zimbabwe – have experienced internet shutdowns.
A new report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) titled Despots and Disruptions: Five Dimensions of Internet Shutdowns in Africa notes, however, that internet shutdowns remain the preserve of Africa’s most despotic states.
According to the report, 77% of the countries where internet shutdowns have been ordered in the last five years are categorised as authoritarian under the Democracy Index produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit. All the other African countries that have disrupted communications are categorised as hybrid regimes, meaning they have some elements of democracy with strong doses of authoritarianism.
The authoritarian regimes that have ordered network disruptions include Algeria, Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, Chad, DR Congo, Congo (Brazzaville), Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon,  Ethiopia, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Togo, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Hybrid regimes that have ordered internet shutdowns include the Gambia, Mali, Morocco, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.
For countries that are classified as authoritarian but have not ordered shutdowns, the report states that it is likely that “the authoritarian state is so brutal or commanding that civil society or opposition organising and protests – online and offline – are unfathomable” or “internet control measures in place render ordering overt internet disruptions unnecessary.” These countries include Djibouti, Eritrea and Rwanda.
The report also notes that countries whose leaders have been in power for several years are more likely to order internet shutdowns. As of January 2019, of the 14 African leaders who had been in power for 13 years or more, 79% had ordered shutdowns, mostly during election periods and public protests against government policies.
These included Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema (39 years); Cameroon’s Paul Biya (36); Congo Brazaville’s Denis Sassou Nguesso (34); Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (33); Sudan’s Omar El Bashir (30); Chad’s Edris Deby (29); Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika (19); Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (19); DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila (17); Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé (15); and Burundi’s Pierrie Nkurunziza (13).

The report says 2019 could see a record number of network disruptions since at least 20 African states will hold various forms of elections including local, legislative, general or presidential.
Over the years, many network disruptions have typically occurred in autocratic African countries around election times, and among the states scheduled to conduct polls this year are those which have previously initiated various forms of shutdowns during elections periods (such as Equatorial Guinea), public protests (Cameroon, Togo), and national school exams (Algeria, Ethiopia).
Other highlights from the Despots and Disruptions: Five Dimensions of Internet Shutdowns in Africa report:
The report notes that governments that order disruptions and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that implement them now more openly acknowledged the disruptions. Governments often cite digital technologies’ increasing usage to spread disinformation, propagate hate speech, and to allegedly fan public disorder and undermine national security.
For their part, more ISPs and platform operators are making public their responses to shutdown directives as and to user information and interception requests from governments through transparency reports. This openness could represent the normalisation of shutdowns, implying that a growing number of governments feel no shame in openly acknowledging ordering shutdowns. However, it has positive elements too, as it can be the basis of litigation and push back advocacy.
The report reiterates that internet disruptions, however short-lived, affect many facets of the national economy and tend to persist far beyond the days on which access is disrupted. “If just five of the countries that have previously disrupted internet access and who are going to the polls this year disrupted access to internet including apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp at a nationwide level for five days each, the estimated economic cost would be more than USD 65.6 million,” the report states.
Further, the report notes that the countries that disrupt internet access have some of the lowest internet usage figures and highest data prices in Africa. Conventional wisdom might suggest that low-internet usage countries would be the last to disrupt internet access as they might consider the population online too small to threaten “public order” or “national security” or to threaten the regime’s hold on power. On the contrary, says the report, it appears that African governments with democracy deficits, regardless of the numbers of their citizens that use the internet, fear the power of the internet in enabling citizen organising and empowering ordinary people to speak truth to power.
The report can be downloaded here.