The tables have turned. For years, government has controlled and censored social media. But as more people join, added with emerging technology to bypass restrictions, the balance of power seems to be shifting to the hands of social media giants.
Going by the recent events in which Facebook and Twitter blocked several NRM-leaning bloggers and pages for breaching ethical rules, the future of social media and its influence in Uganda has never been more conspicuous.
In mid-December, 2020, Canary Mugume, an investigative reporter with NBS, ran a poll on his Twitter handle with the simple question: So who’s your generational leader?
It basically pitted first son Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba against Robert ‘Bobi Wine’ Kyagulanyi, who wants to end President Museveni’s 35-year stranglehold on power. Within a few hours, more than 30,000 had participated, with Muhoozi garnering 66.4 per cent compared to Kyagulanyi’s 23.8 per cent. Pro-NRM bloggers, who are usually outnumbered on social media, pointed to the poll as proof that they are the silent majority.
On January 9, Facebook and Twitter blocked several Ugandan accounts, mostly those of renowned NRM bloggers, for violating the platforms.
“We’re constantly working to find and stop coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate on our platform. Since 2017, we’ve taken down over 100 of these networks worldwide for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB), which we publicly share in our monthly reports. This month, we removed a network of accounts and Pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB to target public debate ahead of the election. They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage Pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in Groups to make them appear more popular that they were,” reads part of the statement from Facebook on January 11.
“Given the impending election in Uganda, we moved quickly to investigate and take down this network. We found this network to be linked to the Government Citizens Interaction Center at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in Uganda. Per our normal reporting process, we will share more details about the networks we removed this month in our January CIB report which we’ll release at the beginning of February.”
Incidentally, on January 11, Al Jazeera’s Stream ran its own Twitter poll with the question: Who do you think should be the next president of Uganda? In a twist, Kyagulanyi was leading by press time with 58 per cent ahead of President Museveni’s 33 per cent.
On the surface, this may indicate a change of heart amongst the participants but to tech geeks that The Observer spoke to, the variance is a straightforward indicator that some individuals have been manipulating figures and traffic on the social media platform.
“It is evident that most of the participants in the generational poll were bots,” said a technology expert who preferred anonymity.
“Bots are mostly used by government and big companies to make a particular narrative popular whereas not.” According to the internet, a Twitter bot is a type of software that controls a Twitter account via the Twitter application programming interface (API).
“A bot can help one create fictional followers or drive traffic to a particular handle. The bot software may autonomously perform actions such as tweeting, re-tweeting, liking, following, unfollowing, or direct messaging other accounts.”
Explained: How 'fake' Bobi Wine supporters 'hooliganism' photos led to #Facebook taking down pro-govt accounts. South Africa-based Digital Forensic Research Lab says old images from 2011 & 2013 protests were being used in 2020 to prove 'Bobi Wine hooliganism' via @NewzroomAfrika pic.twitter.com/1sSGtl5yWq— The Observer (@observerug) January 13, 2021
STATE OF AFFAIRS
What is telling in the Facebook statement is the accusation that the handiwork was traced to the Government Citizens Interaction Center (GCICU), an entity whose core task is to enhance the monitoring of service delivery and provide a channel for feedback and suggestions from citizens.
In fact, Awel Uwihanganye and Duncan Abigaba, the GCICU head and deputy respectively, have been very vocal to rebuke the actions of Facebook and Twitter.
“It’s shameful, what they have done. In effect, it gives credence to allegations that the NUP Presidential candidate is a foreign project for regime change in Uganda. It is a worrying development that no Ugandan should celebrate, regardless of political shade,” noted Uwihanganye on Twitter.
“Hello Facebook, you have blocked thousands of pro-Government accounts in Uganda. Just to let you know that Uganda will hold a general election on 14th January, 2020. Perhaps these accounts were reported on the basis of political disagreements. Kindly look into this,” Abigaba wrote.
On January 13, the government switched off the internet and only restored it on January 18. Social media to this day still remains blocked and is only accessible through use of virtual private networks (VPNs).
A February 2020 study by DataReportal noted that there were 2.5 million social media users in Uganda. It also projected the figure to rise by 70 per cent by December, 2020.
In the wake of government’s shutdown of social media during the 2016 polls as well as the creation of the social media tax popularly known as OTT, the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) has become very popular because VPNs bypass these restrictions.
Besides, the emergence of social media news channels is another spot of bother for the state, which is increasingly losing its grip on social media control.
“Social media has become the biggest threat to state control due to its capacity to relay events in real time. Some of this information incites people,” noted an official Uganda Communications Commission who preferred anonymity.
“If they can ban the account of the president of the United States, time may come when we have to make a tough choice to stand up to these tech giants because they have intruded into many aspects of state and sovereign affairs.”