Why Are African Governments Blocking Social Media?


It is safe to say governments aren’t blocking social media to cut off the supply of cute kitten pictures.

It’s political.

African tweeters tend to be more political than tweeters in other continents, according to research by Portland Communications.

And governments are blocking social media during elections – most recently in Congo-Brazzaville, Chad and Uganda.

For an indication of the political impact social media can make, you just need to look at the uprisings during the “Arab Spring”.

“Social media did not cause the ‘Arab Spring’ but helped to co-ordinate it,” Arthur Goldstuck from technology market research company Worldwide Worx, told the BBC.

Protesters in Tunisia in January 2011Image copyrightAFP
Image captionAre governments afraid of a “Twitter revolution” like the one in Tunisia in January 2011?

Governments do not say they are worried that social media could pave the way for popular protests or even a revolution.

But security is often cited – including in the order for mobile operators to stop services in Congo-Brazzaville.

Congolese officials added that they were trying to prevent the “illegal publication of results”.

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Newsweek interpreted this as a possible attempt to thwart the efforts of election monitors.

The advent of the mobile phone enabled local observer groups to collate the results from individual polling stations around the country and add them up to see if the results were being rigged.

If mobile phones don’t work, this can no longer be done.

However, results spread by opposition parties are also not necessarily accurate and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni insisted that social media was blocked during the election to “stop spreading lies”.

How do governments block social media?

Governments don’t have the physical or technical ability to block sites, phones or texts themselves, explains Thecla Mbongue, analyst for trend forecasters Ovum.

They issue an order to the companies who do have that power.

Congo-Brazzaville’s government issued an order to the country’s mobile phone operators such as Airtel and MTN.

This effectively blocks the internet because very few Congolese use fixed lines to access the web.

Ms Mbongue says that the order in Congo-Brazzaville appeared to allow specified numbers to carry on using their mobile phones.

This came out when the communications minister denied the communications block – by tweeting.

TweetImage copyrightTwitter
Image captionThe minister wrote that the rumours that the internet was cut were false as “I’m in Brazzaville and I’m tweeting this is wrong”

The interesting thing about the tweet for her is that someone replied with what appears to be a copy of the order sent to mobile operators.

It shows they were asked not to block specified numbers. Presumably, she says, that is why Mr Moungalla could tweet and others couldn’t.

LettersImage copyrightTwitter
Image captionTwo letters appearing to be orders to stop mobile phone operators MTN and Airtel to block networks were spread on Twitter

Airtel and MTN have not yet confirmed whether the orders that spread through social networks were authentic.

In the case of Uganda, the telecoms regulator ordered mobile phone operators just to block certain sites.

So people couldn’t use Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and mobile money services.

Danson Njue, also from Ovum, says it is believed that the regulator was advised by top security and government officials to block the sites over security concerns.

Technically, this is a relatively easy task.

Websites are stored on servers which have IP addresses – a bit like a phone number.

The government can force internet service providers and telecoms companies to block access to a specific IP address.

Smartphone apps, like WhatsApp, will try to connect to its own server and it won’t be able to if your internet service provider is blocking connections.

So it is fairly easy to pinpoint a specific site or app and block access.

This makes social networks fairly powerless.

Twitter did not even condemn the ban when the company noted it was blocked in Uganda.


Source – bbc

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