Here are some of the study’s findings.
There are hundreds of examples across Africa of SMS text messaging being used to voice dissent, advocate for marginalised groups, organise campaigns and mobilise populations. However, early success in SMS activism was met with a range of repressive measures including mandatory SIM card registration, message surveillance, bans on bulk SMS and arrests for political speech in SMS messaging.
The ability to create and publish a blog on issues ignored by mainstream media and political actors made blogging a key tool for activists. To reduce their potency, government used a variety of techniques including blocking websites and arresting bloggers for political speech, and web surveillance. Atnafu Brhane (who co-wrote the country report on Ethiopia) was a member of the Zone9 bloggers collective and spent 540 days in jail for blogging before establishing the human rights organisation CARD.
Social media activism
Social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter have been the most powerful digital technologies for social activism, enabling the creation of very large social networks and the ability to instantly message thousands of contacts repeatedly at no incremental cost. It has also provoked the most concerted response by the state (and private corporations), involving the widest array of tech tools, tactics and techniques. These include internet shutdowns, systematic mass surveillance and covert micro-targeting to manipulate beliefs and behaviour – often using coordinated ‘troll armies’ and automated ‘bot-nets’ – and, of course, more arrests for online political speech.
One way of evading surveillance and the invasion of privacy is the use of anonymisation and privacy-protecting tools, such as virtual private networks (VPNs), encrypted messaging apps (for example, Signal), privacy-protecting browsers (Tor) and tracking-free search engines (DuckDuckGo). Ugandans have made widespread use of VPNs to digitally disguise their location. Millions are now migrating to more secure messaging apps. This has generated the ire of governments, who are now trying to hack, block or make illegal these tools to protect the universal right to privacy.
However, the countermeasures that repressive governments use are rarely completely successful. Resistance is fertile.
What can be done?
It is vital to make citizens aware that their rights to privacy and freedom of speech exist and these right need to be protected, both online and offline. Equally vital is legislation that protects the public from government violation of these rights and oversees the wider role of digital technology in governance and democracy. The Making All Voices Count project contains excellent research on this.
To date, there has been very little systematic research on who exactly is using which tools, tactics and techniques to diminish citizens’ digital rights in Africa. Without a clear definition of the problem, it is impossible to craft effective solutions. In its first year, the African Digital Rights Network has begun this process, alongside its member networks the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Paradigm Initiative (PIN). We are now focusing on surveillance, disinformation and internet shutdowns – all identified as priorities in the country reports – and are expanding our network to include additional countries and expertise.