Impact of digital technologies on the civic space

Published on 16 April 2021

Koketso Moeti

Two days before Uganda’s Presidential elections in January 2021, social media networks were blacked out at the government’s order. The action on social media came after the removal of Facebook and Instagram accounts linked to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s re-election campaign.

This is following an investigation which found public debate being manipulated through coordinated campaigns by “a network of PR firms, news organizations and inauthentic social media accounts.”

Before polling booths were opened, the country’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were directed to shut down access to the internet by the country’s communications regulator. The total internet shutdown lasted four days, and even after it was lifted social media networks remained largely inaccessible without circumvention tools, until almost a month later.

Closing down the civic space

It was not the first time people in Uganda experienced information blackouts. The country’s 2016 general election was also marred by social media restrictions.

Information blackouts through shutdowns and restrictions are not the only tactic closing civic space nor is it unique to Uganda. The expansion of surveillance tactics by governments and private actors, legislative attacks, and targeted misinformation/disinformation campaigns are a few more tactics that have also been used to shrink, and even close, civic space in recent years.

These make it clear that there’s a need to better understand the impact of evolving digital technologies on civic space. Especially given how it has been completely reconfigured by the growth of the digital public sphere.

Who are the various actors involved? What are the terms of participation?

What impact, if any, does the wider social and political landscape have on the impact digital technologies are having on civic space?

These are a few of the questions that could be asked, but too often the available answers are not about the Global South – especially the African continent.

This blog was originally published in iafrikan

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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