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A report by US-based democracy watchdog Freedom House says many Africans are unknowingly under surveillance by their own states via social media platforms. Zimbabwe and Sudan are among the countries to be singled out.
Zimbabwean blogger Munya Bloggo saw it coming — the gradual deterioration of internet freedom in the southern African country.
"It started off with the internet shutdown in January for a few days," Bloggo told DW in an interview.
"Then the method changed to trying to silence different voices online, from activists to even comedians," said Bloggo, who is also project manager officer for Magamba, an urban culture and civil rights organization.
As a blogger, Bloggo is accustomed to online threats and cyberbullying. But even he admits that the risks keep growing.
"In 2017, one of our colleagues was arrested and detained for five days at a maximum-security prison for allegedly trying to overthrow a legitimately elected government using social media," he said.
Threat to activists
According to the 2019 "Freedom on the Net" reportpublished by Freedom House, governments are increasingly turning to social media to garner huge amounts of data from citizens to identify perceived threats and often to silence opposition. The report warns that social media surveillance threatens civil rights activism on digital platforms.
"This often includes using artificial intelligence, and in many cases, security agencies are automating their mass surveillance of social media," Isabel Linzer, an expert at Freedom House on internet freedom in sub-Saharan Africa, told DW in an interview. "We have seen this in several sub-Saharan Africa countries, such as Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Nigeria and Uganda."
Many African governments, like Zimbabwe, have passed laws that enable them to monitor their citizens and follow their behavior online. "Apart from the legislation, there is the harnessing of social media by the government to promote its own agenda and to drown out perceived subversive opinions and dissenters online," Natasha Musonza, a digital rights and security trainer, told DW.
"For example, at the behest of the president, many new social media accounts, and what we call 'paid Twitter,' were created ahead of the 2018 election," Musonza said. Their main purpose, she said, was to overshadow online protests, disrupt conversations and to stalk and harass popular online influencers and opinion leaders.
'Varakashi' ZANU PF’s online army
"There is a group of people on Twitter that identified themselves as 'varakashi', which in the Shona language means 'to destroy.' The new president [Emerson Mnangagwa] made a call to [his supporters] to 'go online and varakashi!' Suddenly, new accounts were created, eggheads with no real names or faces. They literally targeted [people] and we could observe a trend," said Musonza, who has also done extensive research on internet freedom in Zimbabwe. Her organization tried to map the [social media] trends but were unsuccessful because at the time it was such a large endeavor.
Zimbabwe's President Emerson Mnangagwa unleashed a cyberarmy to 'destroy opponents' in the 2018 election
Zimbabwe also has what is known as the Interception of Communications Act. "The name of that law itself tells you what kind of powers the government has given itself. They've given themselves the power to intercept different people's devices, people that they consider to be of interest or activists that are 'troublemakers,'" Musonza said.
"It’s something that deters people from expressing themselves freely because you never know when that law can be applied to you," blogger Munya Bloggo said. "Whatever you tweet or say online can be interpreted by the state as trying to overthrow the government."
Zimbabwe has been struggling with a weak economy, which the government has blamed on Western sanctions. As a result, many Zimbabweans care more about how to put food on the table than restrictive internet laws, Musonza said.
Social media's role in Sudan’s revolution
Social media played a crucial role in last year's protests in Sudan that eventually led to the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir. "If it were not for social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp, I don't think anyone in the world would hear about Sudan and the revolution," Sanosi Osman, DW's correspondent in Khartoum, said.
During the reign of al-Bashir, censorship and internet surveillance by state actors was prevalent. The new government in Sudan promised change, and it still enjoys popularity among those who took part in the uprising. "The government understands that they are the result of this uprising. They know better than to throw away these freedoms and rights of the people," Osman said.
"If they start blocking or using their authority to deny people their rights, they will go out [to protest] on the streets again," he added.
However, Osman said that he still faces difficulty accessing certain websites such as Netflix, PayPal and Adobe in Sudan. He attributed the problem to the sanctions that were put in place during the former regime.
Weaponization of information during elections
Freedom House's Isabel Linzer said the watchdog was concerned by the weaponization of information, especially at election times. "We saw misinformation, for example, around the elections in Nigeria," she said. One of the most troubling findings, she explained to DW, "is that propaganda and false information on elections are generally more effective than some other means of trying to control how the population votes."
Who then should be responsible for ensuring there is internet freedom for all? "Everybody. Tech companies, the government, civil society they all have a role to play," Linzer said.
African governments are increasingly turning to social media as a way of controlling and shutting down critics
According to Linzer, the government can play a key role in implementing rules for elections protecting free speech: "Civil society can help push the government to make those rules and raise awareness around things like elections, which we see as a flashpoint for internet freedom violations."
Lastly, tech companies have a responsibility to work closely with partners on the ground to understand key issues and the context in those countries and how their platforms are being used, she said.