Control over the internet has once again taken center stage as Uganda heads to the polls on Jan. 14. with technology giants including Facebook, Google, and Twitter sucked into the bitter fight.
On Jan. 9 reports emerged that Facebook had disappeared hundreds of accounts associated with president Yoweri Museveni supporters in Uganda. Some of the accounts belong to pro-government online publications while others belong to civil servants and socialites turned Museveni advisers.
Facebook has confirmed in a statement to Quartz Africa that it carried out the purge because the affected individuals and groups where using the platform to manipulate voters ahead of the elections. The tech giant says it is constantly working to find and put an end to coordinated campaigns that seek to manipulate public debate on the platform through what it calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB).”
“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,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
Facebook says the operation was linked to the Government Citizen Interaction Centre at Uganda’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. Duncan Abigaba, a manager at the center was among the first government officials to cry foul about Facebook’s move.
“Given the impending election in Uganda, we moved quickly to investigate and take down this network,” the Facebook spokesperson said.
All eyes are on the growing influence and importance of social media platforms on local and national politics and governance around the world. A few days earlier, on Jan. 7, Twitter and Facebook led other social media and e-commerce platforms in banning US president Donald Trump in the last few days of his presidency to prevent him potentially using their digital reach to further incite his supporters. Twitter’s ban was upgraded to a permanent ban.
With fewer than three days to the polls, there are reports the internet network in the country is already being slowed down. Ugandans without virtual private networks (VPNs) installed on their devices claim they can no longer download apps from digital stores including Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store. These include apps developed for election-related information and monitoring.
For years, Ugandans have harbored fears of internet related restrictions since the controversial 2016 general elections when the state restricted access to social media causing an information blackout during the process. Later, government introduced a controversial social media tax.
These restrictions and taxes have caused a spike in the use of VPNs in Uganda since 2016 to help circumvent restrictions by enabling users to appear to be connecting to the internet from a different country.
Facebook says it will share more details about the networks they removed in their January CIB report due at the beginning of February.
A former information minister under whose reign the citizens’ interaction center was set up has, for example, called the move an abuse of communication platforms by tech giants. Others have called for Facebook to be banned in Uganda.
Museveni’s spokesman, Don Wanyama raised alarm over the move in a tweet. Wanyama told Quartz Africa it is up to Facebook to explain their decision. He declined to discuss the matter further.
Pro-regime supporters accuse one of his rivals in the presidential race, Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine and his alleged foreign backers of instigating the move. The two camps have engaged in social media fights including flagging and reporting content on their rivals.
Last month, a number of pro-Bobi Wine accounts were reportedly hacked and deleted. This followed earlier incidents. Government has also pushed tech companies to pull down accounts of some anti-regime activists.
Tensions have been mounting in Uganda in the run-up to an election which pits Museveni, 76, against the leading opposition candidate, Bobi Wine, 38, a local MP and pop star, who has a huge following with Uganda’s youthful population. In the last few months Bobi Wine has been arrested several times at his rallies which has led to violent clashes between security officials and his supporters leaving more than 50 people dead in December.
Museveni’s supporters are increasingly keen to position Bobi Wine as having foreign backers who are trying to influence the election. Last week the highly respected Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, a long time advocate for African democracy, threw his support behind Bobi Wine, describing him as the “face of democracy in Uganda.”