In a bid to do away with the “big boy” syndrome, Uganda is planning to introduce its own version of facebook after a bitter fallout between the tech giant and President Yoweri Museveni’s government.
There are about 18 million internet users in Uganda of whom less than three million use facebook for business and socializing.
Mr Waiswa Vincent Bagiire, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, has said they will soon invite innovators to design a local social media platform that suits Uganda’s interests.
“That is where were are moving,” Mr Bagiire said during a talk-show simultaneously aired by the public broadcaster UBC and NBS, a private television on Monday March 8. We shall send out a call to Ugandans to develop a homegrown collaborative platform, he added.
However, government officials say they are still engaging facebook on how the social media tech firm can operate within the confines of Ugandan laws.
“There has been significant amount of engagements between us and facebook, which hasn’t been public,” said Ms Irene Kaggwa Ssewankambo, the acting Executive Director of Uganda Communications Commission that regulates the ICT sector.
Towards the January 14 general elections, facebook shut a slew of accounts belonging to Ugandan government officials accused of seeking to manipulate public debate.
Museveni’s senior press secretary Don Wanyama, who saw both his Facebook and Instagram account shut down, accused the company of seeking to influence the election during which his boss faced a stiff challenge from the popstar-turned-politician Kyagulanyi Robert Ssentamu a.k.a Bobi Wine.
President Museveni accused foreign organizations and elements of backing Bobi Wine in a bid to remove his government.
The closing of his supporters’ accounts did not go well with Museveni, especially after Uganda failed in its to make Facebook close some accounts that the state deemed dangerous to the county’s security.
On December 9, 2020, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) wrote to Google Inc urging the search giant to block all Ugandan YouTube channels that were reportedly spreading negative sentiments during elections. All of the YouTube channels that UCC wanted blocked belonged to opposition pundits.
They included; Ghetto TV, Map Mediya, Busesa Media Updates, Uganda Empya, KK TV Uganda, Ekyooto TV and Bobi Wine 2021. The others are; Namungo Media, JB Muwonge, TMO Online, Lumbuye Fred, Trending Channel Ug, Uganda Yaffe and Uganda News Update. The said channels had more than 59 million views and 300,000 subscribers as of December 15.
In the letter to Google, UCC claimed that these channels had extremist or anarchic messages including messages likely to incite violence against sections of the public on account of their tribe and political opinions. Government said that these channels would compromise national security and cause economic sabotage.
But in response a few days later, the head of Communication and Public Affairs for Africa at Google, Dorothy Ooko said “it is very hard to just have a channel removed due to a government request.”
UCC had also requested all social media bloggers and online publishers to register with it. The directive was ignored since UCC doesn’t control or have any powers to regulate the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
Internet shutdown during presidential elections in Africa has become a tool by governments to restrict information flow on election results. But many governments fear people could raise up against them once election results are manipulated and tampered with.
In retaliation, the Uganda government shut down internet depriving Ugandans of opportunity to monitor the conduct of the elections. But after elections government restored internet and social media platforms except facebook.
Internet freedom monitor Netblocks calculates that the almost five-day shutdown cost the Ugandan economy around $9 million.
This includes mobile money transactions – which many Ugandans rely on for payments – as well as e-commerce, airline bookings and app-based taxi services.
The Financial Technology and Service Providers Association estimates that companies in the sector lost at least 66 billion Ugandan shillings ($17.89 million) daily during the shutdown.
This included companies such as Safe Boda, a motorcycle taxi-hailing app with more than 22,000 drivers in Kampala, which reported that its employees could not earn.
Facebook’s head of communication for sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo, said they removed a network of accounts and pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB (Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour) to target public debate ahead of the elections.
“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,” said Anim-Addo
The term Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour was invented by Facebook, which describes it as when “groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing while relying on fake accounts”.
In one instance, some of the accounts identified in the Uganda investigation posted exactly the same message on Facebook and Twitter, backing a police crackdown on opposition supporters.
The tech giant explains on its website that this is often linked to deceptive behaviour rather than content.
Uganda may be the first African country to explore switching facebook with a locally developed social media platform.
China has successfully blocked sites such as Twitter, Google and WhatsApp and instead their services are provided by Chinese applications such as Weibo, Baidu and WeChat.
Chinese authorities have also had some success in restricting access to the virtual private networks that some users have employed to bypass the blocks on sites.
But China has hundreds of thousands of cyber-police, who monitor social media platforms and screen messages that are deemed to be politically sensitive.
Uganda and China are very close allies and it is possible that the latter could be instrumental in helping the former in getting rid of facebook.
Social media giants have come under increasing scrutiny over the content they allow to spread on their networks.
Giant social media companies have elevated themselves to a position of market dominance where they hold a considerable degree of control over what their users see or hear on a daily basis.
Anim-Addo said over 100 such networks seeking to manipulate public debate have been removed worldwide since 2017.
Twitter, Instagram and Facebook blocked US President Donald Trump over incitement to violence after his supporters stormed the US Capitol last Wednesday, a move his backers see as an assault on free speech.
In December, networks managed from Russia and France — one linked to the French army — were deleted over accusations of interference operations in Africa.
And in October Facebook shut down the page of a conspiracy-fuelled political party in New Zealand accused of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus ahead of elections there.
In the wake of protests in Washington, tech giants Amazon, Apple and Google all cut ties with Parler, a social media platform popular with some conservatives, likely to leave it without a hosting partner.
Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief executive has called for more government regulation of the internet. The four areas Zuckerberg wants governments to regulate more are harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability.
Facebook has committed to creating an independent body to review its moderation decisions, nicknamed the Facebook Supreme Court. If it is to function properly, the court of public opinion will be equally important in holding social media giants to account. If we are concerned about online harassment we can, and should, report incidents to Facebook.
The responsibilities of the largest social media companies are currently being debated in legislative, policy and academic circles around the globe, but many of the numerous initiatives that have been put forward do not sufficiently account for the protection of freedom of expression and other fundamental rights.
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