Solomon Rukundo*


The growth of the Internet and its use as a tool for activism has altered the terrain of socio-political crusading, creating new possibilities and shifting power balances world-over and especially in Africa. But while new possibilities emerge and unpopular regimes become fearful for their survival, existential hurdles limit the capability for creating real change on the ground and continue to emphasise the virtual hollowness of internet, armchair activism. But not all is lost, and the liberator that is technology may yet become the single most powerful and effective gizmo for change in human history.


At the onset of the bloodless coup that removed Robert Mugabe from the Presidency of Zimbabwe, shutting down social media was considered the first step in an attempt to deflect the overthrow.[1] Elsewhere in a speech before the United Nations, the Ethiopian Prime Minister had described the Internet as a tool to “spread…hate and bigotry without any inhibition.” In Cameroon, the Speaker of Parliament has described social media as “a new form of terrorism” bent on creating a “social pandemic.”[2] It is also now the norm for many African governments to shut down the Internet during election time.[3]

The Internet is a potent political force in Africa, and the best evidence for this is the Arab Spring of 2011.[4] Currently, 10% of the population on the African continent is estimated to have access to the Internet[5] with more gaining access through the proliferation of affordable Internet-enabled smartphones.

The Internet in Africa is considerably more politicised than other parts of the world. According to the US Company Portland Communications, 10% of the most popular African hashtags in 2015 related to political issues whereas in the US and the UK only 2 per cent of hashtags were political.[6] The potential for the Internet as a political tool against authoritarian regimes was acknowledged by then U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a now famous 2010 speech in which she argued that the Internet ‘…has been a critical tool for advancing democracy....’[7] Larry Diamond, the Stanford political sociologist, has in similar optimistic terms described the Internet as ‘liberation technology’ lauding its ability to expand political, social, and economic freedom.[8] The United Nations Human Rights Council in recognition of the Internet’s value as a tool for democracy passed a non-binding resolution in June 2016 that emphasised ‘…the importance of applying a comprehensive human rights-based approach when providing and expanding access to the Internet and for the Internet to be open, accessible and nurtured by multi-stakeholder participation…’[9]


Internet activism is the continuation of traditional grassroots political mobilisation using modern digital tools as aids.  Sandor Vegh[10] classifies Internet activism into three main categories. The first is awareness or advocacy whereby public awareness is achieved by availing information relevant to the cause being advocated online. The second category is organization or mobilization where the Internet is used to call for action either online or offline with the relevant schedule for a demonstration or protest agreed upon online, and the third is action or reaction which basically involves taking action for or against a cause online such as ‘hacktivism’.

One of the most widely used Internet tools in Internet activism today is social media. Social networking sites such as Facebook, micro-blogs like Twitter and Tumblr, video sharing sites like YouTube and many others are all used in Internet activism. Social media eases mobilisation as it easily brings together like-minded people. When a post is ‘liked’ or shared by others, the author may get the idea that there are people out there who share his or her views and whom he or she can lead. This imparts a sense that they can be more effective than before and followers develop the sense that they are not alone in the ideas they hold.[11] Social media causes the traditional top-down style of government to slowly shift towards government by the bottom by giving the masses a bigger voice to question and challenge their leaders.[12] Ordinary people are able to communicate their approval or disapproval of different policies and actions to otherwise unreachable people in high offices by commenting on their social media accounts.

A more controversial form of Internet activism is hacktivism. This is the use of computer hacking to protest for or against social and political policies. In 2013 the hacker collective, Anonymous Africa hacked into the sites of Zimbabwe’s defence ministry and the state-run Herald newspaper. Shortly thereafter the group hacked into South Africa’s ANC party website flooding it with DoS attacks.[13] In Kenya throughout 2013 and 2014 hundreds of government websites were reportedly hacked into and defaced with political messages pasted on the websites.[14] Again in Zimbabwe in 2016 the official government website and that of the state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation were hacked into and shutdown.[15]


The use of technology to mobilise people for action goes back as far as the invention of the printing press. More recently in 2001, networking technology was used to oust President Joseph Estrada in the Philippines when text messages were used to mobilise protesters to congregate and demand Estrada’s resignation.[16] The Internet however provides unique advantages to activists unmatched by any previous technology.

3.1       Internet platforms are easy to use

Internet activism is successful because online platforms such as social media accounts and blogs are easy to create and maintain – even for non-technical web users.[17] Setting up a blog or social media account hardly requires any skills. The Internet requires considerably less resources for mobilisation than earlier forms of activism such as the telephone, postal mail, or door-to-door canvassing reduces.[18] It has introduced speed and interactivity unknown to traditional mobilisation techniques. Activism can take the form of relatively easy to carry out activities such as commenting on a popular activist’s post, changing a profile picture or making a statement using a hashtag.[19] It is much easier to establish a social media campaign than it is to establish a newspaper, run a television station, or open a civil society organization. Therefore more people can produce information seen by others.[20]

The ease with which online platforms can be used belies the far reaching impact of Internet activism. A single nondescript individual in the right circumstances can use the Internet to impact a nation. In Zimbabwe in 2016, a little known church Pastor, Evan Mawarire, while pondering how to pay his children’s school fees spontaneously filmed himself venting his frustrations with the Zimbabwean flag around his neck and posted the video on Facebook and YouTube using the hashtag ‘#‎ThisFlag’. The video gained tens of thousands of hits and this quickly snowballed into a movement. Fellow social media users started posting pictures wrapped in the flag on his Facebook page. He declared five days of digital activism using ‘#ThisFlag’ which was extended to 25 days by popular demand.[21] The movement soon gained offline traction when two opposition MPs were kicked out of parliament for wearing the Zimbabwean flag.[22] The government reaction to this unusual blend of patriotism and protest was threatening anyone who sells or displays the national flag with up to a year in prison under the Flag of Zimbabwe Act for allegedly “bringing it into disrepute”.[23]

3.2       Internet activism is international

Internet activism rides on the cross-boundary nature of the Internet to easily attract the attention of the international community. Videos and pictures posted online can be seen by millions across the globe and attract support or condemnation from the world at large. In this increasingly globalised era, this can have a powerful impact on the actions taken by governments. When the Ugandan parliament passed a law with the death penalty for homosexuality activists took to the Internet attracting international condemnation of the law eventually resulting in its being declared unconstitutional.[24] The Internet also enables citizens living in diaspora to easily be part of an online protest. For example social media campaigns have been used by Eritreans living in diaspora to voice opposition to their authoritarian government.[25] 

3.3       The Internet overcomes restrictions on mainstream media

In countries with authoritarian governments, the mainstream media is usually nothing more than a government mouthpiece. Through various means such as restrictive laws and intimidation, governments are able to keep a firm grip on the mainstream media. The situation in two countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia, is informative. Eritrea was voted the world’s most censored country in 2012[26] and again in 2015 by the Committee to Protect Journalists.[27] In Eritrea only state media is allowed to disseminate news. The last accredited international correspondent was expelled in 2007. Journalists live and work under constant threat of arrest. All private media houses were shut down in 2001[28] and many journalists were arrested then some of whom remain jailed. Eritrea has the dubious award of the country with the most jailed journalists in Africa. Ethiopia is similarly noted for its harsh treatment of journalists with dissenting opinions.[29] The state-run Ethiopian Radio and Television Agency (ERTA) provides the country’s only nationwide radio and TV services. There are no independent broadcasters in the country.[30] The Ethiopian government even blocked signals from ESAT and the Oromia Media Network which are both independent television stations run by Ethiopians in the United States.[31]

In such circumstances, the Internet becomes the main source of independent news reporting. As noted above, the Internet has been used by Eritreans in diaspora to oppose their government. This has taken the form of opposition websites and social media campaigns.[32] Eritrean activists in the United States use a Facebook group with 27000 members named Eritrean Youth Solidarity of Change (EYSC) to speak out against the excesses of their government.[33] The same activists also use an online platform called Paltalk chat room which enables users to combine video, audio and text and thereby overcome challenges of low literacy among participants.[34] Similarly, Ethiopian activists both within the country and in diaspora use the Internet to protest against government actions.[35]

3.4       The Internet provides anonymity to activists

One of the most important benefits that the Internet provides to activists in Africa is anonymity. Standing up against a despotic government can often mean imprisonment or worse. It is therefore common for radical political activists to adopt a fake online identity.[36] In 2016 it was reported that an anonymous Facebook user was administrator of a page called ‘SACTISM- Classified Documents of the Dwindling PFDJ’ on which he was posting documents showing how the Eritrean authorities abuse their citizens. The page had 17000 followers.[37] The page is said to register between 250,000-350,000 weekly hits having once reached 700,000 hits in one week at its peak.38 One of the key reasons for the popularity of Paltalk among the Eritrean diaspora is that it does not require users’ real identities. An account name will suffice. This allows people to speak without fear of retribution which would usually take the form of action against the dissident’s loved ones left back home.[38]

The anonymity can serve a purpose beyond the protection of the activist. It can turn him or her into a blank slate on to which people project themselves making him or her into a sort of everyman. In her analysis of the anonymous ‘Elshaheeed’, the administrator of the ‘We are Khaled Said’ Facebook page which with many others helped catalyse the Egyptian people’s uprising in early 2011, Linda Herrera notes that the cover of anonymity was used ‘to cultivate an aura of an “every-youth.”’ She argues that this ‘lack of specificity allowed members of the page to project themselves onto the admin, to see him as someone who shared their youthfulness, middle-class lifestyle, jokes, local knowledge, and emotions. An admin with an identity, a name, a face, a past, a location, known networks, and political associations would run the risk of repelling potential members.

In mystery is unity.’[39]

3.5       Internet activism has impact offline

One of the most important benefits of Internet activism in Africa is that it has shown itself able to spill from online platforms to offline engagements. This capability was best displayed in Egypt during the Arab Spring where Facebook groups such as the now famous “We Are all Khaled Said” issued the initial call for protests on January 25 that ultimately led to the eighteen day citizen’s uprising which culminated in the President’s removal.[40]

In sub-Saharan Africa, there have been a number of reports of online activism translating into offline demonstrations and protest. In October 2014, social media was used to mobilise people in Burkina Faso to protest against  President Blaise Compaoré attempts to change the constitution to remove term limits which would have allowed him to run for another term after 27 years in office.[41] Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire of the ‪#‎ThisFlag protest proved that online activism can spill offline with devastating effect. His online call for a peaceful nationwide “stay-away” protest on 6 July 2016 was echoed offline by individuals through text messaging and word of mouth resulting in an unprecedented one-day closure of schools, businesses and most government offices across the country. The disconcertingly empty streets spoke volumes.[42] In early December 2015 the online campaign #Zumamustfall was launched as a protest against President Jacob Zuma who many felt was responsible for South Africa’s economic crisis.[43] The online movement quickly spilled offline in what was described as ‘the biggest protest since the end of Apartheid in 1994’[44] as thousands marched the streets demonstrating against the President.[45]


Despite the euphoric optimism about the Internet as a tool for spreading liberal ideals and democracy, some remain sceptical about its role in furthering these ideals. The technology historian Melvin Kranzberg’s first law: “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral”[46] encapsulates the arguments put forward by many of these cyber-sceptics although some apparently go further and argue that the Internet might in some ways be bad for democracy.

4.1       Internet activism is slacktivism

The term ‘slacktivism’, a combination of the words slacker and activism,[47] has been used to describe scenarios where vibrant activism online has limited real life impact. Malcolm Gladwell, in an article published in The New Yorker, compares today’s Internet activism to the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s. Civil rights activists participating in sit-ins and demonstrations ran considerable risks such as arrests by authorities and attacks by vigilante white groups. He notes that ‘Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.’[48] Despite these obstacles they were able to persevere because of what he terms ‘strong-tie’ connections. The participants had strong personal connections to the civil-rights movement. Many had close friends and family who were also active in the civil rights movement. Traditional high risk activism, he argues, relies on strong-tie connections. This however, is lacking in Internet activism. Social media platforms are built around weak ties. The American political commentator, Micah Sifry, in his book, The Big Disconnect,[49] notes that while the Internet has made it easier for people to find other likeminded individuals and thereby build bigger networks, it is also making it harder to create meaningful bonds with those people. Twitter followers may never have met each other and Facebook simply enables one manage acquaintances and thus the thousand Facebook ‘friends’ do not exist in real life.[50] The result, Gladwell argues, is that online activists are less likely to engage in risky protest actions offline. In 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring demonstrations, Ethiopians planned for a ‘day of rage’ slated for 28 May in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa in an attempt to awaken a similar reform movement in Ethiopia. The campaign took on the name and slogan: “Beka!” – meaning “enough” in Amharic. The campaigners relied heavily on Facebook with numerous Ethiopians changing their profile picture to the “Beka!” logo. Unfortunately on 28 May the Arab Spring spin-off in Ethiopia was a failure. Though thousands had confirmed attendance in different towns around the country, very few in fact turned up.[51] Ironically, six years earlier in a pre-social media era, it was reported that 1 million people or more had gathered in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa to protest against the government in the run up to the 2005 elections.[52] As the Internet researcher and cyber-sceptic, Evgeny Morozov, points out, ‘Given how easy groups can form online, it is easy to mistake quantity for quality.’[53]

Evgeny Morozov goes further and questions the effectiveness of online activism even when it appears to result in offline action. He argues that while tweets and Facebook posts may coincide with crowds gathering in the streets, this does not necessarily imply a causal link between the two. As he puts it in his book The Net Delusion, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and everyone tweets about it, it may not be the tweets that moved it.’[54] Evgeny Morozov argues that much of the political activism facilitated by social media has nothing to do with the participant’s commitment to ideas and politics in general and is in fact geared towards impressing his or her friends.[55] Online activism is simply a comfortable way of pretending to care and participants aim to receive social acknowledgement and praise from peers on the same network rather than achieve any real political or social change.[56]

Morozov views online activism as ‘the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation.’[57] He argues that the availability of the slacktivist option may in fact push those who might have confronted an authoritarian regime with physical demonstrations and mobilisation to embrace the lazy online option instead. In this case, he argues, rather than aiding in the spread of democracy, the Internet might in fact be a hindrance.[58] Morozov suggests that the publicity gains obtained through Internet activism may not be worth the organizational losses that traditional activist entities are likely to suffer when ordinary people turn away from conventional physical forms of activism and embrace more “slacktivist” forms which, while being more secure, are less effective.[59] Indeed, Morozov argues that the Internet might in fact be a tool for de-politicization. It is still used by most people as a means of entertainment. Young people may find comfort in their online movies, videos and memes and ignore the harsh political realities of the physical world. Young netizens are more likely to prefer online entertainment to reports documenting human rights abuses by their own governments.[60]

In The Big Disconnect, Micah Sifry notes that online activism is severely hampered by fleeting digital attention spans.[61] Content that goes viral online tends to move in ‘fireworks-to-fizzle trajectories’[62] because social media users flit from one story to another drawn to their friends’ changing interests and ever changing trending topics.[63] One of the best examples of this is the Kony 2012 documentary saga. Kony 2012 was a documentary released on 5 March 2012 by the humanitarian group Invisible Children that described the atrocities committed by, and efforts to capture, the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. The 30 minute video quickly went viral becoming a global sensation as the most watched YouTube video at the time[64]  having received 100 million views in a matter of days.[65] The U.S. Senate quickly passed a bi-partisan resolution calling for Kony’s capture.[66] The video also included a call to action dubbed ‘Cover the Night’ slated for April 20  intended to make Kony’s name so notorious that his capture before the end of 2012 would be guaranteed. Volunteers were called to paper cities across the globe with posters demanding his arrest. However on April 20, just six weeks after the video had been released, the Cover the Night offline action was a dismal failure with hardly any people participating around the world.[67] Even the 8 minute video released by four U.S senators on 19 April urging young Americans to participate in the ‘Cover the Night’ had little to no effect on the turnout.[68]

In their analysis of the weaknesses of their abortive #Jan30 protest, students in Sudan, who had organised the protest online, pointed out faults that suggested slacktivism. It was claimed for instance that, ‘You cannot expect an average Sudanese citizen to protest on the 30th of January after he just got his salary. The satisfaction of that will cover up the feeling of injustices and humiliation.’ Similarly, it was claimed that protesters could not participate at 11:00am or 11:30am when everybody is either in the middle of their job or on the way to it. It was also claimed that students were constrained with lecture attendance.[69]

4.2       Internet activists are vulnerable to surveillance

Another weakness of Internet activism is that it leaves activists vulnerable to surveillance. The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has acknowledged that while the Internet has been used to ‘hold repressive governments…to account, it is also the greatest spying machine the world has ever seen.’[70] Some forms of surveillance are obvious. Statements, videos and pictures posted by activists using their social media accounts leave them vulnerable to state agents who can easily see them and trace the activists. Images and videos of protesters on the streets posted for encouragement on social media can even be used to track down the protesters. In northern Sudan anti-government groups on social media were penetrated by government agents when they made arrangements to meet each other during demonstrations against President Omar el-Bashir and many were arrested.[71] However, other forms of surveillance are less obvious. Mobile phone users are constantly having their position triangulated by their mobile network operator. If there is an unregulated or corrupt relationship between the state and mobile network operators, the Internet may be compromised to enhance the surveillance capabilities of repressive regimes.[72] African governments have even been known to use sophisticated software to track dissidents. A journalist who had been arrested in South Sudan reported that during his interrogation recordings of him in intercepted phone conversations and emails he had sent were presented.[73] In March 2015 journalists working with the Ethiopian Satellite Television based in the United States that broadcasts independent news about Ethiopia reported that the Ethiopian government was attempting to use Internet spy tools to eavesdrop on them. An email with an attachment from an unknown email address claiming to have information about the upcoming elections was received. The journalists wisely forwarded the email to cyber security experts who determined that there was in fact surveillance malware in the attachment.[74]

4.3       Internet activism can be used for harm

Western observers often project liberal democratic qualities to all Internet activists which in reality is certainly not the case.[75] They tend to view any interference with Internet use as a crime against democracy. The ridiculously sanguine view of all activists in authoritarian societies as crusaders against oppressive and repressive regimes is dangerously naive and delusional. In an analysis of social media use by the Greek Nazi ‘Golden Dawn’ (GD) party, Kompatsiaris and Mylonas note that Web 2.0 platforms have enhanced easy access to and spread of decontextualised information and give visibility and an aura of ‘righteousness’ to otherwise questionable discourses such as advocacy for fascist and racist policies.[76] The researchers further note that such movements attempt to normalise their violent and racist attitudes and agendas using social media by posting comments, videos and pictures positioning themselves as heroes while vilifying their enemies.[77] In this way the Internet makes visible extreme discourses and practices that mainstream media would not have promoted.[78]  The Internet is simply a tool like all previous communication tools that can be used to mobilise people either to great positive efforts or to great destruction. The devastating effects of modern communications technology were seen on the African continent in 1994 when Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC) was used to demonise the Tutsi thereby preparing the population for genocide.[79] Similarly hate speech in the form of widely disseminated text messages threatening violence is believed to have fuelled the Kikuyu and Luo conflict in Kenya in 2008. The messages were so prolific that the Kenyan authorities considered shutting down the text messaging services of the mobile phone networks.[80] Hate speech inciting violence between ethnic groups in Kenya was again present in the 2017 election and this time was spread through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.[81] In January 2010 the BBC reported that the violence in Jos, a city located in Nigeria’s middle belt, in which over 300 people died, was fuelled by hundreds of text messages that were circulated creating tension between Christians and Muslims.[82] The Internet’s powerful networking abilities can easily be used to galvanise masses of people into genocide and similar acts and worse yet in a more subtle and harder to detect manner.

4.4       Internet activism tends to be elitist

Ideas and positions expressed on social media in Africa may not represent the true feelings of the majority. Internet use is still not widespread in many African countries. As a result, it is mainly the middle class elite who have access to the Internet and these tend to have similar views and priorities as a social class. Therefore the views they express online may be theirs alone as a social class and not those of the whole country. In a study of South African journalist use of Twitter in Johannesburg, Glenda Daniels notes that social media in South Africa is ‘a rose not yet in full bloom’. It ‘is a rather elite public sphere engagement model in action’ rather than ‘a Mouffian robust and more inclusive deepening of democracy at work.’[83] Bruce Mutsvairo notes that online activism can only be effective when everyone is digitally literate which is far from the case in any African country. He notes that Internet activism tends to be elitist in nature and disconnected from the feelings and immediate needs of the masses most of whom are in rural areas. He notes that ‘[e]litists want to see everyone participating online…but they have no idea that many in the country are struggling to climb out of crushing poverty. Potential protesters need to feed their stomachs first before joining online campaigns.’[84]

The dichotomy between the online and the offline world was highlighted in the first referendum on constitutional amendments held after the Egyptian uprising in March 2011. The majority opinion by Egyptian social media activists on social media was that the result would be an overwhelming ‘no’. The end result was that more than 77 per cent voted yes. It became apparent to activists that what was discussed online did not necessarily tally with what was discussed in other spaces.[85]

4.5       Internet activism is vulnerable to online government propaganda and control of the Internet

Just like individuals and groups can use the Internet to drum up their causes, governments can use the Internet to spread their propaganda. Considering that governments usually have more resources than these individual and group activists, when they choose to use the Internet for such purposes it can be done to great and far reaching effect. An example was in 2011 where, in an ironic twist, while the Arab world was being shaken by the Facebook-Twitter inspired revolutions, students in Sudan with government encouragement took to the Internet to defend status quo declaring that they are unwilling to protest.[86] Moreover in countries where the people are paranoid about foreign intervention, Internet activists are easily discredited by accusations of being funded by foreign government agencies. Given the Internet’s cross-border capabilities, such accusations are quite believable.[87]

Those who extol the inherent freedom of the Internet forget that governments have considerable direct and indirect control over it. In Africa it is relatively easy for governments to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to critical websites and online platforms. Social media in particular is a frequent victim. However, such restrictions can be overcome by various means. A 2011 study by the Berkman Klein Centre for Internet and Society[88] noted the tools being used to circumvent Internet restrictions and surveillance such as simple web proxies like TOR (The Onion Router), Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and HTTP/SOCKS. VPNs have been used in many African countries to overcome social media blockades.[89] In Uganda in the 2016 February elections access to social media was blocked, however, many Ugandans were able to circumvent the block with VPN software.[90] The drawback is that Internet circumvention tools tend to be expensive, require a level of technical knowledge and are subject to abuse, for instance, by criminals who use tools like TOR to avoid detection when committing cybercrimes.[91]

Internet networking companies have shown a willingness to aid users in circumvention of government imposed restrictions in authoritarian regimes. To its credit, when Facebook was alerted that the Tunisian government was hacking into activists’ accounts during the Arab Spring, the company took steps to protect the accounts.[92] When the Egyptian government blocked the Internet in early 2011, Google in collaboration with another tech company called SayNow created a way to post messages to Twitter by making telephone calls to a specified number and leaving a message in what it dubbed a speak-to-tweet service.[93]

The emphasis on circumvention tools used to bypass the cyber-wall put up by repressive regimes has been criticised. Evgeny Morozov roundly condemns the popular “cyber-wall” metaphor used to describe the repressive regime’s efforts to block access to particular websites arguing that it falsely suggests that ‘once certain digital barriers are removed, new and completely different barriers won’t spring up in their place—a proposition that is extremely misleading when Internet control takes on multiple forms and goes far beyond the mere blocking of websites.’95 In an article titled Why the Arab Spring Never Came to Ethiopia, Terje Skjerdal argues that contrary to the claims that Internet activism does not depend on formal government policy, restrictive societies have cultural, technological and economic barriers beyond just the ‘cyber-wall’ that might be imperceptible to an outsider.[94] Restrictive laws and policies on Internet usage do have a chilling effect on the development of an Internet activism culture even if websites are not blocked or circumvention is available. Whereas the cyber-activism culture was well built and established in Egypt by the time of the Arab Spring going all the way back to 2004,[95] in Ethiopia, no such culture has developed. The political climate is so repressive that the number of news blogs in Ethiopia appears to be dwindling rather than increasing.[96] In Tanzania, under the country’s Cybercrime Act, it is criminal to insult the president online.[97] In 2016 a man was sentenced to three years in prison and a $3,190 fine for insulting the president.[98] The law also criminalises online publication of information which is ‘false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate.’[99] In October 2015, two Tanzanians were prosecuted for comments made on Facebook under the Cybercrime Act. One, a technology student, had claimed on Facebook that the country’s Chief of Defence Forces had been hospitalized with food poisoning. The second had made a statement on Facebook that the Prime Minister ‘will only become a gospel preacher.’[100] In September 2016 five other people were prosecuted for comments made on Facebook and WhatsApp.[101] One of them had simply criticised the police on Facebook claiming that they focused on opposition demonstrators instead of criminals. ‘While they are preparing to fight the opposition, criminals are preparing to commit crime,’ he wrote.[102]

The emphasis on circumvention tools stems from a view of authoritarian regimes as inept bumblers who have an irrational fear of the Internet, do not understand how it works and seek only to block it. This is naïve. Governments around the world and in Africa are adapting more sophisticated ways to mask their control over the use of the Internet. The government of Zimbabwe has contemplated simply creating its own social network sites which can easily be monitored.[103] This is not a chimerical dream. China has its own social network site which has proved to be popular. Other governments are simply making website blocks more difficult to detect. In 2016 when the Internet was blocked in Congo-Brazzaville, the communications minister denied this was happening via a tweet (as evidence that Twitter was still functioning). It soon became apparent that the order to shut down the Internet issued by the government had a list of phone numbers attached that were to remain connected-including the minister’s.[104] It has been claimed that some governments simply slow down the Internet deliberately. For example it was reported that in the Kenyan 2013 election and the aftermath of the Garissa attack in 2015 the Internet was deliberately slowed down by the government.[105]

Goldsmith and Wu in their 2006 book, Who Controls the Internet, argue that the extent of government control of Internet content within their borders is grossly underestimated. The authors cite China as an example of ‘what a government that really wants to control Internet communications can accomplish.’[106] Governments, they argue, can actually use the Internet as a tool for political control giving the lie to the idea of the Internet as liberation technology.[107] The Chinese government Internet control is aimed at creating ‘an Internet that is free enough to support and maintain the world’s fastest growing economy, and yet closed enough to tamp down political threats to its monopoly on power.’[108] The fact that ISPs are private profit seeking entities that operate in a legal regulatory regime created and controlled by the very authoritarian governments the Internet is supposed to oppose is ignored. Authoritarian regimes can extend their control to the Internet by placing restrictions on ISPs. In Zimbabwe the government had a legal monopoly on telecommunications services until this was declared unconstitutional.[109] The government then adopted complex legal machinery for the processing of applications for telecommunications licences which still favoured monopoly conditions until these too were declared unconstitutional.[110] Authoritarian regimes may develop their digital communication infrastructure specifically to extend state power.[111] In Eritrea the only telecommunications company is the state-run EriTel which is notorious for signal jamming and tight online control. All Internet service providers must use the government-controlled gateway. Access to the Internet in the country is extremely limited and available only through slow dial-up connections. According to the UN less than 1 percent of the population goes online.[112]

The condemnation of rigid government control of the Internet in Africa by western liberal democracy governments rings hollow as these same governments appear to exert much the same level of control over the Internet in their jurisdictions. Western governments seek to regulate the Internet out of concerns for terrorism and cybercrime, however, by doing so they legitimise similar efforts—done primarily for political reasons—undertaken by authoritarian governments.[113] The same western governments and Internet theorists who extol the virtues of the Internet, chiefly, how the free dissemination of information will enable people hold their governments accountable, and roundly condemn any attempt to control online content, decry the rise of harmful content on the Internet such as fake news.[114] The Obama regime’s extraordinary efforts to shut down the document archive site WikiLeaks including pressuring Internet Service Providers and webhosts to block access and funding to the site because it had information prejudicial to the government interests involved the same rhetoric of ‘national security’ that African governments use when they block websites in their countries. It is the same American regime that censured other countries for restricting such a ‘critical tool for advancing democracy’. [115]

4.6       Self-selection and filtering by ISPs creates polarisation

The Internet enables the user to pick his or her own network of communication and self-select their content in a way that avoids any disagreeable ideas or interpretations. The users of previous technology had to simply tune out the information with which they did not agree for example changing the channel on television or the frequency on a radio. The Internet however allows them to avoid any contrary information in its entirety.[116] Social media further compound this by placing the user in a network of like-minded friends and family that will often hold similar political views. Those they disagree with can easily be unfriended or blocked which allows users to avoid cognitive dissonance, or any mental discomfort they would feel when confronted or exposed to information that is contrary to their preconceived notions and ideas.[117]

Since December 2009 Google uses details such as where the user is logging in from, the browser being used and what the user had searched for before to make guesses about who the user is and what he or she is likely to be interested in. The search results are therefore customised to each user.[118] In effect this means that searching for a controversial term on the site might bring diametrically opposed results for those on different sides of the controversy. Many other popular sites online including news sites use data-laden cookies and personal tracking beacons so as to keep track of each user’s preferences and provide more customised information for instance a sports fan is would therefore be more likely to find sports news.[119] This creates a situation where ‘personalization filters serve up a kind of invisible auto-propaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.’[120]


The value of the Internet as a tool for activists is undeniable. Though not necessarily better informed of current affairs, the public is certainly more informed about them as a result of the Internet. Mobilisation for different causes has been made easier and cheaper. However, it has also led to creation of a breed of armchair activists whose most radical action is changing their profile picture on a social media account. The Internet is still primarily a tool for entertainment for most people not political discourse. There are still many hurdles to jump before it can truly be considered liberation technology. Until then online activists should use it with at least some reservation. As Evgeny Morozv put it, ‘Just because you can mobilize a hundred million people on Twitter…does not mean you should; it may only make it harder to accomplish more strategic objectives at some point in the future.’[121]


*        LL.B (University of Dar es Salaam) Dip. Legal Practice (LDC).               

[1]     MacDonald Dzirutwe, Joe Brock and Ed Cropley, ‘Special Report: ‘Treacherous shenanigans’-The inside story of Mugabe’s downfall, Reuters’, November 26, 2017, (31 December 2017)

[2]     Abdi Latif Dahir, ‘More African governments blocked the internet to silence dissent in 2016’, QZ, December 31, 2016, (31 October 2017)

[3]     Eva Nolle, ‘Social Media and its Influence on Democratization in Africa’, International Policy Digest, 11 Aug 2016, (16 December 2017)

[4]     Reza Jamali, Online Arab Spring: Social Media and Fundamental Change, (Chandos Publishing-Elsevier Ltd, USA, 2015)

[5]     Internet World Stats ‘Internet Users in the World by Regions’, June 30 2017, (1 January 2018)

[6]     Portland Communications, ‘How Africa Tweets 2015’, (31 October 2017)

[7]     Hillary Rodham Clinton, ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom’, US Department of State, 21 January 2010, (26  October  2017)

[8]     Larry Diamond, ‘Liberation Technology’, Journal of Democracy, 21, 3 (July 2010), pp. 69-83.

[9]     United Nations Human Rights Council, Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet,  A/HRC/32/L.20, (6 November 2017)

[10]    Sandor Vegh, ‘Classifying Forms of Online Activism: The Case of Cyber Protests Against the World Bank’, in Martha McCaughey and Michael D. Ayers (eds.), Cyberactivism: Online Activism in Theory and Practice, (Routledge, USA, 2003 p. 71)

[11]    Jamali, Online Arab Spring

[12]    Ibid.

[13]    BBC News, ‘Zimbabwe hackers hit ANC website’, 14 June 2013, 22902168 (31 October 2017)

[14]    Harry Misiko, ‘How Anonymous and other hacktivists are waging war on Kenya’, Washington Post, 30 July 2014,

https:// (31 October 2017)

[15]    Abdur Rahman Alfa Shaban, ‘Hackers shut down Zimbabwe government websites’, Africa News, 7 July 2016, http:// (31 October 2017)

[16]    Alex Comninos, ‘Twitter revolutions and cyber crackdowns: User-generated content and social networking in the Arab spring and beyond’, APC    June-2011, (29 October 2017)

[17]    Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner, ‘New media and internet activism: from the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to blogging’, New Media & Society, 6, 1, (2004) 87–95

[18]    Brian S. Krueger, ‘A Comparison of Conventional and Internet Political Mobilization’, American Politics Research, 34, 6 ( November  2006) 759-776

[19]    For example in September 2010 Ethiopian Facebook users changed their profiles to that of Birtukan Mideksa, a prominent Ethiopian dissident and Amnesty International prisoner of conscience imprisoned since 2005: Mark Tran, ‘Ethiopian activists in Facebook protest for Birtukan Mideksa’, The Guardian, 8 September 2010, world/2010/sep/08/ethiopian-facebook-protest-birtukan-mideksa (27 October 2017)

[20]    Zachary C Steinert-Threlkeld1, Delia Mocanu, Alessandro Vespignani and James Fowler, ‘Online social networks and offline protest’, EPJ Data Science 4 19 (2015)

[21]    The Guardian, The man behind #ThisFlag, Zimbabwe’s accidental movement for change, 26 May 2016,      (29 October 2017)

[22]    Ibid

[23]    Adam  Withnall, ‘Zimbabwe cracks down on protest ‘#ThisFlag’ movement–by banning sale of  flags’, The Independent, 21 September 2016, (29 October 2017)

[24]    Darnell L. Moore and Bryan M-C Epps, ‘An Interview with Frank Mugisha, LGBT Freedom Fighter in Uganda’, Huffington Post, 14 November 2011, (11 December 2017)

[25]    Maeve Shearlaw, ‘From online trolling to death threats – the war to defend Eritrea’s reputation’, The Guardian, 18 August 2015, (26 October 2017)

[26]    Andrew Meldrum, ‘World’s most censored country? Eritrea’, Public Radio International, 3 May 2012, stories/2012-05-03/worlds-most-censored-country-eritrea (26 October 2017)

[27]    Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), ‘10 Most Censored Countries’, 2015, (26 October 2017)

[28]    BBC News, ‘Eritrea profile–Media’, 3 December 2014, (27 October

[29]    PJ, ‘10 Most Censored Countries.’

[30]    Ibid

[31]    Adam  Withnall, ‘Ethiopians face five years in jail for posting on Facebook as ‘state of emergency’ rules set in’, The Independent, 18 October 2016, (27 October 2017)

[32]    Shearlaw, ‘The war to defend Eritrea’s reputation’

[33]    Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (CCEIA), ‘Eritrea: An Exiled Nation Suspended in Liminal Space through Social Media’, 30 December 2016, , (27 October 2017)

[34]    Ibid

[35]    Withnall, ‘Ethiopians face five years in jail.’

[36]    Jamali, Online Arab Spring

[37]    Haaretz, ‘Eritrean Regime Crimes Exposed by Anonymous Facebook User’, 2 May 2016, world-news/1.717497 (27 October 2017) 38 CCEIA, ‘Eritrea: An Exiled Nation’

[38]    Ibid

[39]    Linda Herrera, Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet, (Verso, London, 2014) p 35

[40]    Ibid.

[41]    Nolle,   ‘Social Media and its Influence.’

[42]    Chloë  McGrath, ‘What Everyone’s Getting Wrong  About Zimbabwe’s #ThisFlag Movement: It’s not just on  the internet and it’s not       just about President Mugabe’, Foreign Policy, 21 July, 2016, (29 October 2017)

[43]    BBC News, ‘Zuma Must Still Fall’: South Africa reacts to economic troubles’, 14 December 2015, news/blogs-trending-35094322 (31  October,  2017)

[44]    Nolle,   ‘Social    Media and its Influence.’

[45]    BBC News, #ZumaMustFall: South Africans march against Jacob Zuma’, 16 December 2015, world-africa-35111636 (31 October 2017)

[46]    Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, (Penguin Books Ltd, USA, 2011)

[47]    Christensen, Henrik Serup, ‘Political activities on the internet: slacktivism or political participation by other means?’ First Monday 16, 2 - 7 February 2011, (7 November 2017)

[48]    Malcolm Gladwell, ‘Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted’, The New Yorker, 4 October, 2010, https:// (29  October  2017)

[49]    Micah L Sifry, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), (OR Books, New York, 2014) p. 22.

[50]    Gladwell, ‘Small Change.’

[51]    Terje    Skjerdal, ‘Why the Arab Spring Never Came to Ethiopia’ in Bruce Mutsvairo (ed), Participatory Politics and Citizen Journalism in a Networked Africa: A Connected Continent, (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016) p 77-89

[52]    Ibid

[53]    Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, (Public Affairs, Philadelphia, 2011) p 187

[54]    Ibid p 16

[55]    Ibid p 186

[56]    Evgeny Morozov, ‘Foreign Policy: Brave New World Of Slacktivism’, National Public Radio, 19 May 2009, (29 October 2017)

[57]    Ibid

[58]    Ibid

[59]    Ibid

[60]    Morozov, The Net Delusion p 70

[61]    Sifry, The Big Disconnect p 22

[62]    Brian Stelte, ‘From Flash to Fizzle’, New York Times, 14 April, 2012, (2 November 2017)

[63]    Sifry, The Big Disconnect p 22

[64]    Mark Molloy, ‘KONY 2012: Campaign shedding light on Uganda conflict a huge online               success’, 7 Metro March 2012, (2  November  2017)

[65]    Ibid

[66]    Scott Wong, ‘Kony captures Congress’ attention’, Politico, 22 March 2012, kony-captures-congress-attention-074355 (2 November 2017)

[67]    Rory Carroll, ‘Kony 2012 Cover the Night fails to move from the internet to the streets’, The Guardian, 21 April 2012, (2 November 2017)

[68]    Athena Jones, ‘Senators invite Americans to sign anti-Kony legislation’, CNN, 19 April 2012, (2 November 2017)

[69]    Patrick Meier,  ‘Civil Resistance: Early Lessons Learned from Sudan’s #Jan30’ iRevolution, 31 January 2011 https:// (29 October 2017)

[70]    The Guardian, ‘Julian Assange tells students that the web is the greatest spying machine ever’, 15 March 2011,

https:// (29 October 2017)

[71]    Jamali, Online Arab Spring.

[72]    Comninos, ‘Twitter revolutions and cyber crackdowns.’

[73]    Jill Craig, ‘Social Media Crackdown: The New Normal for Africa?’, VOA, 25 August 2016, social-media-crackdown-new-normal-africa/3479435.html (31 October 2017)

[74]    Andrea Peterson, ‘Spyware vendor may have helped Ethiopia target journalists –even after it         was aware of abuses, researchers say’, The Washington Post, March 9, 2015, spyware-vendor-may-have-helped-ethiopia-spy-on-journalists-evenafter-it-was-aware-of-abuses-researcherssay/?utm_term=.4969d273ac44 (26 October 2017)

[75]    Ang, Yuen Yuen, ‘Authoritarian Restraints on Online Activism Revisited: Why ‘I-Paid-A-Bribe’ Worked in India but Failed in China’ Comparative Politics, 47, 1, (November 2, 2013). pp. 21-40

[76]    Panos Kompatsiaris and Yiannis Mylonas, ‘The Rise of Nazism and the Web: Social Media as Platforms of Racist Discourses in the Context of the Greek Economic Crisis’, in Daniel Trottier and Christian Fuchs (eds), Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitterand YouTube, (Routledge New York 2015) p 109

[77]    Ibid

[78]    Ibid

[79]    Rwandan Stories,  ‘Hate radio prepared the Rwandan people for genocide’, hate_radio.html (30 October 2017)

[80]    NPR, ‘Text Messages Used to Incite Violence in Kenya’, 20 February 2008, php?storyId=19188853 (25 October 2017)

[81]    Keith Somerville, ‘Kenya: Hate Speech Raises Its Ugly Voice Ahead of 2017 Elections’, Newsweek, 22 June 2016, http:// (25  October  2017)

[82]    BBC News, ‘Nigeria text messages ‘fuelled Jos riots’’, 27 January 2010, (24 October 2017)

[83]    Glenda Daniels, ‘South African Arab Spring or Democracy to Come? An Analysis of South African Journalists’ Engagement with Citizenry through Twitter’, in Mutsvairo (ed), Citizen Journalism in a Networked Africa.

[84]    Bruce Mutsvairo, ‘Can Robert Mugabe be tweeted out of power?’ The Guardian, 26 July 2016, https://www.theguardian.

com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/jul/26/robert-mugabe-grassroots-protest-zimbabwe-social-media        (29  October  2017)

[85]    Sara Salem, ‘Creating Spaces for Dissent: The Role of Social Media in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution’, in Trottier and Fuchs, Social Media, Politics and the State

[86]    Deepa Babington, ‘Sudan’s cyber-defenders take on Facebook protesters’, Reuters, 30 March 2011, http:// (29 October 2017)

[87]    Morozov, The Net Delusion p. 122.

[88]    Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman and John Palfrey, ‘2011 Circumvention Tool Evaluation’, Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, August 2011, (30 October 2017)

[89]    BBC News, ‘How African governments block social media’ 25 April 2016, (30 October 2017)

[90]    Jill Craig, ‘Social Media Crackdown: The New Normal for Africa?’, VOA, 25 August 2016, social-media-crackdown-new-normal-africa/3479435.html (31 October 2017)

[91]    Ethan Zuckerman, ‘Internet Freedom: Beyond Circumvention’, 22 February 2010 blog/2010/02/22/internet-freedom-beyond-circumvention/ (31 October 2017)

[92]    Alexis C. Madrigal, ‘The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks’, The Atlantic, 24 January 2011, (31 October 2017)

[93]    ‘Total internet blackout in Egypt’, Al Jazeera, 1 Feb 2011, (1 November 2017) 95 Morozov, The Net Delusion p 45

[94]    Skjerdal, ‘Why  the Arab Spring Never Came to Ethiopia’

[95]    Sara Salem, ‘Creating Spaces for Dissent: The Role of Social Media in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution’, in Trottier and Fuchs, Social Media, Politics and the State p 171-188

[96]    Skjerdal, ‘Why  the Arab Spring Never Came to Ethiopia.’

[97]    Ndesanjo Macha, ‘Tanzania’s Cybercrime Act Makes It Dangerous to “Insult” the President on Facebook’, 18 April 2016,

[98]    Lily Kuo, ‘Tanzania is threatening more citizens with jail for insulting the president on social media’, Quartz Africa, 15 September 2016, (31 October 2017)

[99]    Ibid

[100]   Ibid

[101]   Ibid

[102]   Rosina John, ‘Five charged with insulting Magufuli’, The Citizen, 15 September 2016, Five-charged-with-insulting-Magufuli/1840340-3381718-qbmx20z/index.html (1 January 2018)

[103]   BBC News, ‘How African governments block social media’, 25 April 2016, (30 October 2017)

[104]   Ibid

[105]   Craig, ‘Social Media Crackdown’

[106]   Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu, Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of Borderless World, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2006) p 89

[107]   Ibid

[108]   Ibid p 89

[109]   Retrofit (Pvt) Ltd v Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, Attorney General Intervening [1996] 4 LRC 489

[110]   TS Masiyiwa Holdings (Pvt) Ltd and Another v Minister of Information, Posts and Telecommunications [1997] 4 LRC 160

[111]   Edwards, Frank and Howard, Philip N. and Joyce, Mary, Digital Activism and Non‐Violent Conflict (2013), Available at SSRN: (1 January 2018)

[112]   CPJ, ‘10 Most Censored Countries,’; CCEIA ‘Eritrea: An Exiled Nation’

[113]   Morozov, The Net Delusion p 224

[114]   Ibid p 242

[115]   Clinton, ‘Remarks on Internet Freedom’

[116]   Jason Gainous and Kevin M. Wagner, Tweeting to Power: The Social Media Revolution In American Politics, (OUP, New York, 2014) p 13

[117]   Gainous and Wagner, Tweeting to Power p 14

[118]   Pariser, The Filter Bubble

[119]   Ibid p 8

[120]   Ibid., p. 13.

[121]   Morozov, The Net Delusion p. 196.