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Digital Dictatorship versus Digital Democracy


2019 Tutu Fellow Ronak Gopaldas has had a paper, Digital Dictatorship versus Digital Democracy in Africa, published by SAIIA – the South African Institute of International Affairs. The paper kicks off with a quote from writer Umair Haque, ‘Twitter could have been a town square. But now it’s more like a drunken, heaving mosh pit.’ The quote illustrates the gap between the potential of social media and the internet, and its dark side.

Not that long ago, social media fueled the Arab Spring, bringing down governments. Since then, though, bots, trolls and disinformation campaigns pushing trending algorithms have subverted campaigns such as Brexit and the 2016 US elections and how smartphones and privacy have blurred the line between engagement and surveillance.

Ronak asks the question “Just how did digital technologies go from empowering citizens and toppling dictators to being used as tools of oppression and discord?”

Looking at a range of examples, he points out that the internet is becoming both less free, but also more politically disruptive – both for democracies and dictatorships. This has implications for governance. With social networks providing free and real-time access to information, it has impacted how voters are influenced and in turn influence how countries function.

Social media can both foster accountability and transparency or upend governance entirely, as has been seen in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Ronak says that in Africa, there are concerns at countries limiting online political expression and tightening control over citizens’ data. But threats to digital expression are not found only by strongmen, but also by rising corporate influence. Further, troll armies have hounded journalists who have exposed government malfeasance. And in Africa, where access to technology is a differentiating threshold, governments restricting access to the internet and by extension, to information, is a growing trend. Ronak points out that in January 2019, the internet was shut down in January alone in Gabon, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Sudan and the DRC. His map of shutdowns and restrictions across Africa is telling.

He also argues that soft digital dictatorships in which disinformation is being used for political advantage is increasingly being used as a proactive measure, rather than a reactive measure, such as shutdowns. Exploiting the fissures in social cohesion using so-called fake news and conspiracy theories can be used for political gain, too. Legislation and taxation is also on the rise, specifically aimed at limiting political expression, regardless of the rationale provided.

The entire paper can be found at SAIIA.

If you'd like to read an additional essay by Ronak, his essay was one of the essays selected from those of his Class of 2019 as one of the top essays of the year.  It's titled: The Challenge Of Leadership in Africa.

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Tuesday, 04 October 2022

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