Uganda in spotlight of social media and elections interfering

The US and European Union have both expressed concern about Uganda government policies in the lead-up to the vote. Uganda has banned social media ahead of the vote.

Elections billboards for Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, and opposition leader and presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, are seen on a street in Kampala (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Elections billboards for Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, and opposition leader and presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, are seen on a street in Kampala
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
The US announced on Wednesday that it had canceled its observation of Uganda’s presidential election. Some have mocked the US decision, arguing it is Uganda that should be observing the US elections considering the chaos in Washington. However the issues taking shape in Uganda are less about the local election and more about the symbolism of elections in the era of big tech and social media.
The US and European Union have both expressed concern about Ugandan government policies in the lead-up to the vote, in which social media has been banned. The government of Uganda appears to have responded after social media giants targeted officials in the government and began removing their accounts arbitrarily. This is similar to the US where social media giants often arbitrarily remove accounts, often which they accuse of being right-wing extremists, based on unclear guidelines. For instance Twitter and social media companies coordinated to remove US President Donald Trump’s accounts after a riot at the Capitol on January 6.
Some have expressed concern at the power big tech wields today in elections, and in determining which voices will have a platform. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the ACLU and others have issued warnings. This also came after Amazon and other large tech companies caused Parler, a right-wing social networking site, to be temporarily shut down. The allegations that “right-wing” people are congregating at a site now appears to be reason enough to shut them down. It’s not entirely clear why far-right authoritarian governments, such as Iran, can openly use social media, or why far-right extremists like groups in Idlib province in Syria, can use these platforms, but not others.
Twitter claimed that “ahead of the Ugandan election, we’re hearing reports that Internet service providers are being ordered to block social media and messaging apps. We strongly condemn Internet shutdowns – they are hugely harmful, violate basic human rights and the principles of the #OpenInternet.”
However the same Twitter also said that earlier in the week: “in close coordination with our peers, we suspended a number of accounts targeting the election in Uganda. If we can attribute any of this activity to state-backed actors, we will disclose to our archive of information operations.” This means that the social media giant was removing accounts in Uganda, but then also demanding Uganda keep access to Twitter open, so that Twitter could decide what Ugandans will read in the lead-up to the election. Critics wondered if social media giants are using arbitrary internal guidelines that are not public, and how they determine who to ban. The social media giant claimed “access to information and freedom of expression, including the public conversation on Twitter, is never more important than during democratic processes, particularly elections.” However, the same social media giant restricted access to some voices.
Facebook, according to France 24, closed down numerous government accounts in the lead-up to the election, but didn’t appear to target the opposition. For instance Uganda’s president’s press secretary, Don Wanyama, had his Facebook and Instagram suddenly shut down without explanation. He was accused of trying to influence the election. Since he is the press secretary of the president, that would seem to be a legal and normal role for him. He accused social media giants and foreign forces of seeking to disable online accounts of the ruling party.
France 24 reported that “many government officials and members of the ruling party have seen their pages taken down, including a well-known blogger and [President Yoweri] Museveni supporter, a prominent doctor and a senior official in the Information Ministry. The president has long accused foreign organizations and elements of backing [opposition candidate Bobi] Wine in a bid to remove his government.”
Because social media giants are unregulated and don’t have to disclose to the public how they make decisions, the choice to suddenly shut down accounts on only one side in an election appeared to be a direct intervention in Uganda’s election. Social media companies are now accused of trying to decide elections. Uganda, a non-Western country, may be targeted because it’s harder for them to regulate these large Western companies or to get answers. However the European Union has expressed some concern and is seeking more regulation of tech giants. On the one hand European officials have said the decision to ban Trump shows social media giants are taking responsibility. However, the arbitrary decisions, without clarity of who is banned and who is not, raise questions. Hungary, for instance, has slammed Twitter for removing a government account last year. Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. has supported more regulation rather than letting the companies self-regulate.
Other governments are involved as well. Iran’s PressTV claimed its Facebook account with some 4 million users was briefly suspended without any reason by Facebook. Social media giants have generally refused to crack down on far-right Iranian regime figures, except in cases of COVID misinformation, and while they label some state-run media, they don’t label state-controlled media in Turkey. These kinds of arbitrary labels and account removals without explanation of some media and some politicians is leading to more complaints. It is unclear if soon social media giants will intervene more fully in elections and decide who they think should be elected. Israel, which is having an election on March 23 may find itself in Uganda’s position with social media giants deciding which officials and politicians get to post information before the election and which will have accounts arbitrarily and suddenly removed.
In Uganda the case appears more clear, Museveni has been in charge for decades and he is accused of a crackdown on opposition. Social media giants are increasingly placing themselves as arbiters of what information should be seen for elections and which parties should have a louder voice. Museveni may be unpalatable to many who want more free and fair elections. Uganda’s decision to simply shut down social media rather than have it decide who will be banned prior to the election, may be a novel approach that more countries will gravitate toward. Iran’s regime, for instance, restricts western social media at home but its officials use it abroad.