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What Internet Censorship Looks Like

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays. We’ve seen the internet magnify the best and the …

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

We’ve seen the internet magnify the best and the worst of ourselves. Abdi Latif Dahir, who writes about East Africa for The New York Times, has covered the most extreme examples of both.

Governments in the region regularly shut down internet access or manipulate online conversations to control dissent — Uganda did both ahead of last week’s presidential vote. But citizens also use social media to expose election manipulation and spread feminist movements.

Our conversation highlighted an essential question: Can we have the wonderful aspects of connecting the world online without all of the downsides?

Shira: Why did Uganda cut off internet access?

Abdi: The government capitalized on Facebook and Twitter taking down phony accounts that promoted the government of President Yoweri Museveni. It was an excuse for an internet blackout that many people expected.

The president said that these Western companies can’t decide “who is good or bad.” The restrictions were meant to be targeted, but a large chunk of Uganda’s internet went dark.

Is the internet restored now?

Yes, it was restored after the government declared that President Museveni won a free and fair election — which independent international observers dispute. The government, trying to justify why it took down Facebook and Twitter, is now releasing statements on Facebook and Twitter. President Museveni has also started tweeting again.

Was this an isolated incident?

No, governments here regularly restrict the internet. Autocrats have become adept at shutting down or manipulating the internet to control people and information.

What’s the impact of this?

It can do incalculable damage. When Ethiopia shut down access to the internet and communications during its military campaign in the Tigray region, the government was able to control the narrative. It was difficult to know what was really happening, and people didn’t trust any information about the war.

People acting for Somalia’s government harass those who are critical of the authorities on Facebook and Twitter. People who are on these sites to celebrate progress in the country or raise critical questions are being drowned out.

Are all of these harms offset by the good generated from people assembling online?

You can’t ignore the bleak picture, but we also shouldn’t underestimate how powerful these technologies are.

In Tanzania, people used Twitter to collect evidence of vote tampering. Kenya’s Supreme Court in 2017 ordered a new presidential election, and some credit goes to people who documented online the manipulation of election results. The Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola wrote a book about Kenyans exercising power in new ways online, including feminists flourishing on Twitter.

And I check Kenyan Twitter first thing each morning. It’s full of funny memes and lively conversations.

Should Facebook and Twitter do anything differently to limit the harm?

The Uganda election was one of the few times — if not the only time — that I’ve seen Facebook hold an African government accountable for manipulating online conversations. Mostly, as in many countries, East African activists have said that Facebook and Twitter aren’t devoting enough attention to online incitements.

Groups in Ethiopia asked Facebook to take action last year against posts that inflamed ethnic violence after the killing of a popular singer and activist, Hachalu Hundessa. Facebook had put in place plans to screen posts in African languages including Oromo, but I don’t think enough is being done to mitigate the harm.

(Facebook described here its response in Ethiopia.)

You’re describing damage from too much restraint of the internet in some cases, and too little restraint in others.

I know. When I talked to friends about the Ethiopian internet shutdown during the Tigray war, many of them were supportive of it given all of the horrible things that happened after Hundessa was killed. It’s all complicated.

Amazon offers vaccine help. Good. I think?

Two conflicting ideas constantly rattle around in my brain about mammoth technology companies. I’m worried about how much power they have. I also want them to use that power to save us.

Amazon on Inauguration Day offered to help with President Biden’s plan to vaccinate 100 million Americans against Covid-19 during his first 100 days in office. Amazon said it could lend its “operations, information technology and communications capabilities and expertise,” without being more specific.

Vaccinating hundreds of millions of Americans is partly a logistics challenge. Amazon is really good at logistics. So let’s hope that Amazon and other companies can help. But let’s also remember that technology and big business need an effective government — and vice versa — to solve complex challenges like this.

Look, the cynical part of me immediately thought that Amazon was just trying to make nice with the Biden administration. My colleagues at the DealBook newsletter also noted that Amazon and other companies offering to help state or federal governments with vaccinations may be angling to get their employees moved up the priority list.

But cynical or not, I’m back to where I often am: half hoping and half fearing that a technology giant can intervene in a complicated problem.

I felt that way when Google’s sister company looked as if it might swoop in to coordinate coronavirus testing. (Nothing much came of that.) We saw how Facebook’s actions or inaction influenced ethnic violence in Ethiopia and affected what Americans believe about our election.

Like it or not, what technology companies do has a huge influence on our lives. If they’re going to have such power, they should be responsible for using that influence in helpful ways. (Assuming we can agree on what is helpful.)

Before we go …

  • They didn’t believe a Biden administration would happen: As President Biden took office, some QAnon believers tried to rework their theories to accommodate a transfer of power, my colleague Kevin Roose wrote. Sheera Frenkel and Alan Feuer also wrote about the far-right Trump supporters who felt let down by him.

  • Snapshots of school in a pandemic: My colleagues wrote a great series of articles examining how different public schools and their students are managing. A heartbreaking line from a teacher in Tracey Tully’s profile of a New Jersey district: “There are days — and today was one of them — when I ask: ‘What am I doing here?’”

  • Bernie Sanders looked cold and grumpy. People made it internet art: I love all of the memes from that one photo of the senator on Inauguration Day. This is the best one. Or this? Maybe this?

Hugs to this

A newborn lamb bonds with his mom — after 36 hours of labor.

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