Digital rights violations during election seasons have become predominant globally. The Freedom House reports that the Election Watch for the Digital Age monitored 40 elections and referendums globally held between June 2018 and May 2020 and found that 88% of the polls experienced digital election interference. In June 2023, Paradigm Initiative hosted a Net Rights Coalition (NRC) webinar on Digital Rights in Election Seasons, where NRC members highlighted that digital rights violations manifest themselves in a range of ways which include misinformation and disinformation, hacking of election servers and campaign websites, cyberattacks on voter registration databases, network disruptions, internet shutdowns, regressive online content regulation, disregard for data privacy and targeted attacks on freedom of expression. NRC members and facilitators highlighted that internet shutdowns are becoming more pervasive in Africa, harm democratic processes and violate fundamental human rights.
Digital Rights Violations During Elections In Africa
In 2022, through the Londa Report, PIN provided an overview of the digital rights landscape in 24 African countries, highlighting violations and documenting notable developments and milestones. The report highlights that in February 2022, exactly six months before the August 2022 elections, leading telecommunications operators in Kenya, Safaricom, Airtel and Telecom45, called on subscribers to re-register their lines in response to an order from the Communications Authority of Kenya (CAK). The report posits that CAK highlighted that the order was meant to combat crime and clean up subscribers’ data. CAK threatened subscribers who would not have registered their lines by the set deadline that telecommunications operators would switch off their lines and they would be fined Ksh.300,000 or jailed for six months.
After the Kenyan election, held in August 2022, KICTANet released a report citing that there were challenges with biometric identification, as biometric voting devices could not recognise the fingerprints of casual labourers, farmers, and the elderly. Abuse of voter data also came under the spotlight as political candidates sent spam messages to the mobile numbers of voters. Mozilla revealed how social media users used Tik Tok to spread hate speech, incitements and political disinformation ahead of Kenya’s elections.
In Uganda, a few hours before the country’s election, Facebook was blocked, and this continued for two years from January 2021 to January 2023, when the ban was lifted. In 2020, the Ugandan government wrote to Google to block up to 14 YouTube channels citing that the channels compromise national security.
On the day of Burundi’s election in May 2020, the Burundi government blocked access to social media, including Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube, to limit freedom of expression on election day. The government restored the internet a day later after civil society organisations condemned the internet shutdown.
In 2023 at least 9 out of 29 African countries have already held their elections, most of whom have a history of shutting down the internet and practising digital rights violations under the guise of preventing the spread of misinformation. Therefore, as countries prepare for elections, a need arises to address how communities, civil society organisations, and stakeholders in the digital rights ecosystem can push back against digital rights violations. While the digital space and the internet have presented an opportunity for political actors and communities, digital democracy continues to suffer as digital rights violations hamper freedom of expression. Harmful online content, disinformation, misinformation and hate speech during electoral processes undermine the credibility of elections and disempower communities.
Pushing Back Against Digital Rights Violations
To safeguard democratic processes and ensure a fair and transparent electoral environment, digital rights organisations can provide communities with digital security trainings that promote access to technology when there are internet blockages. The training can include the provision of encryption tools and Virtual Private Networks to communities, journalists and activists to enable them to counter digital rights violations during elections. These tools allow communities to enjoy freedom of association and expression while promoting privacy and security.
Civil society organisations can take the lead in building a strong movement of digital rights advocates who advocate for regulatory frameworks and pushback against governments unilaterally shutting down the internet. Such a coordinated approach will allow communities to lobby for policies that protect digital rights during elections, and promote transparency, accountability, and freedom of expression online. Advocacy initiatives can also include engaging mobile network operators and telecommunications companies to respect digital rights by contesting direct commands aimed at shutting down the internet or throttling it.
Individuals and civil society organisations can support legal actions or join campaigns challenging digital rights violations. Organisations in Africa can take action against digital rights violations by filing cases. For instance, in Zimbabwe, after the 2019 internet shutdown, the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA), Zimbabwe Chapter and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) challenged the government to restore the internet, and this resulted in the High Court setting aside the directive to shut down the internet.
The government of Togo shut down the internet in 2017 following rising protests. Amnesty International and Access Now, with support from other Amicus Curiae, filed a case to the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice. Thereafter, the court ruled in June 2020 that the shutdown was unlawful and hampered freedom of expression. These cases show that even during elections, there is an opportunity for organisations to come together, support strategic litigation and utilise sub-regional courts to act against digital rights violations where accessible.
Communities can also advocate for Big Tech companies to review algorithms that churn out harmful content and have content moderators to review and respond to harmful social media content that contains violence or offensive content during election periods. Big Tech companies must also take responsibility by updating community standards to ensure that harmful content is appropriately classified and addressed. To do this, Big Tech companies need to involve civil society actors and governments in setting these guidelines. Doing this will also address democratic legitimacy concerns considering that Big Tech companies are currently and independently setting community standards, thus raising questions about their transparency and accountability in deciding which content is removed or modified and how these decisions are made.
Hate speech and false narratives as political parties and candidates seek to gain popularity over their counterparts have become synonymous with African elections. Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) in Africa are often at the centre of disinformation narratives during elections. Therefore, it is essential to foster media and digital literacy programs to counter bad data and strengthen EMB’s capacity to detect and counter disinformation. It is also vital to empower fact-checkers to monitor online and offline conversations to verify claims about electoral processes. Observers in the civil society space can also counter bad data by debunking false narratives and myths, countering hate speech and speaking up against online gendered disinformation. Empowering individuals with these skills will help mitigate the impact of false or misleading information during election campaigns.
Actors in the civil society space can monitor media and online content to assess the enjoyment of digital rights, and document and report digital rights violations during elections. Communities can use tools such as RIPOTI, a tool created by Paradigm Initiative that allows users to report digital rights violations anywhere in Africa. Communities can also monitor internet shutdowns and censorship using tools such as OONI’s probe to monitor network interference and IODA to monitor internet outages. Documenting these violations helps record case studies and best practices for responding to digital rights violations.