What Web Censorship Appears Like

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We have seen the internet enlarge the best and the worst of us. Abdi Latif Dahir, who writes on East Africa for the New York Times, has covered the most extreme examples of both.

Governments in the region regularly block internet access or manipulate online conversations to control dissent – Uganda did both before the presidential election last week. Citizens also use social media to uncover election manipulation and to spread feminist movements.

In our conversation, a key question was highlighted: can we have the wonderful aspects of connecting the world online without all of the downsides?

Shira: Why did Uganda block internet access?

Abdi: The government used Facebook and Twitter to close down fake accounts promoting President Yoweri Museveni’s government. It was an excuse for an internet blackout that many people were expecting.

Will all of this damage be offset by the good that comes from people who gather online?

You can’t ignore the bleak picture, but neither should we underestimate how powerful these technologies are.

In Tanzania, people used Twitter to gather evidence of election rigging. The Kenyan Supreme Court ordered a new presidential election in 2017, and some credit goes to those who have documented the manipulation of election results online. Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola wrote a book about Kenyans gaining power in new ways online, including feminists who are thriving on Twitter.

And the first thing I do every morning is check the Kenyan Twitter. It’s full of fun memes and lively conversations.

Should Facebook and Twitter do something else to limit the damage?

The Ugandan elections were one of the few, if not the only times, Facebook held an African government accountable for tampering with online conversations. As in many countries, East African activists in particular have said that Facebook and Twitter do not pay enough attention to online incitement.

Economy & Economy


Jan. 21, 2021, 4:40 p.m. ET

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

(Facebook described its reaction in Ethiopia here.)

They describe damage from being too reluctant to use the Internet in some cases and not enough in others.

I know. When I spoke to friends about the shutdown of the Ethiopian Internet during the Tigray War, many of them supported it in the face of all the terrible things that happened after Hundessa’s death. It’s all complicated.

Two conflicting ideas about mammoth tech companies keep rattling in my mind. I worry about how much power they have. I also want them to use this power to save us.

On the day of inauguration, Amazon offered to support President Biden’s plan to inject 100 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine during his first 100 days in office. Amazon said it could lend its “operations, information technology and communication skills and expertise” without being specific.

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

Look, the cynical part of me immediately thought that Amazon was just trying to be nice with the Biden administration. My colleagues from the DealBook newsletter also noted that Amazon and other companies looking to help state or state governments with vaccination may be trying to prioritize their employees.

But cynical or not, I’m back where I often am: half hoping and half afraid that a tech giant may intervene in a complicated problem.

I felt like Google’s sister company looked like it was coordinating coronavirus testing. (That didn’t turn out to be much.) We have seen how Facebook’s actions or inactivity affected ethnic violence in Ethiopia and how Americans felt about our election.

Whether you like it or not what tech companies do has a huge impact on our lives. If they want such power, they should be responsible for using that influence in helpful ways. (Provided we can agree on what’s helpful.)

A newborn lamb bonds with its mother – after 36 hours of work.

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