A commentary by Iginio Gagliardone and Nicole Stremlau for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
November 21, 2022
Internet shutdowns have emerged as an extreme, yet recurrent, practice to control online communication.
In Africa, both autocratic and democratic governments have increasingly resorted to shutdowns as a
response to concerns about disinformation around elections or the potential for online hate speech to
encourage violence. Partial or nationwide network disruptions, however, have also occurred at times
where no threats seemed imminent, including peaceful demonstrations and national exams.
Internet shutdowns appear disproportionate and abusive, especially from the perspective of citizens and
end-users who are denied opportunities by a power both arrogant and insecure or incompetent. When
leaders who have long overstayed their time in office, such as Cameroon’s Paul Biya or Uganda’s Yoweri
Museveni, assert their need and right to enforce suppressive measures to guarantee peaceful elections or
prevent the threat of external interference, we see aging, despotic men clinging to power. But are all their
claims illegitimate, just cover-ups to retain control? What if these—and similar—arguments were not
coming from them, but from more respected sources?
What if it was a respected leader such as Thomas Sankara who asserted the need for this kind of
response? Sankara was a revolutionary and pan-Africanist who led Burkina Faso from 1983 until his
assassination in 1987. Nigerian literary scholar Abiola Irele wrote that Sankara was “a leader with the
genuine interest of the people at heart,” leading “a revolution in the true sense of the word.” His stature
and commitment were recognized not only by his admirers, but also by his rivals, who saw how his style
of leadership and commitment to socialism served as an inspiration to others on the continent. As a U.S.
Embassy cable recognized, following his “example of simplicity, austerity, and honesty,” Burkina Faso had
become “highly regarded for the lack of corruption in the government.”
Examining internet shutdowns through the life and thought of Sankara illuminates an often-overlooked
aspect of these communication blocks: how these measures are a response to the overwhelming power
of for-profit social media companies to enable unprecedented forms of interference with national politics—
without taking responsibility for it.
This imbalance has glaringly emerged in whistleblowers’ leaks and revelations, which add to a growing
body of evidence demonstrating Big Tech’s negligence and bias. Facebook whistleblower Frances
Haugen has referred to her former employer’s strategy and behavior as hypocritical, expanding into new
markets under the banner of “building community” and “bringing the world closer together.” In practice,
social media companies have avoided taking responsibility and action when interactions between their
platforms and local politics sowed and strengthened divisions and antagonism. Sankara would have
called it a manifestation of imperialism—a term that has largely fallen out of fashion, but whose core
tenets aptly describe the conduct of social media companies—which act in ways that seek to benefit the
center of this power, disregarding the consequences on the peripheries.
The model of profitability for social media companies relies on attracting and keeping users’ attention,
even when this means promoting vitriolic and polarizing content. Aware of this feature, but seeking to
respond to waves of scandals and criticism, companies have invested in systems to remove hate speech
and disinformation. But these efforts reflect deep inequalities and have been largely driven by financial
incentives and disincentives