The Year Without Social Media & #KeepItOn

March 28, 2019 marked an important date in the world of social media.  Other than being my brother, Justin’s 18th birthday, March 28, 2019 marked the one year anniversary of the ban of social media in Chad.  For the last year, the country of over 13 million had their access to social media blocked by the national government. On March 28 2018, millions of people in Chad attempted the normal daily routine of waking up and immediately checking their social media platforms of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and the popular international messaging app of WhatsApp.  Instead of getting met with the usual social media pictures and posts, people of Chad were met with an error message. What was the explanation of this error message? First, the error was attributed to technical difficulties. Others suspected the social media blackout to be caused by recent public demonstrations.

As time progressed, the internet blackout was deemed to be the order of President Idriss Deby.  For the last 30 years, President Deby has remained in power with the most recent reelection occuring in 2016.  The recent protests were against his extended reign. Often these types of protests are organized with social media.  The social media blackout is the direct result of an attempt to curtail this resistance. The frightening realization is how extended the ban on social media has become.  Chad is now in over a year of social media blackout. This has had irreparable effects upon the economy of Chad. Experts from Internet Without Borders has estimated that $20 million was lost from the country’s economy.  Further, the extended blackout has the potential to affect the country’s entrepreneurship and communication growth. The disconnect has caused the loss of friendships and relationships, businesses have failed due to lack of marketing, and journalism has suffered greatly due to access to the foreign news and events.  

This is not an uncommon practice for African countries to restrict internet and social media access.  In just the first couple months of 2019, five additional countries have restricted internet access. These include: Algeria, Zimbabwe, Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.  Alegria experienced only a brief few hours of blackout during the protests of President Bouteflika. Zimbabwe’s ban on social media and internet access was revoked quickly in court, deemed unconstitutional. This was judicial move was even among pubic revolts.  Gabon’s internet access was briefly revoked during an attempted coup. The access was immediately returned after the coup was defeated. The Democratic Republic of Congo instituted a brief blackout during elections. The DRC immediately returned access when elections were completed.  Sudan had an extensive shutdown during protests against the government. This lasted 68 days until access was granted. All of these pale in comparison to the more than a year ban in Chad of social media.

So why is this important?  First, Chad’s economy and population is hurting from this ban.  President Deby has instituted a ban that is affecting the mental health and happiness of his citizens.  Additionally, the ban is affecting businesses as they attempt to grow through marketing and customer engagement.  Secondly, this situation in Chad has prolonged for so long due to the lack of Western influence and pressure. Chad is a part of a theme in African issues in which central African countries according to Juliet N. Nanfuka of Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, “[African countries] tend to attract less regional or international attention in the face of government excesses, compared with East Africa or Southern Africa.”  Coupled with this, Chad and President Deby are engaged in the fight against Islamist militants and require alliances with many Western countries.  

So is all hope lost?  The answer is no. As recently as March 12, 2019, the African Freedom of Expression Exchange distributed a petition with 80 signatures from international organizations to the members of the United Nations and African Union.  Contained within this petition is the call for President Deby to institute normal access. Coupling this effort, the group known as Internet Without Borders has been within Chad distributing virtual private networks or VPNs to help activists get around the blocked access.  The VPNs give activists the ability to assume an anonymous identity when attempting to work towards improved governance. There lies importance in knowing about the struggle in Chad. As stated in the recent discussions and public speakers in class, social media is the Public Square.  Social media has now progressed to the point of banning social media is equivalent to banning the public square. For progress to be made in these developing countries, the public square must be open and functioning allowing for the creation and dialogue of ideas and criticism. A denial of this is a denial of a vehicle for innovation and progress.  And Chad has been without that vehicle for 369 days. #KeepItOn

For those looking for more information, please refer and spread the AFEX petition for open internet access:

https://allafrica.com/stories/201903150565.html

12 comments

  1. Very eye-opening post – while I had heard some news coverage of the social media blackout in Chad a few months back, I had no idea that it has been in place for a year. Despite the significant negative impacts on Chad’s economy and people that you lay out, the issue seems to receive little to no airtime from major American news outlets – the assessment that Chad and other Central African nations “tend to attract less regional or international attention in the face of government excesses, compared with East Africa or Southern Africa” certainly seems to ring true.

    As I was reading this, Russia’s recent consideration of experimenting with an Internet kill switch came to mind. In February, Russian legislators drafted legislation that would enable Roskomnadzor, Russia’s equivalent of the FCC, to test processes to effectively shut off any server/router connections going outside of the country and instead rely on an internal, stand-alone Internet on purely Russian infrastructure. The experiment was slated to take place before April 1, although it is unclear if it actually happened. While Russia’s stated intent for having such an option is national security, it’s a fairly slippery slope, as Chad has demonstrated, from an emergency case use to restrictions of speech and information done in the name of “national security.”

    NPR has a good write-up on the Russia situation: https://www.npr.org/2019/02/11/693538900/russia-is-considering-an-experiment-to-disconnect-from-the-internet

  2. Nice post. Like Julianna said, it’s disheartening that this has gotten so little airtime. Similarly to the Cyclone in Mozambique and electricity blackouts in South Africa, we’ve become extremely ignorant to the unacceptable conditions in other nations that have become normalized. I do think that as social media expands many nations grappling with corrupt governments will also face social media bans

  3. Wow! Great eye opening post! After our conversation in class about social media being the public square, I just assumed this was standard around the world. However, now considering the varying political ideologies and unchecked regimes, I realize how naive that assumption was. Although I understand why blocking social media is acceptable to these governing bodies, it seems to me as more of a way of demonstrating absolute control. I can only imagine the impact this blackout has had for long distance familial relationship and the implications for the economy. I think the biggest implication here is the fear instilled in businesses foreign or domestic, that no digital presence is safe. That is, any company with a digital presence can be removed by a country with a few taps of a keyboard and clicks of a mouse.

  4. Wow, I had no idea this was going on, let alone for so long. As others have mentioned, it is so surprising the American media hasn’t picked up on this especially because access to social media/the public square is considered one of our fundamental rights. And you would think that if other countries’ citizens are attempting to utilize social media to protest restrictive governments that is something that we would want to encourage given our country’s history. I never thought I would say this, but I think I all of the effects that you discussed (to relationships, businesses, the economy, government structure etc.) kind of makes social media a human right (as courts in the US have ruled like we learned in our legal themed class).

  5. Great post on a topic I know little about. Nice work!

  6. I remember my first tweet for this class was about how the citizens of Pakistan where threatened to lose their access to Instagram. The article I retweeted discussed how to many countries around the world social media is not just for fun. These platforms are crucial for politics and social advocacy. This is something we do not talk enough about. We should be concerned that people around the world are losing access to this huge source of connection. It is damaging to to their economies, politics, and ability to socialize. Great Post!

  7. This was a really interesting post and a topic that I knew very little about. This was brought up briefly in a class last year when the ban was first put in place, but since then I’ve heard little to nothing about it. As much as social media can seem like a bit of a nuisance from time to time, the thought of not having access to it for any period of time (think of the reactions to Instagram going down a few weeks ago), let alone a year, is almost hard to fathom. You bring up a very important point about the lack of attention that is paid to these nations in the news, especially when the implications of what is happening are taking a major toll on the country, and how that is something that needs to change. That being said, many of us consume our news through social media, so if nothing is coming out of Chad via these platforms, it can be hard to know what exactly is going on. This doesn’t make up for the lack of media attention but is an unfortunate truth of the world that we live in and our dependency on social media.

  8. Thanks for bringing this to our attention, really interesting! As many other commenters have mentioned, I’m fascinated by the legality of banning social media for an entire country based on the political structures of Chad and the other countries that have instituted similar bans. It also serves to make an interesting point that no matter how much we dwell on the downsides of social media today, we would be lost without it. If this was the economic effect in Chad, I can’t imagine what the economic effect of a social media ban in the US would be (of course it would never be possible here, but theoretically!). It makes me wonder what a scale-down on social media would do in the US. For example, what would the economic effect if just something like Snapchat started to fizzle out, or if everyone with inactive Facebook profiles just deleted them? Very thought-provoking!

  9. This was such an interesting post on a topic I admittedly was not aware of. Stories like this remind me that although I often complain about it, I take our access to social media for granted. I like how you connected the idea of social media being the public square in this space, and while I can’t believe the ban has gone on for so long, it is nice to hear that there have been actions taken recently to create a workaround through VPNs. I can only hope that the situation is rectified soon, because the ramifications of a social media ban on not only businesses but the well being of citizens is something to be very concerned about.

  10. Wow, this is something I had no clue was even going on let alone a persistent issue in African countries. First of all, great post! it’s always great to finally hear about injustices in the world that seem to go unnoticed. The irony is that, these are exactly the types of issues that access to social media addresses, and it’s unfortunate that it’s a resource being taken away from so many. As many others have pointed out, this reminded me right away of Professor Chang’s presentation and the recognition of social media as “the public square” available to everyone for free expression. We are lucky to have these protections and the faith in the checks and balances provided by the judicial system to authoritarian rule. The circumstances of Chad are shocking, and it’s incredible that it’s been allowed to continue for so long. It’s reassuring to see people working to combat these injustices by handing out VPNs to bypass government restrictions. Lets hope that this comes to an end so Chad can begin to realize the economic and social impacts that social media offers.

  11. Very interesting read! It’s crazy how something that we take for granted on a daily basis can be taken away so quickly by a government. I think it also goes to show the power of social media and reinforces the belief that social media is the current town square. By taking away the town square, we are taking away Chad’s ability to converse about political beliefs and government as well as removing a superhighway of information to the outside world. Ultimately it seems like a desperate attempt for the president of Chad to say in power….

  12. Great article! Originally, I was thinking of just the loss of communication, but the numbers you had to support the 20 million dollars of lost revenue really put this in perspective. It truly seems that this restriction is a violation of allowing for economies of scales, freedom of speech, and forcing only one person of power to succeed. I am surprised that other countries have not tried to provide relief further than petitions and rallying. Instead I feel the UN should allow donations to go to buy and send over more of these VPNs to let activists succeed.

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