Digital Colonialism: Facebook in Eastern Africa
By Kate Begley, BSc Politics and International Relations Student at Bristol University
In May this year Facebook, in partnership with the likes of Vodafone, Orange, MTN, and China Mobile, has announced their intention to build an internet cable surrounding the African continent, bringing internet (and Facebook) to millions of people. In doing so, Facebook grows its international infrastructure and expands the number of possible users of the social media platform (Facebook, 2020a). Some have highlighted the importance of connectivity for the development of the continent. We can see these economic and social benefits in Kenya, which, along with a broader view of East Africa, will be the focus of this article (RTI, 2020). However, the project has raised some concerns. The proliferation of online hate speech could give ammunition to existing ethnic and religious tensions. Furthermore, the manner in which Facebook and its partners engage with African leaders could be problematic in light of growing numbers of government internet access shutdowns (Access Now, 2019) (BBC News, 2020).
Source: (Facebook, 2020a)
In the past 15 years Facebook has seen increasing growth in usage. However, despite over 2.3 billion active users, it appears that a plateau is on the horizon in the US and Canada, with similar trends evident in Europe (Wagner and Molla, 2018). Thus, the company has begun to look to Africa, where an untapped population of 1.3 billion represents new opportunities for expansion. Facebook has already launched the Free Basics program, offering free data to access Facebook's platform in 30 African countries. Facebook's 37,000km subsea cable has been dubbed the '2Africa' project and will connect Africa, Europe and the Middle East. It will triple the current capacity provided by subsea cables on the continent and will connect to 16 African countries including Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia in the East of the continent (Facebook, 2020a). Facebook describes the project as being vital in the economic development and recovery of the continent post COVID-19 and looks forward to the growth of a 'healthy internet ecosystem' (ibid).
'Is Connectivity a Human Right?'
In a blog, Mark Zuckerberg asserts that "connectivity is a human right", affirming Facebook's commitment to delivering universal connectivity (Zuckerberg, 2014). The United Nations has signalled agreement. In 2016 a non-binding resolution was passed, aiming to protect citizens' internet connectivity against government shutdowns of the internet (The United Nations, 2016). Zuckerburg and others point to the importance of the internet for economic growth in Africa (Facebook, 2020b). An RTI report showed that between 2008-2014 an increase in internet connectivity via subsea cables in Kenya helped to boost employment, including an increase in the proportion of higher 'skilled' jobs (RTI, 2020). The report also found that between 2009-2013 the financial service industry (which relies heavily on connectivity) grew 3,800% thanks in part to increased internet access (RTI, 2020). Kenya has been dubbed the 'Silicon Savanah' because of the way it has embraced technology, and scholars are eager to point to how the internet and social media has been a useful and powerful tool (RTI, 2020) (Green, 2014). For instance, after the violence that took place in 2007, a technology called Ushahidi (meaning 'witness') was developed in Kenya that collected witness testimony and was able to record a picture of what took place. The technology has continued to be used in Kenya and many other countries during violence or natural disasters (ibid).
Many have concerns about hate speech on social media and the extent to which it fuels ethnic and religious tensions on the continent. Tensions between a Christian majority and the Muslim minority in Kenya are focused on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and constitutional questions (Green, 2014). A Pew Research study found that between 2007-2012 Kenya saw the second-highest increase in restrictions on religious freedoms (Ibid). The research inlcuded 'social hostilities' to religious expresions as well as state control. An eruption of sectarian violence after the 2007 Kenyan elections set a precedent. Text messaging services were used to incite violence in this case as radio broadcasts were used in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The internet, fuelled by hate speech and unchecked 'fake news', presents new opportunities to incite violence (van Niekerk and Maharaj, 2013). This problem is not easy to address, and Facebook will struggle to monitor content in societies with pronounced linguistic diversity.
Over the past few years Africa has seen a rise in government shutdowns of the internet (Access Now, 2019). Critics share concern over Facebooks engagement with authoritarianism as it provides increased internet access to the continent. During the Tanzanian elections in October 2020, the government shut down access to several sites, including Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Instagram (NetBlocks, 2020). In Kenya, concerns have been raised about data security in relation to elections and voters' personal information, with regulatory inconsistencies across the continent, making countries much more vulnerable to cyber-attacks (van Niekerk and Maharaj, 2013). Coupled with broader trends of "increasing authoritarian tendencies" among leadership in eastern Africa, this is particularly worrisome (Green, 2014). Eritrea has been dubbed the most press censored country on Earth even worst than states such as Iran (van Niekerk and Maharaj, 2013). In Uganda, Facebook already has a significant presence, and the government has a history of shutting down the internet - most recently during the 2016 elections. Ugandan campaigner Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala feels "the fear is that Facebook becomes the broker between citizens and the government" (Shearlaw, 2016). Facebook will need cooperation from African governments to build the cable in territorial waters, but it is unclear what relationship they will have with leadership more broadly. For example, the extent to which internet access will be under the watch of governments (who could shut down access at their whim) is concerning. Facebook is building substantial political power across the continent and has led some to describe the company as engaging in 'digital colonialism' (LaFrance, 2016).
The clear benefits of internet access have led some to herald it a human right. Facebook has continued its investment in universal internet coverage. Still, critics are concerned that in striving to deliver connectivity and growth, Facebook might neglect the political and personal consequences they will have (Center for Humne Technology, 2020). We have seen how the proliferation of hate speech and Facebook's capacity to deal with the problem (any better than they have in the West) threatens the escalation of ethnic and religious tensions in Kenya and beyond. Facebook's position of power in Eastern Africa and among its leadership worries some critics. As 'digital colonialists' such as Facebook continue their expansion it is essential that governments in Africa and the international community stay vigilant for the effect they are having on the ground, and the consequences it has for the dynamics of power on the continent.
Access Now (2019) The KeepItOn Report on Internet Shutdowns 2019. Available at: https://www.accessnow.org/cms/assets/uploads/2020/02/KeepItOn-2019-report-1.pdf
BBC News (2020) ‘Africa internet: Where and how are governments blocking it?’, 2 November. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-47734843 (Accessed: 15 December 2020).
Center for Humne Technology (2020) Facebook Goes ‘2Africa’ Center for Humane Technology. Available at: https://www.humanetech.com/podcast/24-facebook-goes-2africa (Accessed: 17 December 2020).
Facebook (2020a) ‘Building 2Africa, a transformative subsea cable to better connect Africa’, Facebook Engineering, 14 May. Available at: https://engineering.fb.com/2020/05/13/connectivity/2africa/ (Accessed: 5 December 2020).
Facebook (2020b) ‘The impact of subsea cables’, Facebook Engineering, 19 November. Available at: https://engineering.fb.com/2020/11/19/connectivity/subsea-cables/ (Accessed: 15 December 2020).
Green, M. (2014) ‘From social hostility to social media: Religious pluralism, human rights and democratic reform in Africa’, African Human Rights Law Journal, 14, pp. 93–125.
LaFrance, A. (2016) Facebook and the New Colonialism, The Atlantic. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/facebook-and-the-new-colonialism/462393/ (Accessed: 17 December 2020).
NetBlocks (2020) ‘Internet disrupted in Tanzania on eve of general elections’, NetBlocks, 27 October. Available at: https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-tanzania-on-eve-of-presidential-elections-oy9abny3 (Accessed: 15 December 2020).
van Niekerk, B. and Maharaj, M. (2013) ‘Information-Based Conflict in Africa’, Scientia Militaria, 41, pp. 24–41. doi: 10.5787/41-2-1066.
RTI (2020) Analysis of the Economic Impact of Subsea Internet Cables in Sub-Saharan Africa, RTI International. Available at: https://www.rti.org/impact/analysis-economic-impact-subsea-internet-cables-sub-saharan-africa (Accessed: 15 December 2020).
Shearlaw, M. (2016) ‘Facebook lures Africa with free internet - but what is the hidden cost?’, The Guardian, 1 August. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/01/facebook-free-basics-internet-africa-mark-zuckerberg (Accessed: 6 December 2020).
The United Nations (2016) The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Available at: https://www.article19.org/data/files/Internet_Statement_Adopted.pdf (Accessed: 15 December 2020).
Wagner, K. and Molla (2018) Facebook’s user growth has hit a wall, Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2018/7/25/17614426/facebook-fb-earnings-q2-2018-user-growth-troubles (Accessed: 15 December 2020).
Zuckerberg, M. (2014) Is Connectivity a Human Right?, Facebook. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/isconnectivityahumanright (Accessed: 6 December 2020).