Analysing information vacuums as power tactics in conflict and war.
As part of a Swansea University assignment, I spent a considerate amount of time observing the power tactic and increasing trend of internet shutdowns on the African continent. On my external blog Shutdown! – Shut up? – Shot down?! I provide background information, theoretical approaches to the topic, in-depth analyses, insights into case studies, interviews with people who have lived through internet blackouts, and further reading recommendations.
Read below the final conclusions of my blog (original article here):
Summary: When, why, how, what and where to?
This blog proposed a closer look at the phenomenon of internet shutdowns, mainly on the African continent where the creation of (digital) information vacuums during (probable) conflict and war situations became particularly popular.
In this final post, an overview of what has been examined in previous posts will be given in order to answer the most pressing questions.
When and why do governments shut down the internet?
Until today, almost half of all African states (26 out of 54) have experienced network disruptions. Most of the governments that imposed blackouts stated security concerns as reason.
The most common situation for shutdowns is election periods. As seen in the beginning of this year in the DR Congo, access to the internet was cut apparently to halt the spread of rumours while the counting of the votes was undergoing. Stopping the circulation of fake news and misinformation in order to prevent chaos and violence is the main official reason for blackout.
Moreover, the shutdown in Ethiopia over a coup attempt shows that governments use this tactic also in concrete political conflict situations. Further reasons to cut the internet are the desire to cover up human rights violations carried out by the government as for example seen in Sudan or Zimbabwe.
The shutdown in Nigeria in 2013 had a slightly different motivation. The authorities decided to cut connectivity in order to fight Boko Haram terrorists in the North of the country by disrupting their communication and attack strategies which rely on network connection.
As shown in a CIPESA study (2018), the African countries that have experienced shutdowns share one characteristic: authoritarianism. 77 percent of the African countries that were shut down digitally are categorised as authoritarian. This characteristic mainly shows in the longevity of power. Of course, there are African states classified authoritarian that have not (yet) experienced shutdowns; however it is established that the more authoritarian a state is and the longer its president is in power, the more likely is a shutdown.
How is a blackout carried out?
Most of the times, shutdowns are carried out without any prior warning. Sometimes, governments threaten to cut connectivity as for example Kenya did before the 2017 elections. However, when they take the decision to shut the country down, this happens as a surprise.
As for Jonas recounted, the blackout in the DR Congo just after the polls was completely unexpected. Also, with the exception of some few official statements only stating that there has been a shutdown for security reasons, no official statements or explanations are given in most cases.
Sometimes though, internet providers issue statements afterwards excusing for the disruption of their network. Other than that, these telecommunication operators however can do basically nothing against blackouts. Indeed, governments cannot cut the internet themselves, but telecoms in the countries in question are obliged to follow their orders. In countries like Ethiopia, there exists only one government-owned provider and in other countries like the DR Congo, the law allows the government to control connectivity.
This puts telecoms into precarious situations as for example seen during the Sudan revolution when the MTN got accused of committing human rights abuse by cutting internet access.
Do shutdowns work?
Mobilization and coordination of mass protest become very difficult, if not impossible, during shutdowns. From a government perspective it can therefore be argued that the tactic of cutting connectivity during (probable) uprisings actually works at least on the short term. On the long term however, studies show that shutdowns lead to more violence rather than preventing violent outbreaks.
Shutdowns as form of counterterror might work in the short term as well, as seen in Nigeria. However, the negative consequences a blackout has are argued to bring more damage than solving the problem.
What implications do shutdowns have on journalists and citizens?
These negative consequences include huge economic loss during and after the shutdown and, on a social and humanitarian level, a blackout brings immense uncertainty, frustration and fear to the population.
Also, not only can citizens not access information anymore, but also journalists are hindered in producing content during a blackout. It becomes particularly difficult to gather and spread (verified) information other than statements issued by government officials who dominate the only remaining information channels (e.g. television).
How can people stay connected?
With shutdowns becoming a trend on the African continent, people started developing their own coping mechanisms. In some cases, VPNs are accessible. Often, international organisations have own solutions and their networks can be used by citizens then, as it was the case in Zimbabwe. In DR Congo’s capital city Kinshasa, which is bordering the Republic Congo, some people were able to access the network of the neighbouring country. Still, such coping mechanisms are quite elitist and hugely depend on the context.
As internet freedom steadily decreases, it is unlikely that shutdowns will disappear as power tactic in (probable) conflict and war situations.
In contrary, blackouts are now also imposed in rather popular cases such as Iran and have long become regular in India and Kashmir. Developments in China and restrictive internet laws as implemented in Germany and now (unintendedly) serving as model for authoritarian systems increase the risk of further shutdowns as extreme form to control all information.
Scholars argue that shutdowns indeed become part of the new, hybrid, form of war. Indeed, it can be argued that they are just a new form of long-known full-spectrum dominance often aimed at in conflict and war.
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