People run away from tear gas as Ugandan pop star and presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, campaigns near Kampala, Uganda, 30 November 2020. (REUTERS/Abubaker Lubowa)
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the bruising Ugandan election campaign has taken to social media, with the ruling party and opposition leaders seeking to mobilise voters and get their messages out.
On Monday, Facebook confirmed that it had deactivated a network of accounts it traced back to Uganda’s information ministry.
In a statement, the social media platform said the accounts “used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular than they were.”
President Yoweri Museveni’s press secretary Don Wanyama claimed Facebook’s move was unfair.
Facebook’s action coincides with fears that the country may block internet access during the week of the 14 January national elections.
During the 2016 vote, Uganda blocked access to social media sites and mobile-money apps, citing national security. It blocked social media access again in the lead up to President Museveni’s inauguration that May, and banned mainstream media houses from providing live coverage to opposition events.
Candidates in Uganda’s 2021 elections have used social media platforms as a primary staging ground. As part of its measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, the country’s electoral commission outlined a plan for a ‘scientific election’ in June 2020. It required candidates to use mainstream and social media in lieu of in-person rallies.
Opposition leaders disagreed, saying that it would give President Yoweri Museveni, whose administration maintains a firm grip on the media, an unfair advantage. They rightly predicted that they would be blocked from radio and TV stations, some of which have been taken off air while interviewing opposition candidates.
Facebook’s takedown of interconnected pro-government accounts indicates that Uganda’s ruling party had upped its online game for the 2021 elections. This is most likely due to opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu’s (aka Bobi Wine) popularity online, and his campaigns widespread use of social media platforms.
In December, the country’s communications commission asked Google to take down 14 YouTube channels affiliated to or showing support for Bobi Wine’s campaign. The regulatory body said the channels were airing “extremist or anarchic messages, including messages likely to incite violence against sections of the public on account of their tribes and political opinions.”
While the Silicon Valley giant declined to take down the channels, Wine claimed that the Facebook pages of several online channels dedicated to his campaign were hacked and deleted at least three times between August and December 2020.
Opposition leaders see smartphones, and technology in general, as a critical tool in the push against electoral malpractice both before and on polling day. Seven opposition groups announced in January that they would set up a joint election oversight platform and “use joint technology and resources.”
The 5 January joint statement said: “All agents, task teams and voters shall be encouraged to use their mobile phones and other related technology during polling and tallying processes to facilitate information gathering.”
In his New Year’s address, delivered online on 2 January, Wine asked his supporters to use their smartphones to record cases of poll violence. “They fear the camera. Use your camera as much as possible, go live whenever you can, expose, expose, expose,” the opposition candidate said. His campaign also released UVote, an anti-rigging app where users can share images of result tallies.
Opposition parties have also been using social media to name specific police officers engaged in almost-daily altercations with opposition presidential candidates on the campaign trail.
There’s no way to predict just how effectively the virtual part of the campaigns will shape Uganda’s polls on Thursday.
Although the country has a 50% internet penetration rate, according to the latest statistics from the country’s communications regulator, there are only 7 million monthly smartphone users in the country of 42.7 million.
This article was published by The Africa Report.