THE recent protests in Zimbabwe have elicited a response from the government that is becoming the tactic of first resort for African governments during politically charged times – prevent mobilisation and organisation by blocking social media.
On the eve of a planned stay-away last week, Zimbabweans were unable to communicate for several hours via WhatsApp. There were indications that government had conspired with service providers to disable the platform.
But ICT Minister, Supa Mandiwanzira, said government had nothing to do with the “jamming” of WhatsApp.
This year alone, there have been at least six instances of blocking internet or social media during elections, or politically contentious times.
Algeria, however, gave exams as the reason it was restricting access in mid-June, to prevent cheating in the main secondary school exam, the baccalaureat.
According to this BBC report, almost half of students were forced to retake the baccalaureat exam after the initial session was marred by online leaking. Many students were able to access questions on Facebook and other social media ahead of the exam in early June.
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable response to protect the integrity of examinations – and by extension, the education system. But the question to ask is first, how long it is possible to keep this up in a world where technology evolves at a dizzying pace.
UGANDA’S VPN COUP
In Uganda when social media and mobile money were blocked during elections, nearly 1.5 million people, or 15% of the internet-using population, downloaded VPN (virtual private network) software to reroute their internet connections and return to social media.
There, discussion over the election continued to rage – indeed, even with the ban, #UgandaDecides was the country’s second most trending topic in 2015.
And in the context of exams, if a country needs to effect a total shutdown of social media in order for tests to retain their integrity, then that’s a signal of systemic national failure if there ever was one – and not just of the education system.