By Loni Prinsloo and Katarina Hoije
A crane stands above a building under construction in the Point E district in Dakar, Senegal, on Saturday, July 29, 2017. Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg
For years, governments around the world have assailed social media for their role in the spread of disinformation, inciting violence and provoking uprisings.
In June, French President Emmanuel Macron blamed Snapchat and TikTok for spreading footage of police fatally shooting a teenager and inflaming protests. US lawmakers have faulted platforms including Twitter and Parler for contributing to the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riots. And earlier this week — in one of the more extreme responses by a government yet — Senegal imposed a temporary ban on TikTok on all wireless phone networks. And it didn’t stop there. It blocked access to the entire Internet on mobile devices. For five days, possibly longer.
Senegal’s chief communications minister, Moussa Bocar Thiam, said at the time that the shutdown was intended to prevent the spread of “hateful and subversive messages” by individuals who “threaten to destabilize the country.’’ At least 40 people have been killed in protests across the country since a government opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, was arrested and convicted of morally corrupting a youth.
The government’s move to shut off Internet in response to the protests has taken a heavy toll. Homes have lost power. People have lost access to the mobile systems they depend on to pay for basic needs such as food and water. Those who relied on social media to avoid protests on their streets are now finding themselves in the middle of them.
“Access to information in times of crisis, conflict, and political turmoil is often a matter of life and death,” said Bridget Andere, a senior policy advisor at Access Now, a non-profit organization advocating for people’s digital rights. “Aside from the fact that shutdowns are a violation of fundamental rights, they disrupt people’s livelihoods and sources of income, negatively impact national economies, and enable those in power to commit human rights abuses against people with impunity.”
In many African nations, smartphones are the only access to the Internet that some people have. And social media apps — TikTok in particular as it’s overtaking Twitter and Facebook in popularity — have become a lifeline for news and information. Senegal is no exception. There, people rely on Internet access on their phones to pay for essential services and, especially now, to stay informed of unrest that’s intensifying ahead of a Feb. 25 presidential election in which President Macky Sall is due to step down after two terms.
Sonko, widely seen as the main challenger to whomever Sall’s ruling coalition picks as its candidate, may be disqualified from the race following his June 1 sentencing. The opposition leader, who has attracted a large following among young voters in a country where 60% of people are below the age of 25, was accused and acquitted of raping and threatening a massage-parlor employee but found guilty of "corruption of youth.”
Ibrahim Diop, a 27-year-old radio show host who lives in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, said he’s lost electricity in his home because, without Internet on his phone, he couldn’t top off his account with a local utility. He had also been using his mobile TikTok app to navigate around protests — an attempt that’s proven futile without social media.
In Diop’s view, Senegalese authorities are more concerned about the world seeing people rise up against the government than they are about keeping people safe. “A woman was filming from her balcony, and when the police noticed her, they fired teargas at her,’’ he said. ``It’s clear they don’t like when people film.’’
As hard as it’s tried to establish itself as a source of entertainment — a place for fun, lighthearted videos, TikTok has become an influential and often-times controversial platform caught in the crosshairs of social and political movements. At the center of Senegal’s shutdown efforts are videos circulating on TikTok of protests erupting over high unemployment, a clampdown on civil rights and the arrests of opposition leaders. One video appears to show military police shielding themselves with a child. Others appear to show officers firing on protesters. For its part, the government has suggested the videos may have been taken out of context.
TikTok didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.
Senegal’s move to block Internet access is certainly not without precedent. The Ethiopian government has restricted access to some websites and the internet for years amid unrest in the Tigray region. On the eve of Uganda’s presidential election in 2021, after Facebook took down a number of pro-government accounts, internet was suspended. Iran cut off web access in 2019 after soaring fuel prices sparked deadly demonstrations.
Governments have grown increasingly concerned about social media provoking uprisings after Twitter, now known as X, was widely cited as playing a role in the toppling of leaders from Tunisia to Egypt during the Arab Spring. In the week before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation in 2011, the number of posts on Twitter about political change in Egypt surged from 2,300 a day to 230,000, according to one study by the University of Washington.
Last year, government-enforced internet blackouts led to $261 million in economic losses across sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Senegal, affecting 132.2 million internet users in the region, according to Top10VPN, a London-based review site that tracks industry data. The Senegalese government says the cost of a shutdown is minimal compared with the human toll from violent protests. It has repeatedly deplored both material losses and deaths stemming from the riots and announced plans to create a police unit charged with protecting public property.
On a recent day, Maimouna Sow, a merchandise buyer in Senegal, went to the market to shop for products for her clients. It wasn’t until she tried to reach a customer to ask about a purchase that she realized she couldn’t connect to the messaging application WhatsApp on her phone. “I was standing there in the middle of the market, and I couldn’t reach them,’’ she said. “I tried calling and then texting. It was so frustrating.”
Paying bills, buying groceries and filling up on gas are all things Sow said she’s grown accustomed to doing through mobile apps. Now people in her area are rushing to ATMs to withdraw as much cash as they can, she said, but “that’s bound to become a problem soon.”
An executive at a telecom firm that operates in Senegal, who asked not to be identified because the talks aren’t public, said the government has ordered companies to shut internet service and TikTok from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. local time, indefinitely. The executive said telecom operators have been asking Senegal's communications ministry for clarity on when the order will be lifted.
The owner of a financial technology company in Dakar, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation, said the shutoff has disrupted his business and is sending the message to technology entrepreneurs in the city that they aren’t a priority.
The online payment software firm Wave Mobile Money has also been affected by the shutdown — but has developed ways in which clients can still use the application through other means, Falilou Cisse, a spokesperson for the Africa-focused company with headquarters in Dakar said by phone. That said, Cisse noted: “Our app works best when it’s used with a mobile phone network.”