Tanzania: Peace and Quiet Time Away From the Internet Seemed So Seductive

It has been one month and a bit since Tanzania held her general election. The internet is back, but it took a hit. The main social media sites that experienced great traffic as people used them for public conversation were most affected.

For a while even using them was impossible — only text could come up where the strength of social media is to show videos, images and audio. Sometimes access would drop off for hours, a day.

If it were likened to a natural environment, Tanzania online up until recently was fresh territory teeming with diversity, quite healthy, with its fair share of dangers and competition. It felt new but complete. Are we still a lush and bounteous garden or have we been clipped back too far to recover anytime soon? I make this analogy because learning about North Korea puts me in mind of a rather grim landscape, something left over after a lot of its vitality is throttled. Is this something that can happen to any country that goes down the road of increasing state controls on information?

I have been trying to learn about North Korea through, ironically, the internet, which is why I bring it up. I am trying to challenge a few of my assumptions. I am curious how a country can remain so aloof from the world, so definite and unique in its political culture, and how so many millions can remain united in their common narratives, even if these narratives often had little in common with what the rest of the world considers to be true.

One pillar of the country’s system seems to be the tight restriction of something that I consider fundamental: freely accessible information, overwhelmingly through the internet.

There are many images of a stable, homogenous, peaceful, productive, well-organized and — dare I say it — purposeful society. It almost seems restful, far away from the noise of the global chatter of the internet and social media. This is what put me in mind of Tanzania: we could have that peace offered to us if we just say yes to less information?

Proponents of controlling social media say that it has to be used responsibly. By this logic, denying access to the free speech and information that the internet revolution has made accessible to so many people globally makes sense if it threatens to be too disruptive. And it is always disruptive.

Take Facebook. It is often offered as default amid very affordable data packages in Tanzania. It provides a great gateway to the world of social media for people of almost all income levels. It brings its experience as close to people as possible, being offered in our language.

Yet what looks like a philanthropic move comes with a warning, because of the way Facebook collects and sells on data gleaned from its users as well as people who have left the social media site.

I did not appreciate how much social media has been used to curate people’s expression online and used even to influence elections quite directly until things started getting unpleasant here. Ugly arguments started breaking out where before we were content not to cross into insults and threats. Prominent critical voices suffered eye-watering online abuse. Without strict oversight and controls, its power to affect societies is quite frightening.

This is what we could be protected from if we would acquiesce to more regulation and direct state intervention in how our internet works in Tanzania. Such as it being switched off, to prevent irresponsible use and rabble-rousing during sensitive times such as general elections. A seductive thought, considering that before October the tone of political dialogue online was becoming severely befouled by threats and ugly accusations, divisive talk and horrible language. Yes, it would be nice to be restricted to responsible users… wouldn’t it?

The key words here are protection, and using a new technology ‘responsibly’: two terms which always strike me as dangerous when used by a state. Down that path lays the threat of authoritarianism.

When it tries to make itself benevolent, it is even worse. History is littered with atrocities committed for the good of society, and paternalism which anchors so many totalitarian states. As an example, who are responsible users and who gets to decide who they are?

It is worth noting that freedom of information and the press is what allowed investigative journalists and other bodies to learn about and point out the dangers of Big Data’s intrusion into the political sphere.

Ceaseless questioning of how the internet is being used by citizens around the world has helped us get a handle on how we behave with it, what social media has done both good and bad. This doesn’t in any way ‘fix’ what is dangerous about social media: the people controlling it and to a lesser extent human nature in the people using it.

It turns out that North Korea is a layered society, not at all like portrayed. So many stories beyond the militarism. Smiles and laughter, a style of dancing unique to them. The peace and quiet away from the worldwide web seemed so seductive. Until I remembered it was the very hard work of various investigative journalists and the distribution model of the internet that allowed me to see this in the first place. That’s not worth curtailing at all.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report

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