U.S-based social media giant, Facebook Inc. confirmed to media of shutting down government-linked accounts accusing them of manipulating public debate ahead of 2021 general elections for a new president and parliamentarians.
“We found this network to be linked to the Government Citizens Interaction Center (GCIC) at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology in Uganda,” Facebook said in a press statement. Adding that, the network was using 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.
Museveni’s online account is still active. However, many government officials and members of the ruling party; the National Resistance Movement (NRM) had their pages taken down, including a well-known blogger and Museveni supporter, a prominent doctor and a senior official in the information ministry.
Duncan Abigaba, the deputy head of GCIC, said the accounts were targeted because of their support for President Museveni and NRM. He said the action by Facebook is unfair since members of the opposition National Unity Platform (NUP), a social-liberal and progressive political party led by Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu alias Bobi Wine have been using social media to promote Kyagulanyi’s presidential candidacy.
“So, NRM had to try and sell our candidate as well in the social media space. By selling the candidate, it means you have to employ different tactics including you put out content. And this content you must share it in different groups for it to have as much reach as possible,” said Abigaba.
Ugandans online have said that the government has finally got a taste of what it feels like to be censured.
Ofwono Opondo who is Uganda’s government spokesman says Facebook has acted in a high-handed manner and thinks it’s playing the usual games adding that perhaps they might have a side in the forthcoming elections. He hit back in a BBC Facebook Live interview, accusing the social media giant of failing to adhere to “natural justice” and echoing suggestions by other government figures that the social network is trying to influence the election outcome.
“We are not familiar with anybody who complained about these accounts. The owners of these accounts are verified,” says Opondo. Adding that it was unilaterally done and thinks anyone can ask Facebook to give them more details of what the complaints were because they are not privy to them.
Minister of ICT and National Guidance, Hon. Judith Nabakooba told Reuters on Monday that she needed more time to study the situation before commenting.
The account shutdown comes amid heightened tensions between the two main candidates; Museveni and Kyagulanyi who are running against nine others.
Kyagulanyi has fired up the imagination of many across the global as he tries to unseat Museveni who believes that he (Kyagulanyi) is being backed up by foreign organizations and elements to remove his government.
Meanwhile, the government is already disabling some social media platforms as well as access to download apps from Google Playstore and App store. Currently, unless one is using a virtual private network, videos on Facebook cannot be played. Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has also ordered app stores to block over 100 virtual private networks used to bypass the blockage.
It is not the first time the government is blocking social media platforms and VPNs ahead of elections and some other instance. During the 2016 elections, the government blocked social media on polling day and for several after, which led to the proliferation of VPNs use in the country. By the end of day two of the elections, VPN software related downloads had soared to over 1.4 million.