Major election nights are often a multiscreen event: TV on, computer deployed for searches, smartphone alive with messaging and alerts.
Imagine if those screens went dark – and stayed that way.
That happened last week in the Democratic Republic of Congo, just after its long-promised election after 18 years under President Joseph Kabila. A Kabila adviser cited public order in explaining why the internet would remain down until Jan. 6, when results would be announced. It remains down, with results still pending.
Such blunt censorship is growing. Access Now, which tracks digital access globally, says last year saw 188 internet shutdowns, the majority in Asia and Africa. That compares with 108 in 2017 and 75 in 2016.
Freedom House recently reported that reductions in internet freedom frequently crop up in relation to elections. It urges vigilance regarding China, which increasingly provides telecommunications infrastructure abroad and trains foreign officials in censorship and surveillance.
Freedom House notes the threat rising “digital authoritarianism” poses – and the antidote greater freedom provides. While many people have been soured by abuse of their privacy online, the internet’s reach has also spurred positive political change – just see Armenia’s remarkable Velvet Revolution. The stakes are high; when it comes to bolstering that reach, Freedom House argues, “The health of the world’s democracies depends on it.”
Now to stories that show, in three countries, an array of political dynamics: trust, coercion, and the choice to participate despite opposition.