Last November, Kenya experienced an unexpected shutdown of Telegram, one of its most popular social media platforms. The outage lasted for eight days and coincided with the national exams for secondary school students. It led people to believe that the shutdown was a measure to prevent cheating in the college entrance examinations, as the app was only offline during the day when the exams were taking place. This concern wasn’t far-fetched as the Kenya National Examinations Council monitoring team had earlier identified over 32 social media platforms that were used to share, sell, and post examination materials. Six Telegram Admins were arrested for examination malpractice.
The shutdown had a huge impact on the economy, costing the country an estimated $27 million. NetBlocks, an internet rights organization, calculated the economic cost of the shutdown using World Bank and ITU indicators, which estimate, in monetary terms, the economic benefits generated in a country from uninterrupted internet and social media use. For each day that Telegram was down, the businesses and the country are estimated to have lost Ksh537 million ($3.4 million) in foregone sales, wages, and economic benefits that are estimated to trickle down from the use of the application in Kenya. Unfortunately, Kenya’s $27 billion loss merely underscores the devastating cost of social media shutdowns in Africa.
The cost of social media shutdowns across Africa
The growing concern about internet shutdowns has taken centre stage in Africa. Since 2020, at least 12 countries have shut down the internet at least 19 times in Africa. In 2020, the Nigerian government suspended the use of Twitter in the country, citing security concerns. The seven-month shutdown of Twitter cost the Nigerian economy $26.1bn (N10.72 trillion). Last year, Senegal experienced a series of Internet blackouts and social media shutdowns following widespread protests. In 2023, Sub-Saharan Africa witnessed a financial setback of $1.74 billion during 30,785 hours of internet downtime, affecting 84.8 million people, Top10VPN revealed in research. The main reasons for the shutdowns were protests, information control, conflict, military coups, and election interference. Ethiopia, for example, blocked social media and messaging services for 158 days amid religious tensions and anti-government protests, losing nearly $43 million.
Social media platforms have been vital for the growth of Africa’s gig economy. This encompasses opportunities for online entrepreneurs, influencers, and content creators. For instance, Kenya is home to TikTok’s highest usage globally. The country has a staggering 54% share of global TikTok usage, while the global average is only 16%. In the same vein, Telegram is a top social media platform in Kenya, with an estimated 15.6 million users. Social media shutdowns not only harm the economy but also the society. Social media has bridged the digital divide, connecting underdeveloped communities to the world. A shutdown not only limits access to information, communication, education, and government services, but it also violates the digital rights and freedom of the people. Ultimately, it weighs down Africa’s progress towards a digitally connected future.
Usually, apps like Telegram use a complex encryption system that makes it difficult to block or monitor by the authorities. This means that the authorities may have to resort to more drastic measures, such as blocking the entire internet or using sophisticated technologies, to target Telegram. Telegram users may have access to alternative ways to bypass the shutdown, such as using VPNs, proxy servers, or other encrypted services. The government can also force internet service providers (ISPs) or mobile operators to restrict or throttle the traffic to Telegram, which slows down or disrupts the app’s performance. However, this method may also affect other services or apps that use the same ISPs or operators.
Last year was the first time a social media outage was reported in Kenya, (the Internet has generally been uninterrupted in the country, even in 2022 when elections were held). There was also a petition last year to shut down TikTok. The petitioner, Bob Ndolo, claimed that TikTok promotes violence, explicit sexual content, hate speech, vulgar language, and offensive behaviour among young people, which are a serious threat to the cultural and religious values of Kenya. The Social Networking market in Africa is projected to grow by 6.21% in 2027. And social media platforms could contribute up to $57 billion to the African economy by 2024, creating 3.5 million jobs. The increasing frequency and duration of social media shutdowns (and petitions) in Africa pose a serious threat to the continent’s economic and social development.