Five ways to bypass social media bans

Ghana, regarded as one of Africa’s stellar examples for best democratic practice, shocked civil society groups when the country’s police chief announced the government intends to shut down social media on voting day in November.

The blackout will take place from 5 am to 7 pm “to ensure social media are not used to send misleading information that could destabilise the country”.

Deji Olukotun of Internet freedom advocacy group Access Now, notes Ghana may be following the example of Ethiopia, Congo, Chad, Uganda whose citizens have experienced social media blackouts during elections.

On May 12 2016, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was inaugurated as Uganda’s president for his fifth term since taking power in January of 1986.

The election candidates included incumbent Museveni and Kizza Besigye, who complained of rigging and violence at polling stations. The elections were marred by claims of rampant fraud, voting irregularities, the repeated arrest of opposition politicians, and a climate of voter intimidation. The New York Times reported that at least two people had been killed and 20 injured in riots during the week of the election.

Much of the debate and allegations concerning the Ugandan government’s conduct before, during and after the February election surfaced on social media platforms, mainly Facebook and Twitter. During the election, authorities blocked all access to social media, messaging platform Whatsapp and mobile money transfer services for three days, citing security concerns. 

African governments, much like their global counterparts, are beginning to see the power, appeal and reach of social media. Blocking and restricting social media, messaging and mobile phone communications around the elections to some degree  was reported in Chad, Burundi and the Republic of Congo. Election monitors and civil society organisations are increasingly concerned by these censorship attempts by governments to control the flow of information. From the early 2000s journalists, opposition parties and civil society organisations in various countries have used technology to curb poll rigging, report violence and intimidation, and share election results.

African governments are hardly the first to come down heavily on social unrest or anti-government sentiment by going after social networks. North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Vietnam, China and Eritrea are currently blocking Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter in some capacity, and many more have instituted temporary blocks in recent years for a variety of reasons including threats to national security or the possibility of civil unrest. China’s notorious “The Great Firewall” has restricted access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube since 2009, when protests from China’s Muslim minority turned into riots.

According to the Institute for Security Studies only a handful of African countries have legislation protecting the right to access to information, so citizens do not generally have recourse to the law to prohibit governments from controlling the communications networks.  

To remedy this here are some ways you can get around social media blockades. 

Use proxy servers. 
A proxy server acts as stand-in (proxy) computer that routes the request from you, the client, to the blocked server. The server sees the proxy as you and effectively this makes you invisible as the server does not know you sent the request. There are free and paid proxy services online. One can also use proxy-enabled servers like Google Chrome, ZenMate and TunnelBear.

Use a VPN 
A VPN (virtual private network) provides encrypted links directly to private networks in other countries allowing your computer to behave as though it logged in from a different country. Try Hotspot Shield.

Use UltraSurf/UltraReach
Developed by Chinese dissidents, this executable file allows access to blocked websites. 

Bypass using a translation service
Online translation services like BabelFish and Google Translate allow users to translate a website from one language to another and display the translated results on their own page. To bypass a blockade enter the URL of website you’d like to access, translate it even if you don’t need to and let the translation service fetch the content for you.

Use the Wayback Machine
The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of the World Wide Web and other information on the Internet created by the Internet Archive, a non-profit organisation, based in the United States. The Internet Archive launched the Wayback Machine in October 2001. Wayback Machine is a internet service that occasionally keeps a copy of almost all websites on the internet all the way back from the date they werelaunched. The latest copy of what Wayback Machine has should be somewhat similar to the real site.

Later this year South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Tunisia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Cape Verde, Guinea and the Seychelles  head to the polls. As new communication platforms and technology becomes accessible it’ll be harder to keep citizens unaware or uninformed. 

To check where social networks are banned and why use The World Social Networking Ban Race.

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Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

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