Internet shutdowns and elections in authoritarian regimes
How does internet access and its disruption influence electoral conduct under authoritarian governments? In her study on electoral violence and internet disruptions, using the 2016 presidential election in Uganda as an example, WZB researcher Lisa Garbe from the unit Institutions and Political Inequality examines this connection and shows how internet use poses a challenge to authoritarian elections as internet access can help opposition supporters counter electoral violence. However, a sudden disruption of internet access can backfire and expose opposition supporters to greater risk of electoral violence.
Internet disruptions are increasingly used as a strategic tool to perpetrate human rights violations. Using a cross-sectional research design to examine the occurrence of electoral violence in different constituencies during the 2016 Uganda elections, the study highlights the potential of internet access to combat electoral violence: The use of ICT (information and communication technology) helps opposition supporters overcome traditional challenges in mobilizing support. Disruption of ICT access, on the other hand, can have profound consequences for the conduct of elections and result in increased violence.
To gather information, the study used a combination of survey and election monitoring data and explored the extent to which local internet access and the proportion of opposition supporters influenced the likelihood of electoral violence in a sample of 195 polling stations in 70 constituencies. In addition, interviews were conducted with 25 opposition and government politicians, activists and journalists in three constituencies, and knowledge of major news agencies in Uganda was used two weeks before and after the elections. Statistical analysis suggests that electoral violence is more prevalent in those areas where opposition supporters had benefited from better internet access before the elections. Findings from qualitative interviews underline that disruption of access to social media seemed to prevent people from mobilizing as well as hindering strategic monitoring of electoral malpractice.
The results stress the important role that internet access can play for opposition actors in authoritarian elections. At the same time, they highlight its susceptibility to manipulation by government authorities.