We recently looked at whether there is a fake news problem on social media, on WhatsApp especially and the evidence suggests the affirmative. That fake news problem was also noticed by the Zimbabwean government which responded by working on a Computer Crimes and Cyber Crimes Bill as well as creating a Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation.
The sudden interest in social media abuse by the government is not too difficult to understand. There recently was a panic buying spree ignited by a few messages on WhatsApp. The president says the messages were spread by enemies of the government seeking to destabilise the country.
It is election season and the government is uneasy at the power social media has. The above-mentioned Bill responds by proposing to penalize the abusive usage of social media with five-year jail terms to be imposed on offenders.
Who are the offenders? Any person staying either in Zimbabwe or overseas can be found guilty of intentionally generating, possessing and distributing an electronic communication with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, threaten, bully or cause emotional distress to another person. Generating, Possessing or Distributing.
What can they do about WhatsApp?
Let us look at WhatsApp and try to figure out just how they will figure out who is generating, possesses or distributing messages they deem abusive. WhatsApp messages are encrypted end to end and WhatsApp themselves claim they cannot view the content of messages sent through the platform.
So unless the government suggests spot checks and forcing people to give them access to their WhatsApps they won’t be able to tell who is distributing, possessing or generating what. Of course people could just generate, distribute and delete. WhatsApp is closed and with groups limited to 256 it is hard to see where and when fake news or messages critical of the government are going viral.
This problem is a global one. Governments the world over are trying to figure out how to deal with hoaxes on WhatsApp. The current solution in countries like Brazil is one where they enlist the help of users. They need users to reach out when they receive messages asking whatever centre would have been set up to deal with those queries if the messages are accurate.
This obviously won’t work when people don’t trust the government. If a message is critical of the government people will believe it. Who is going to trust their official position on anything? They have propagandised too much. Besides you might be asked questions like, who sent the message to you?’ You would be forced to snitch on your uncle.
Blocking or Banning WhatsApp
So if the government cannot snoop around our chats what can they do to regulate content on WhatsApp. President Mugabe alluded to it when he said the government is looking to those countries that have dealt effectively with the threat of social media abuse for inspiration. He mentioned China as one of those countries.
China does not mess around. Their solution was a simple one. Block/Ban WhatsApp. The Zimbabwean government is certainly considering this. How would they achieve that though?
China has a great firewall. Zimbabwe does not have an internet exchange, ZINX has been delayed countless times. The Chinese government updated its firewall to block the NoiseSocket protocol that WhatsApp uses to send texts. They had already blocked the protocol used to send videos and photos. As mentioned Zimbabwe does not have a central exchange where all internet traffic into the country passes through. This method won’t work.
If the government is serious about banning the social media platform they would have to compel internet service providers to block WhatsApp traffic. I do not know what the constitution has to say about that but that’s one way they could do it. If that was done, poof, WhatsApp is gone.
Do I, in my humble opinion think the government is going to ban WhatsApp in Zimbabwe? No. I could be dead wrong though. So if they do not ban it, what will regulation of the platform look like?
It will include a lot of fear tactics. Telling people that if they so much as entertain any undesirable messages they will be caught and sentenced to the mentioned five years. Of course it would be a bluff, they have no way of knowing what we text each other in our bedrooms at night.
Do I see confiscation of phones of influential people and maOfficer going through their WhatsApp chats? Yes. This too might not work because like mentioned above; generate, distribute and delete is a nifty solution.
If it is cyber bullying the government is most worried about they will be successful but if this whole Cyber Security push is to suppress freedom of expression, it will fail.