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The Battle for Civic Space in the Digital Age

Societies must address the distribution of political and economic power that drives efforts to use digital technologies for repressive ends. Otherwise, governments and corporations will continue to diminish digital citizenship to enhance their own powers or advance their private interests.

JOHANNESBURG – As COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions became part of daily life for billions of people around the world, activities such as shopping, education, and staying in touch with loved ones moved almost exclusively online. This accelerating shift toward new digital technologies also has major implications – both positive and negative – for the future of civic activism and political participation.

When the pandemic spread worldwide in March 2020, Facebook reported an unprecedented spike in global usage, the bulk of it consisting of private messaging and video calling. Shortly before that, WhatsApp, the world’s most popular messaging platform (which is owned by Facebook) reached the milestone of two billion users. Around the world, fixed and mobile operators saw internet traffic surge – with countries such as South Africa temporarily allocating additional spectrum to avoid network congestion – while US telecommunication providers like AT&T reported big increases in mobile voice calls.

Despite this increase in usage, the digital divide remains, owing to barriers such as cost, language, and quality of connectivity. South Africa’s population has significant access to internet-enabled devices, but low-income consumers remain mostly disconnected, because price discrimination by mobile network operators means the poor pay more for data than wealthier citizens do.