Zimbabwe’s high court ruled earlier this week that the government’s anti-riot internet shutdown was illegal because only the President – and not the Minister of State for Security – has the authority to order it, but in any case the authorities’ move highlights a common tactic that’s been employed in recent years in order to quell local unrest. Zimbabweans were rioting because of a sudden surge in fuel prices that naturally caused the price of everything else to increase as well, and seeing as how the country is already largely impoverished as it is and previously overcome one of the world’s worst hyper-inflation crises a decade ago, it’s understandable why people would be very upset about this.
The protests eventually spiraled out of control when both the demonstrators and the security forces resorted to violence, though the situation seems to have finally calmed down as of this week. Nevertheless, the state ordered the internet to be shut down as a precautionary measure aimed at preventing provocateurs from organizing on social media and escalating the situation any more than it already had been after the security forces killed at least a dozen people. Critics allege that the government wanted to cover up its reported crimes against the people, while supporters claim that such moves were necessary in order to avert the anarchy that could follow if the unrest were to spread.
Both sides have valid points. On the one hand, fellow compatriots and the international audience alike should be made aware of any state abuses that occur during crowd control operations, though on the other, circulating images and/or footage of this – which might be doctored and/or decontextualized for infowar purposes aimed at provoking a Color Revolution – could inadvertently have the effect of worsening the situation if it encourages more people to come out to the streets, which could put their lives in danger if the state really is on a violent rampage. The ideal balance would be if people obtained proof of state abuses but then responsibly disseminated this evidence after the crisis climaxed.
Of course, developments don’t often unfold in such a reasonable way in real life, especially considering that it’s impossible to enforce this behavior on any of the many participants and that the best that can be done is making them aware of general guidelines for how to act. So long as there’s social media, many states will continue to shut down the internet during times of unrest, not necessarily to cover up their alleged crimes (seeing as how evidence of them would leak out anyhow after a certain amount of time) but to prevent provocateurs from worsening the situation. For as controversial of a tactic as this may be, it should nevertheless be accepted as becoming increasingly commonplace in the future.
By Andrew Korybko
Source: Oriental Review