Discussions on the new social media tax in Uganda featured prominently at the recently-concluded Social Media Conference by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS).
The annual conference, now in its fourth year, was held at Makinnon Suites Kampala on Thursday, 28 June 2018 under the theme, “Democracy and Civic Engagement in the Age of Digital (Dis) Information”.
However, deliberations from the main panel and break-away sessions were rife with questions about what the new social media tax is and what it means for the future of internet use in the country.
Ms. Ruth Aine, a blogger and journalist, said Ugandans should have been consulted about the social media tax.
“There are so many laws that don’t favour the citizens and this is one of them. It just doesn’t make sense. This is about shrinking the conversation.”
Last month, Parliament okayed the levying of the social media tax that will see users charged Shs200 daily effective 1 July 2018, according to a Daily Monitor report.
During the lead panel discussion on Social Media and (Dis) Information, Mr. Phidel Odong wondered whether his new mobile phone application called Tuwaye will also be affected by the new tax.
Other participants wondered whether they can bypass the tax by using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) like they did when government shut down social media during the 2016 general elections. While the panel noted that a government representative should have been present to answer the concerns, Ms Aine added that even VPNs can be blocked like she experienced in 2016.
Mr Bernard Tabaire, the Director of Programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence, said if Ugandans want the social media tax scrapped, they should work towards having it thrown out or push for the rate to be reduced.
Responding to a concern by the session moderator Ivan Okuda that the lack of organising by social media users will be a disincentive to collective advocacy for the removal of the social media tax, Mr Tabaire said: “There are many roadblocks to organising here, but we should keep trying.”
Various panelists and participants also deliberated on the increasing cases of disinformation online that among others, takes the form of fake news.
Mr Mark Kaigwa, the Chief Executive Officer of Nendo Ventures, said followers of trusted mainstream news sources are now the main victims of fake news.
“Very few people buy the physical version of newspapers, they read online versions. So fake news publishers simply make carbon copies of the real paper and then change the headline and stories or mimic their websites. And unfortunately, many readers fall for it.”
Mr Kaigwa said the same is done for memos and letters, especially purportedly from government ministries or prominent people, screen shots of WhatsApp and Facebook chats, and doctored research.
Recently, a letter, purportedly from Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) was circulated online with the message that NBS TV would be taken off air by the commission for breach broadcasting standards, something that turned out to be false.
Mr Kaigwa said apart from looking out for tell-tale signs such as typos and wrong logos, consumers of online content should always verify website Uniform Resource Locators (URLs).
“Before sharing online news even from trusted sources, stop, reflect and verify.”
Mr Vincent Ng’ethe, the deputy Kenya Editor of Africa Check, said disinformation, sometimes by those in positions of authority, has dire consequences.
He said Nigeria is one of three countries in the world with endemic cases of polio because a campaign there was jeopardised by disinformation that the vaccine would lead to sterility.
The panelists emphasized the need for verification of online content, digital literacy and deliberate mitigation of hate speech and fake news.
“Social media is a weapon of mass disinformation in the modern age. I urge us to be on the right side,” Ms Aine said.
Unlike previous conferences that had a key note speaker, this year’s event had one lead panel, fewer parallel workshop sessions and a closing debate on whether disinformation is threatening democracy.
The parallel sessions included workshops on understanding and countering online hate speech, online mobile content creation for civic engagement, defending common sense online and translating online activism into constructive political engagement.
Mr Mathias Kamp, the KAS country director, said the change in conference format was to allow for more interaction on the way social media affects the way people access, process and filter information.
The conference that was co-organised by the Media Challenge Initiative was attended by more than 200 members of the academia, civil society, bloggers, journalists, politicians and policy makers.