Navigating Algorithms: The Case for Structurally Silenced Communities- Research Report 2024.

Executive Summary.

At a time when social media has become the backbone of a large part of the digital society, it is important to understand the glue that holds it together. While the different social media platforms offer a range of spaces for networking, research, knowledge generation, kinship, and entertainment, each also offers a distinct value that meet the needs of a diversity of users.

However, many users report a shift in social media from a fun and carefree space to one that is “polluted” and “restrictive” alongside concerns on increasing censorship, harassment, stalking, and discrimination. Often, the violators hide behind keyboards, vague policies and in some cases, vague policies that shield perpetrators more than protect victims.

While social media has become an open house for many, it remains exclusive for some. In Uganda, the cost of data continues to serve an exclusionary function for a population that is yet to meet the affordability target1 – where 5GB of mobile broadband data is priced at 2 percent or less of average monthly income as envisioned by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and endorsed by the United Nations Broadband Commission.

Meanwhile, the weaponisation of social media by the state including through shutdowns2 (Ugandan users currently do not have access to Facebook following its shutdown in February 2021) and through the use of restrictive policies still hinder the full utilisation of online spaces. However, the scrapping of Section 25 of the Computer Misuse Act which defined offensive communication as the “willful and repeated use of electronic communication to disturb or attempt to disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person with no purpose of legitimate communication” offered some relief to users in the country to regain some level of trust in the use of platforms.

However, this trust is not enjoyed by all in the country. For the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ+) community, concerns remain rife due to continued and rising levels of homo-phobic rhetoric and bias online. This most especially in the wake of the resurfaced Anti-Homosexuality Amendment Act (2023).

Public discourse online is characterised by misinformation and disinformation, virality tactics and click baiting which have detrimental consequences that only further subjugate the LGBTQ+ community. Meanwhile, concerns that social media algorithms play into reinforcing this narrative is also high. Algorithms fueled by user behaviors and interactions with content serve to create even deeper channels for narratives to sink into popular culture online and offline.

As HER Internet, it is in recognising these concerns that we seek the investigation into these interactions– of platforms, laws, and users – a necessity, especially as platforms reduce the levels of access to data and as civic spaces online and offline shrink for marginalised communities.

The goal of this report is to offer insight into what is informing LGBTQ+ organising and community building in Uganda and the extent to which algorithms influence these actions. The report gives a background into the general social media landscape in the country, and reviews global trends in algorithmic studies. This report will serve as an entry point for further studies into this arena at a time when social media companies are tightening their grip on data which would otherwise help address the concerns held by marginalized communities. Concurrently, growing concerns on content moderation practices, the increased pace at which online communications travels, and the absence of adequate safeguards – both online and offline – all further reinforce the need to build an evidence base upon which progressive policy interventions can be established and pursued by platforms and policy makers.

We appreciate the support of the Mozilla Africa Innovation Mradi: In Real Life (IRL) Fund through which we have been able to tackle these questions across Uganda. In doing so, we have developed a set of recommendations that we hope will influence change and an appreciation of the role that live human experiences play in informing how platforms can work better – especially for marginalized and vulnerable communities often relegated to the sidelines both offline and online.

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