Cubans have been facing the country’s worst economic crisis in decades went to the streets over the weekend. In turn, authorities have blocked social media sites in an apparent attempt to stop the flow of information in, out of and within the besieged nation.
Restricting internet access has become a tried and true method stifling dissent from authoritarian regimes around the world, along with government-backed misinformation campaigns and propaganda. On the extreme side, regimes such as China and North Korea exercise strict control over what ordinary citizens can access online. Elsewhere, service blockages are more limited, often cutting off common social platforms around elections and times of mass protests.
There was no formal organizer of the Sunday protests; People found out about the meeting points on social media, mostly on Twitter and Facebook, the most used platforms by Cubans. The thousands of Cubans who took to the streets – protesters and pro-government activists alike – used smartphones to capture images and send them to relatives and friends or post them online.
On Monday, Cuban authorities blocked Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, said Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, a London-based internet monitoring firm. “This seems to be a response to a protest fueled by social media,” he said. Twitter did not appear to be blocked, although Toker noted that Cuba could cut it if it wanted to.
As the recent easing of Cuban authorities’ access to the Internet has increased social media activity, Toker said, the level of censorship has also risen. He said not only does the removal block out external voices, it also extinguishes “the internal voice of the population that wanted to speak out.”
Internet access in Cuba has been expensive and relatively rare until recently. The country was “essentially offline” until 2008, then gradually entered a digital revolution, said Ted Henken, a Latin American expert at Baruch College, New York City University. The biggest change, he noted, came in December 2018 when Cubans gained access to mobile phone internet for the first time through data plans purchased by the state telecommunications monopoly. Today, more than half of all Cubans have Internet access, Henken said.
Many Cubans now have real-time access to the Internet and the ability to share information with each other, he added. Since early 2019, this approach has facilitated regular, albeit minor, events and protests on the island. In response, the government has periodically shut down access to social media, largely to hide its repressive tactics from both citizens and foreigners, he said.
The Cuban government also restricts independent media outlets in Cuba and “routinely blocks access within Cuba to many news sites and blogs,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Cuba has been going through its worst economic crisis in decades, along with a resurgence of coronavirus cases as it suffers the consequences of U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. The protests now, the largest in decades, are “absolutely and definitely fueled by increased access to the Internet and smartphones in Cuba,” said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Social media posts from inside and outside Cuba “are not the root causes of the uprising, but they are a factor in linking the despair, hatred that exists on the island,” said Arturo López-Levy, an assistant political science professor at Holy. It is called the University of California.
López-Levy, who has grown a few blocks from Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, said the country’s current leader accepted the economic potential of digital technology far more than his predecessors, but may have predicted that a large segment of Cubans would accept temporary internet shutdown if it helps restore order in the streets.
Elsewhere, government internet outages after or before protests have also become commonplace, whether for a few hours or months. In Ethiopia, there was a three-week shutdown in July 2020 following a civil unrest. La internet blackout in the Tigray region stretched for months. In Belarus, the Internet has been shrinking for more than two days since an August 2020 election seen as rigged sparked mass protests. Mobile phone internet service repeatedly crashed during weekend protests months later.
A decade ago during the Arab Spring, when social networks were still in their early years and Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the Middle East were facing bloody uprisings that were broadcast on social networks, headlines declared the movements “Twitter Revolutions” and experts discussed this . how important a role social media played in the events. Ten years later, there is no question that social media and private chat platforms have become an essential organizational tool. Limiting them, in turn, is a routine move to suppress disagreement. Internet service was disrupted in Cali, Colombia during May anti-government protests.
This year also saw disruptions in Armenia, Uganda, Iran, Chad, Senegal and the Republic of the Congo.
But authoritarian regimes are not the only ones to get into the act. India routinely shuts down the internet during times of unrest. NetBlocks ’toker said the imposition of internet restrictions in Cuba follows an emerging global pattern and not always in the countries you most expect them from, such as the recent Nigerian removal of Twitter. Additionally, he said, the world is much more aware of these events because it is easier to monitor and report them remotely.
On Sunday, the whole of Cuba was disconnected for less than 30 minutes, after which there were several hours of intermittent but major outages, said Doug Madory of Kentik, a network management company. He said that major internet outages were very rare in Cuba until very recently.
“There was a breakdown in January only for mobile service after the ’27N’ protests,” Madory said. a movement of Cuban artists, journalists and other members of civil society who marched to the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020, demanding freedom and democracy.
Henken said he did not believe the government would cease access for an extended period of time, although that is its going tactic for dissidents and activists.
“The problem they have now is that it’s not a handful of activists or artists or freelance journalists – it’s now a massive part of the population across the country,” he said. “So the fairy is out of the bottle. They’re trying to replace it. ”
AP Havana correspondent Andrea Rodriguez and AP technology reporter Matt O’Brien contributed to this article.