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In Uganda, almost a year after this first-of-its-kind social media tax was implemented, we are beginning to finally see what the actual consequences of such a policy are.It turns out that the negative effects on news media are less direct and arguably more pernicious than you might expect.• Traffic to new sites has been only minimally impacted, indicating that sites were not reliant on social media to begin with and/or that many individuals have turned to VPNs to avoid the tax.Does restricting access to social media by taxing individuals actually improve the quality of news and information circulating in a society?This new excise duty went into effect on July 1, 2018, and now users of these platforms and other over-the-top (OTT) media services must pay 200 Ugandan shillings (approximately 5 US cents) per day to access these sites.In addition to potentially raising revenue for government outlays, longtime Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni claimed that this tax on individuals would also help the country cope with However, freedom of expression advocates immediately condemned the new tax as part of a broader government effort to quell political dissent by stifling people’s ability to express themselves and access news and information.This has not been as enthusiastically received by the state, which in February 2011 interrupted the flow of communications by blocking SMS messages that included a range of preselected words including “Egypt,” “people power,” and “dictator” ahead of the elections.
Even though this election was the first in which both the incumbent, Museveni, and opposition leaders aggressively used social media to appeal to younger voters as part of their electioneering campaigns, the state ordered two social media shutdowns in the space of three months to reportedly maintain public order and protect national security.
While much of the outcry against the social media tax has focused on how it might curtail political speech online, far less attention has been paid to the potential impact on the circulation and production of independent news.
Given that worldwide citizens are increasingly accessing news content via social media, this policy also has seemingly direct consequences for what types of news stories citizens are able to access.
Moreover, as journalists have started to rely on social networks for reporting, sourcing stories, and engaging with audiences, the implications are broader than just distributing news content.
The tax also impacts the ability of journalists to report on topics of public interest and reach sources who use media to communicate.
The Ugandan case is just the latest example of how governments are trying to assert more influence over social media platforms and the circulation of news.