Last Saturday, in furtherance of my very public intention to write a blog article every week, and out of a particular feeling of cantankerousness, I posted a piece satirising the Kenyan government’s response to the threat of the novel coronavirus. As usual, I then shared a link to the piece with many friends through a WhatsApp broadcast message.
What followed was one of the weirdest experiences I have ever had online. Little more than an hour after I shared the post, a friend sent me a message saying there was a problem with the link. He included a screenshot of a “Page Not Found” error. I asked him to try reloading the page and see if it would resolve the issue. It worked, and I heaved a big sigh of relief.
But then I got several similar messages a short while later. Moreover, it seemed my recommended remedy, reloading the page, no longer helping. I tried to access the article myself just to confirm the issue and, sure enough, it wasn’t there at all. I couldn’t find it in the post list on my admin page either. Neither was it in the list of drafts, and, wonder of wonders, even in the trash. It was as if it had just up and walked right off the internet.
This was a major problem. As a writer, one of my biggest fears is that things I write will disappear. The only thing that scares me more is that I might lose this ability, for whatever reason, and spend the rest of my life unable to write. It scares me off my wits, and I pray that I never find myself in such a pass. A blogpost disappearing without leaving a note at the door is not something I am prepared, not want, to deal with.
My first suspicion was that the problem was caused by a technical error. It could have been that there were bandwidth limitations, for instance. The only confounding factor was that not many people routinely access my blog, and my hosting plan says I have a rather generous bandwidth of 146.48 GB.
I am no IT guy, but I guess this means the total amount of stuff that the website can send out and receive simultaneously is 146.8 GB. Since each of my posts is less than 3 MB in size, at least 50,000 people would have to access my blog at exactly the same time, to crush my bandwidth. In short, the article would have had to go viral. But it didn’t, despite its title.
The other technical possibility was that the website as a whole might have had an issue. The only problem was that all the other parts of it were fine and dandy. The rest of the articles were just as available as usual. In addition, I had not received any information, from either my hosting provider or the folks at WordPress, to the effect that anything was amiss.
The last possible technical problem, as far as I could see, was that my hosting plan might have expired. Of course, that would have put the entire website down, yet it was still online. But, just to be sure, I went back to the invoice I had received for the next yearly payment for my domain name and server. It confirmed that I have until the end of March to pay up.
Having exhausted all the technical explanations I could think of, my mind naturally shifted to the nefarious end of things. Had someone maliciously gained access to my admin dashboard and killed the piece? I particularly suspected the government, because it had been the butt of my cheeky criticism in the story, and it hasn’t shown itself to be beyond petty conflicts.
Besides, the Chinese government has been working on overdrive to control the narrative about the coronavirus outbreak in China. Government censors take down both online posts and offline criticism. Even the doctor who raised the first alarm about the virus was censored and given a warning letter by police. His death, ironically caused by the virus, was followed by outrage on Chinese social media, which was quickly muted under the government’s heavy hand.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that our government would also want to control the narrative. On the one hand, it is beholden to the Chinese government on account of its heavy financial dependence on Beijing. On the other, it has been rather inept at handling this threat, and has been hostile to criticism throughout its tenure; it has even announced that all rumours about the virus will saddle their propagators with a KES 5 million fine.
The only problem is that they haven’t censored all the other content, especially from prominent folks, that has been put up criticising its response to the coronavirus. Twitter is still afire with criticism, jokes and misinformation. I might be stretching it, but I think very few people are satisfied with the way the government has handled this threat so far.
Moreover, I am not a prominent person. The article didn’t go viral for a reason. My blog has been read by only 2000 people so far this year. It is true that 2000 is a crowd, but it does not, by any reasonable measure, make one popular in a country of 50 million people. I know this sounds naïve, and I may yet be proven wrong, but I don’t see any reason the government would come after me.
Now that I had dismissed both technical issues and government censorship as possible reasons for the article’s weird behaviour, a few alternative explanations started popping up. One of the most credible was the rumour that developed among readers claiming the article had contracted the coronavirus and was self-quarantining. It almost got me, but then I realised the article could not have gone to China because of the Great Firewall.
Anyway, it miraculously reappeared on Monday morning, as if nothing had happened, like that man who showed up at home after being away for twenty-something years. So I promptly shared it on WhatsApp again, praying that it would grow legs no more. But it did, and so I went ahead and manually reposted it, since I had a copy my computer. It has misbehaved only once since then.
I still don’t know what went wrong, and I am starting to lose interest in finding out. But out of prudence, I changed all the passwords that are in the chain of access to the admin side of the website. I have staked the future of my writing career on this blog. I will not let anything, not even a bogeyman government, mess with that.
Sign up to receive new articles as soon as they drop.