As of 15th January, the Zimbabwean government has supposedly directed ISPs to block social media outlets after protests erupted over the announcement of a record fuel price hike. Now, it seems to be blocking the VPNs used to circumvent the website restrictions too.

The unrest broke out on Monday after the price of gasoline more than doubled overnight, jumping from $1.35 per liter to $3.33 – it is now the most expensive nation in the world to purchase fuel in. Citizens struggled to access a handful of social media sites soon after.

Denying citizens access to these sites is a move which echoes that of former Prime Minister Robert Mugabe whose government shut down messaging platform WhatsApp during protests in 2016.

Dissatisfied Zimbabweans who were able to bypass the blocks took to Twitter to raise awareness of their situation using the hashtag #ZimbabweShutDown.

Zimbabwean citizen Kerry Kay told TimesLIVE on Tuesday: “For the past three hours we have not been able to access WhatsApp. With the government shutting down the internet and social media – it’s the final straw for human rights.”

However, Monica Mutsvangwa, the Zimbabwean Minister of Information, denied knowledge of an internet shutdown.

Many frustrated citizens turned to VPN services in order to get past the blocks. Since the social media ban, average daily visits from Zimbabwe to Top10VPN.com have increased by 2,700% while VPN-specific searches from Google have increased by over 850%.

The Google Trends graph below illustrates the extent of this spike in VPN searches since the blocks were actioned.

Google search trend graph for the term ‘VPN’ in Zimbabwe

Recently even accessing VPNs became more challenging when the government appeared to crack down on those services too.

Zimbabwe-based journalists reported connection failures when using VPNs on Tuesday afternoon. While it’s not clear exactly which services have been blocked at this point, it’s likely to be less advanced VPNs available free of charge, as they tend to be easier to detect.

Many top quality VPNs offer obfuscation tools and ‘stealth’ protocols that allow traffic to go under the radar, making it harder for censors to block.

Zimbabwe is just one of many countries that restricts access to social media platforms during times of unrest and heightened political activity, such as elections.

Director for Africa programs at Freedom House Jon Temin said: “We condemn the Zimbabwe government’s attempt to suppress opposition to its economic policies by using excessive force against demonstrators, causing at least three deaths, and by blocking the social media platforms that citizens use to freely express their views.”