By Sindiso Mhlophe
Described as the “Democrats’ 2020 social media phenomenon” by various media outlets and research institutes in the just ended United States of America (US) elections, vice-president-elect Kamala Harris was able to generate over 27 million interactions on various social media platforms during the campaign period.
Broken down, according to CrowdTangle, Harris, who is now the US’s first black female vice-president-elect, generated a whopping 8.3 million interactions on Instagram, 14.4 million on Twitter, and 4.4 million on Facebook. She also added 123 000 fans on Facebook, 613 000 followers on Instagram, and 420 000 followers on Twitter.
Despite her strong presence on social media, Harris was confronted by the growing threat of cyberattacks in the form of sexual graphics and misogynistic submissions, racist slurs, and hate speech, with Facebook at some point being forced to take down “racist and misogynistic” comments about her.
Although her presence on social media was threatened by cyberattacks and bullying, Harris still rose above the unwarranted attacks and has been credited for playing a crucial role in juicing up the democrats’ social media campaign and subsequent election win.
Cyberattacks, particularly when it comes to women in politics, are not only unique to Harris in the US but are a growing threat confronting women politicians in Africa and indeed in Zimbabwe.
Examples of women in politics in Zimbabwe noticeably bearing the brunt of cyberbullying include MDC Alliance’ national spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere and Labour, Economists and African Democrats (LEAD) president Linda Masarira, who on several occasions have been subjected to sexist onslaughts targeting their marital statuses and sex lives while being called derogatory names such as Hure (prostitute).
Given that social media has become a more significant part of the political process, various stakeholders who spoke with Spiked Online Media said there was a need for women in politics in Zimbabwe to regroup and rise above social media attacks, amid a more robust framework to support their uptake of the online space.
Women’s Academy for Leadership and political excellence (Walpe) executive director, Sitabile Dewa said women’s political participation was vital as they constitute the larger part of the country’s population and often bear the brunt of failed policies.
“Demographically, women constitute the larger part of Zimbabwe’s population (52 percent) and according to 2018 Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) statistics, women constituted about 54 percent of the total number of people who voted.
“Given this background, their participation in politics cannot be overstated. Since they constitute the majority, their say in the country’s leadership, decision-making, democratic and economic processes cannot be overemphasised.
“The Constitution in section 17, 56, and 80 guarantees gender equality in all leadership positions making it a constitutional requirement for women to occupy half of all the leadership and decision-making positions in the country. Lastly, women should be able to represent their own needs and interest in decision-making processes,” Dewa said.
Dewa added that owing to the growing trend of cyberbullying, there was a risk that social media abuse could discourage women from engaging in politics.
This comes as statistics have reflected the skewed balance in national political leadership where in 2018 elections, out of 210 parliamentary seats, 26 were taken by women.
At local level, there has been a decline in women councillors from 16 percent to 14 percent in the July 2018 elections
This is despite Zimbabwe’s Constitution and commitment to various protocols including the Southern African Development Community’s Declaration on Gender and Development which call for a 50-50 representation of men and women in Parliament.
Even the launch of a Gender Commission and Zimbabwe National Gender Policy (2013-2017) have not assisted in increasing Women’s Political Participation judging by the decline in their representation in Parliament and Councils.
Mainstream media have been blamed for silencing the voices of women politicians and social media have been seen as the only hope, but they too are the new bullies.
“Social media is one of the cheapest tools for engagement that aspiring and accomplished women leaders can use to launch and sustain their campaigns. It is also a good platform to showcase developmental initiatives they are spearheading in their communities or contributions in Parliament, Council, or Cabinet as it has a very wide reach.
“Sadly, social media platforms in Zimbabwe are now a new arena of bullying, harassment, intimidation, name-calling, and violence against women leaders,” Dewa said.
“However, with that much negativity, women can still make good use of social media by building their resilience, through receiving training on social media engagements and protecting themselves online,” she added.
Political Analyst Rashwet Mukundu said social media had become an integral part of politics, adding that it was imperative for current and aspiring women leaders to get to know how to use social media as part of their campaigns for leadership, growing a network of supporters, building solidarity and communicating policy positions.
“There is no way that a political leader in this day and age cannot avoid social media as it has a huge influence on how politics is being conducted not only in Zimbabwe but in the rest of the world.
“There is no doubt that social media is only about the promotion of the positive but has also become a front for hate messaging and trolling. It is important that women politicians have thick skin and be aware of how to notice hate speech and trolling and be prepared to push back against these cyber-attacks.
“Women leaders should be prepared to challenge as they are being bullied. So, it’s a question of standing by one’s principles, pushing back and not allowing one’s self to be removed from a platform that can aid political progression,” Mukundu said.
He indicated that there was also a need for media literacy at a national in order to mitigate hate messaging and cyberbullying.
“Generally, women in politics are labelled all sorts of names and are seen to be going against the social norm of women of doing domestic chores. So culturally women face resistance from not only those they are competing with but from the rest of society. It is therefore important that the political space to be opened up and for more women to be allowed to participate,” Mukundu said.
Pada Platform’s executive director, Karen Mukwasi told Spiked Media that all forms of bullying women politicians encounter were a manifestation of the misogyny that is characteristic of Zimbabwe’s patriarchal society.
“Women need to understand this and make sure their message is not overshadowed by petty cyberbullies. They should not retaliate but should keep all evidence of this harassment.
“When one woman is cyberbullied all women should stand with her regardless of political affiliation. We should show solidarity with fellow women, it’s high time we all stand and use the cyberspace to protect the constituency of women,” Mukwasi said.
“The use of social media could amplify women’s voices if we all become responsible digital citizens and desist from the cyberbullying of women. Cyberspace could provide more affordable campaigns since most women face the challenge of resource constraints.
“It is also a way of reaching younger women who spend their time online. Women in politics can also build virtual communities of women, for example, WhatsApp and Facebook groups, and this way there can be two-way communication between them and the women they represent,” she added.
Mukwasi said while it was important for women to challenge cyberattacks and stick together, there was a need for cyber laws to protect women.
Zimbabwe is currently crafting the Cyber Crime, Security and Data Protection Bill which if passed into law will, among other things, criminalise the spread of information which can cause violence, cyberbullying, harassment, and the dissemination of racist and xenophobic material.
“Policies should protect individuals who use cyberspace. There is a line that should be drawn between free expression and the infringement on other people’s rights. The law should be clear on this.
“When reports are made to the police, the police should be genuine about investigation and prosecution. There is also a need to raise awareness on digital rights of citizens and everyone should understand that we can disagree politically without resorting to personal attacks,” she said.
Dewa also weighed in on the cyber protection laws, calling on the government to enact a cyber bill that criminalises misogyny.
“Currently perpetrators face no consequences. If relevant legislation is put in place and implemented, there will be fewer attacks on women. If South Africa can put laws and policies to protect women from online violence, Zimbabwe can follow suit,” she said.
Bulawayo Councillor for Ward 17 Sikhululekile Moyo said women need structural support from political parties, civil society, the Gender Commission, Women’s Ministry to boost their confidence to maintain a presence on social media.
“I have someone teaching and encouraging assisting me to be hands-on social media because alone sometimes l shy away. I am sure it’s because of a lack of confidence and content, and also because of work pressure sometimes l ignore social media.
“For women to be encouraged to use new and social media we need an environment we can actually express ourselves without being victimized and bullied. It is prudent that we have organizations monitoring instances of cyberbullying and exposing them to ensure women’s security,” Moyo said.
She added that lack of education was also another challenge resulting in women in politics shying away from social media.
“What needs to be done by government, political parties and other stakeholders is to conduct capacity-building workshops on social media. Women shy away from these platforms because of a lack of self-esteem. If l think l should match, for example, Strive Masiwa or Hopewell Chino’no, l think of my educational background and fear being attacked or challenged.
“Also, we need to be taken through the issue of content. Sometimes we lack information and knowledge. Women need to be helped on how to package information especially on what they want to post,” she said.
Bulawayo Ward 10 Councillor Sinikiwe Matanda said there was a need for women to be well versed in what they do and the political climate when tackling social media.
“When you are dealing with people sometimes it’s difficult to change their opinions and what they think. It’s up to you as an individual and a leader to rise above these challenges and have knowledge of what you do or what you want to communicate.
“When you go on social media you will find someone asking you questions like are you married? How many children do you have? How are you going to balance being a councillor and a housewife or being a city father? But you don’t hear men being asked if they are married or how they are managing work and their marriages. All those things are intimidating, and most women end up being afraid of social media,”
Matanda added many women in leadership do not have communication skills hence the need for training in public relations and communication.
“We might have tablets and mobile phones, but some women do not know anything about Instagram or zoom meetings. Women need to be empowered with public relations skills so that they can be confident,” she said.