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Zimbabwean political terrain impacted by social media

Social media

By Talkmore Thulani Gandiwa

Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook have transformed the way political figures interact with their constituencies.

Fifteen years ago, campaigns were drastically different.

Reflect back to Robert Mugabe Vs Morgan Tsvangirai election of 2002.

There was hardly social media.

Facebook was to be launched two years after these elections, and when it came to life, it was available to a hand full of people.

Twitter did not hit the internet until 2006, and it was not widely used by the general public for some time after its general launch.

During that 2002 election, candidates did not speak directly to the public via social media channels, and everyday people did not have as many outlets to share and debate their political views.

Today, social media gives politicians a direct line of communication. That’s a positive change.

But on the flip side, social media is an uncontrolled, democratised soap box where individuals can spread opinions that are not substantiated, which can change the public view of things over a short period of time.

But the good thing is that the internet never forgets.

What you say online remains online.

This is crucial to remember for any online activity, even if deleted immediately, thousands of people may have already seen and documented it. 

During the Zimbabwe election period of 2018 stood the test of how social media can negatively have an impact on polls.

In Zimbabwe, one of the key constituencies in these elections was the young, youthful people.

Despite the digital divide, young people are increasingly using online and get their news and information via mobile devices, and less from traditional sources.

Over the past few years, there has been growth in popularity of social media in Zimbabwe. 

Statistics shows that there were almost seven to nine million internet users in Zimbabwe as of august 2017.

Events that unfolded pre-election, during and post the election period in the country is enough testimony that the social media needs some regulation.

Was it not  serious mistake for the government to turn their focus to social media, to ensure elections regulations recognize the crucial need to govern social media messaging. 

In addition to the threats of misinformation and disinformation regarding election outcome, political context and social challenges means tensions are high and there are real dangers that inflammation language and misinformation could spiral into disastrous violence.

This is true to the violent demonstrations that rocked the city early weeks of august 2018.

The party leaders of the opposition party had posted that they won the presidential election before the electoral commission announced the poll results.

They later chose to defend a result that had not been announced and resulted in horrific violence through social media.

But it is not just the parties dealing with the impact of fake news, the electoral commission had also to work overtime to correct disinformation peddled through social media about the process and its own personnel.

The eyes of the world were, rightly, focused on the Zimbabwean election and the role of social media that cannot be undermined.

It raises anxiety and curiosity in the general public.

Zimbabwe’s emerging democracy is too precious to be undermined by those seeking to destabilize the nation through and facebook posting.

However, the growth of social platforms in Zimbabwe means national polls are not immune to a campaign of disinformation.

Threats to the country elections came from internal forces, people keen to misinform the public, spread fake news and scare stories in an attempt to influence the outcome of the results of the 2018 polls.

Social media has become a theatre of extreme opinion, with political representatives trading blows in a way we have never seen before.

It has become a playground of those wanting to promote hate speech and other forms of discrimination.

It is clear that people feel they can express views on social media that they would be unlikely to express on a person to person basis. 

But it is not only hate speech that flows, but more commonly the ability to spread misinformation and run co-ordinate campaigns across social media, where accounts can repost and give illusion of the followings.

In the short term, such tactics undermine the dignity and credibility of those they target and may do little to affect trust in the media overall, but in the long term they play a key role in undermining media credibility.

The disturbing reality is that, as things stand, there is no mechanism to protect the country’s democracy and key part of the democratic process from social media abuse during times of elections.

Experts say it is critical that the key stakeholders, including the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the portfolio committees on communication and home affairs, as well as political party representatives, key media stakeholders and social media platforms find pragmatic solutions to imminent threats and challenges.

There is a need to insure that social media is governed in the same way as traditional media or an Act that must come in place the moment or before an election is declared.

Citizens have to know who to report violations to, and what the consequences are. There are some other issues too, what sanctions should be applied to the abusers of the social media platforms.

What if they refuse to pull down tactually incorrect post, what will be the reactions of the authorities on the false post, offensive, discriminatory or inflammatory, what if they don’t do anything on these issues to do with fake news?.

In addition to this, there is need to insure that parties commit themselves and their candidates to expose any wrong doing on social media, to adhere to the same rulers as with other media, and actively use their social media to discourage prohibited conduct of their supporters.

Reward Kadzunge, social media expert and media practitioner, said social media, governance and politics increasingly go hand in hand these days.

“In Zimbabwe, politicians are joining the online community in droves to communicate with their audiences.” 

“They are quick to tell you that although the online community does not necessarily vote, they are a key demographic who shape and influence perceptions.” He said. 

He added saying that the only problem this, is that social media users on the continent are typically a small portion of the population, middle class and educated.

Whilst twitter and Facebook are still some of the fastest ways for politicians to connect with their audience, they are also instant way to get feedback.

Social media strategists in Zimbabwe say the current wave of fake news could force the government to wield a heavy hand in regulating over the top service.

Zimbabwe has a Cyber Bill that could be passed into law in the near future since a draft has already been published.

The Act will penalise the spread or possession of offensive content.

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende