Zimbabwe’s First Social Media Elections- Are You Being Watched?

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New technologies are affecting politics and elections in particular. Political parties and candidates use social media to reach out to their constituents, mobilize supporters and raise funds, while voters use it to get involved and engage politicians and each other about election-related issues.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have enabled candidates to directly reach out, mobilize supporters and influence the public agenda.

Such multi-directional functionality of social media if properly utilized can strengthen the integrity and transparency of electoral processes and enrich Zimbabwe’s democracy.

It can also lend itself to misuse, or abuse in ways that may affect election results and undermine confidence in the integrity of democratic processes.

These fundamental changes in political communication, therefore present election candidates with a widened range of strategic choices.

However, social media isn’t just for photos of kittens and your uncle’s political memes anymore. It’s increasingly a tool government use to influence elections and subvert democracy

This election cycle sees both familiar and new tactics being put into play. Social media’s ability to transcend space and its alternative hue makes it an effective tool to reach out to first-time and young voters who eschew the Zimbabwean standard.

Political parties can also cast their election messaging nets further afield, targeting coastal belts and semi-rural areas that now enjoy better internet coverage than in 2013. Most importantly, it allows silent voters to remain informed while exercising covert support for chosen parties and candidates.

Despite social networking’s track record for generating democratic engagement, though, it has proven difficult to sustain political interest and activism online over time and move electronic engagement from campaigns to governance

Social media and the internet can be tools of oppression rather than freedom.

A recent survey by an independent think-tank, Advocates for Progress, revealed that despite the annulment by the constitutional court of the insult laws, Zimbabweans entertain a fear of the law which in turn stands as a barrier to free expression including through self-censorship

“Bullying and harassment in the course of political discussions (political cyber-bullying, political cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking or intimidation) are contributing to a highly toxic and polarized online Zimbabwe society.

“Online anonymity appears to have eroded the possibility of holding people accountable. Participants reported that malicious, toxic posts are an unresolved problem; they wished to experience safe engagement on social media.

“From a human rights standpoint, the Cyber-crime and Cyber-security Bill was largely viewed as a response to social media activity, to curtail freedom of expression, and for government to “legally” trespass on citizens’ privacy in the name of ‘national security,” says the report.

Most Zimbabwean Internet users interviewed see the Internet, in particular, social media, as space for free expression, civic engagement in political and other issues, therefore it should be safe for it to be a marketplace for ideas.

However, they perceive these rights to be under legal and extra-legal threats, and in the case of the latter, the
authorities such as the Postal and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) often issued chilling threats to social media users during protests.

In as far as state surveillance is concerned, a perception exists that Zimbabweans online are being tracked and monitored to be criminalized. Based on their prior knowledge of the extensively reported past arrests, they are impacted and think government intercepts their private communications, yet are unsure of the government’s ability to do so.

“It may be a worldwide issue, but it’s a Zimbabwean issue too,” argues the independent think-tank.

“Political cyber-bullying is a tough reality for Zimbabwe and its citizenry and more so because social media has the capacity to magnify the incidents. Anonymity provides for more obnoxious and ferocious cyber-bullying of, not only individuals but of political actors on both sides of the aisle. The political cyber-bullying on Zimbabwe’s social media is a clear, credible barometer of its pre-2018 election environment,” says Advocacy for Progress in its findings.

Since civic engagement is central to freedom and liberty principles, citizens ought to be able to freely participate in
policy-making discussions online without fear. Information access, seeking, and sharing is not the same today as in previous years under Mugabe.

Now, social media users can broadcast and disseminate instantly with the click of a mouse.

The government is aware of this dynamic. The trolls observed online are not sensitive to people’s feelings. They appear to have a singularity of thought and inhibit-critical content.

They appear hostile, cause confusion, and falsely discredit the real information.

Fake News and Ghost Accounts 

But is social media really a good source of data for predicting how people are going to vote? After all, there are far fewer people on Twitter than in the Zimbabwean electorate so is it really representative?

There is also a danger of using social media when a lot of the information on it is unverified.

It is worth considering that if measuring social media sentiment becomes a more established way of predicting elections, there will be a great incentive for each side to create bots to give the impression they will win.

The problem is not simply that misinformation is readily available online, but also that a large proportion of Zimbabweans find this content credible.

In Zimbabwe, the line between politics and journalism is often blurred. Many journalists have made the transition to politicians and vice versa.

Long-term efforts to restore trust in journalism among the Zimbabwean audiences are also essential.

The ConversationThis will involve strengthening media literacy skills, boosting the independence of the public broadcasting sector, and possibly reorganizing media ownership so that it is not as tightly concentrated.

Without this ambitious set of measures, online misinformation and propaganda are unlikely to go out of fashion in Zimbabwe anytime soon.

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