By Alex T. Magaisa
On July 30th, Zimbabweans will go to the polls to elect a president, parliamentarians, and local authorities. The forthcoming election is remarkable for at least two reasons. First, it will be the first time since independence that ousted leader Robert Mugabe will not be a candidate. Second, the election comes against the background of the November 2017 military coup, which caused a fundamental shift in Zimbabwean politics.
One of the already palpable characteristics of the post-coup era is a renewed sense of freedom, which had all but vanished during the Mugabe era. In a bid to impress Zimbabweans and the rest of the world, the current Mnangagwa administration has taken a more open and relaxed approach to political freedoms. Before the coup, mere criticism of Mugabe could easily expose one to prosecution for allegedly insulting or undermining the president. Police routinely blocked opposition and civil society meetings. These laws remain on the books, a regrettable sign of continuity, but the difference is that the government is not actively enforcing them. This sense of freedom has extended to social media, where many people are now able to speak more freely.
While the news media traditionally play an important role in elections, changes in technology have significantly transformed the media landscape, making social media a more critical space of information distribution and political campaigning than ever before. Many of voting age have access to mobile phone technology and the internet where they access WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. According to a 2017 report by POTRAZ, the national telecoms regulator, the active internet penetration rate stands at 50 percent. By far, the majority of internet connectivity is accessed through mobile phone technology with 97 percent of internet subscriptions coming through that medium. This means that more than ever Zimbabweans will be turning to their phones for election news.
Social media has been important for the political opposition in Zimbabwe because it allows them to bypass traditional media, 90 percent of which is controlled by the state or elements linked to the state and is biased toward the ruling ZANU PF party. After the 2013 election, the African Union Observers’ Mission report identified biased state media as a problem that needed to be fixed. Yet five years have passed, and nothing has changed. For the opposition and civil society, social media provides a space in which they have freedom to articulate their views and distribute information in a cost-effective way.
Up until fairly recently the government was openly hostile to the use of social media. Just two years ago, when citizens rallied around Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag social movement, which emerged after the young clergyman posted videos on WhatsApp reflecting on the dire conditions in Zimbabwe and calling on people to speak out. These videos captured public attention and went viral, spawning popular protests on the streets of Harare. The Mugabe regime reacted in a typically heavy-handed manner, beating up protestors and arresting activists on account of their social media activities.
In an effort to curb social media use, the government raised the cost of accessing the internet through mobile phones by increasing taxes on mobile. Mobile phone companies, which were worried about reduced revenue streams from traditional services such as voice calls and text messaging welcomed and encouraged these changes in the hope that they would boost their revenues.
In the past month, however, the government has reduced the price of data. The thinking could be that cheaper data prices would allow more people to use social media, especially in this election period. It is unclear whether this is because the ZANU PF establishment is now less suspicious of social media or if they are merely pandering to the interests of the younger generation, who are major users of social media and have a key role in this election. One notable feature of this election is that ZANU PF is certainly making more use of new technology and social media than before. For instance, the President’s Office has just recently launched a mobile app.
In the run up to this election, the presence and participation of major political leaders on social media has boosted social media usage. Both leading candidates, Mnangagwa and Chamisa have active Facebook and Twitter accounts, where they often communicate with their followers. Their posts are keenly followed, shared, retweeted, and commented on by members of the public. There are other key public figures who actively participate on social media, providing thought leadership and bringing vibrancy to political debates.
Of course, despite the increasingly useful role of social media, there are also risks. The most important is the spread of “fake news” and disinformation through social media, which causes distortions in the information market. In the end, citizens become less informed despite the abundance of information and channels distributing it. It’s easy and cheap to generate fake content, which can be swiftly shared on social media platforms.
This is a reminder of the continuing role traditional news media must play in societies. Trained journalists who follow ethical codes and guidelines of the profession are an important component of a vibrant ecosystem where factual and reliable information prevails. Traditional media remains an important reference point because, while it also makes mistakes and can be partisan at times, it is more likely to carry verified information and is far more reliable than the tons of information that flow through social media.
It is still too early for social media in Zimbabwe to totally define the political landscape. However, there is no doubt that it is far more widespread now than it was in the last election just five years ago. As mobile phone and internet penetration rates increase, costs of accessing data decline, and political figures embrace technology, it is likely that social media will become even more important for political coverage during elections going forward. For now, we can only hope that citizens and politicians use these new opportunities wisely and responsibly in the pursuit of a true democratic awakening in Zimbabwe.
Dr. Alex T. Magaisa is a prominent Zimbabwean lawyer and constitutional expert. He is currently a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.