Fake news, the opposition’s new political tool

Nkululeko Sibanda

THE advent of social media brought with it many positives in Africa and Zimbabwe, but like all good things, it also brought with it a vile disruptive side, that of fake news, which is now a prominent tool in political discourse and machinations.

Fake news or junk news is described online as “a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.”

Fake news is written and published usually with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/ or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership.

In recent times, fake news has been used as a tool for manipulation and deception to push certain political agendas in the country. Recent events in Zimbabwe have seen the opposition relying on fake news to build a case against Government while whipping up citizens’ emotions.

About two or so months ago, the economy encountered a bump resulting in an increase in prices of basic commodities. Opposition leaders and their supporters resorted to manipulating pictures on the Internet and photo shopping images to create an impression that prices had reached astronomical levels.

Needless to say this was later found to be false, but the damage had already been done and citizens engaged in panic buying which only worsened the situation.

The same ploy was used during recent violent protests that rocked the country in January, concentrated mainly in the major cities. A stay-away organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in partnership with the MDC-Alliance, turned violent, with protesters burning buildings and looting shops as well as attacking law enforcement agents.

The country’s security forces responded by arresting culprits and restoring order in the cities, with some innocent civilians caught up in the melee.

What followed was an influx of fake news on social media, with the opposition claiming that “atrocities” were being committed in the country.

Pictures from other countries such as Nigeria were downloaded from the Internet and passed off as pictures taken locally. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were overwhelmed with fake and unverified reports about alleged atrocities that were being perpetrated in the country. One example is the claim that made rounds that three schoolgirls had been raped by soldiers at a school in Pumula, Bulawayo.

This was quickly found out to be false, leading to human rights activist, Jenni Williams to tweet, “Rape has no place in our society and I would be the first to shout about it, but I prefer to see for myself the victim so I can also give practical support. So far since yesterday, we have not verified rape incidents in Bulawayo.”

The graphic nature of the pictures and claims had the intended effect of generating anger among citizens as well as the international community. Sadly, very few bothered to verify the reports they got off social media and the ploy worked. The Government was roundly condemned locally and abroad based on half truths.

What Zimbabweans and peddlers of fake news should realise is that the seemingly harmless practice can have very dire consequences in communities. One infamous example is that of “Pizzagate” in the United States. A fake news story (and the comments people attached to it) moved one man to shoot up a pizzeria that was linked by bogus statements to human trafficking and a presidential candidate. In the incident nicknamed “Pizzagate,” a man with a semi-automatic rifle walked into a regular Washington, DC pizza joint — Comet Ping Pong — and fired shots. Why? He was convinced that the pizzeria contained a hidden paedophilia trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign.

Where did he come up with this notion? Alt-right communities allegedly first created this piece of fiction, and fake news websites promoted the lie by citing specific locations such as Comet Ping Pong.

It was then tweeted further by people in the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Vietnam, as well as many Internet bots, giving the story much additional attention. Fake news — political in nature — influenced a man to fire shots inside this restaurant, nearly killing innocent people.

Although thankfully, the spread of fake news in Zimbabwe is still on a manageable scale, a “Pizzagate” might also occur if nothing is done about the issue. Sober Zimbabweans now look to the proposed Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill to restore sanity in the use of social media in Zimbabwe.

And on 4 February 2019, MDC-Alliance leader, Nelson Chamisa’s spokesperson, Nkululeko Sibanda, posted on Twitter, a video of Prophet Bushiri’s supporters who were demonstrating outside court in South Africa and claimed that it was a video of Zimbabweans demonstrating against Vice-President Chiwenga. – Sunday News

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