Social media introduces new dimension to Zimbabwe 2018 polls

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The name Baba Jukwa became both a reference point and somewhat source of credible inside information regarding the ruling Zanu PF party in the build up to the 2013 harmonised elections.


The shadowy Facebook character was an instant hit as a result of the mostly believable bits of whistleblowing, entailing what happened in exclusive closed door meetings among political stalwarts in a manner which at the time could lead to incarceration or abduction.

Phrases like “Bhora musango” became common lingo in politics and there was a feeling that the publication of such dirty secrets would precipitate the ruling party’s collapse.

A landslide victory for Zanu PF, however, was attributed to what was now considered misguidance from Baba Jukwa, and ironically that was almost the same time the account became inactive.

Fast-forward to 2018, with only six weeks left before this year’s watershed polls, social media is playing a significantly influential role.

The “Baba Jukwa” phenomenon is widespread and even advanced as both visuals and audios have become common feature making it easier to verify information circulated.

It is also no longer just limited to Facebook but has extended to other media like Whatsapp, Twitter and Instagram.

Any serious contender in this year’s elections knows that social media is a pre-requisite and most have gone overboard to announce their presence online.

Presidential candidates are no exception and their online presence has become conspicuous on different internet platforms with President Emmerson Mnangagwa and MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa leading the pack of 23 candidates.

Had it been the era of Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, time committed to the cyberspace now would have been used solely for physical mobilisation on the ground.

Launching his campaign earlier this year, Mnangagwa urged his party’s Youth League to reinforce the party online since the older generation is not techno-savvy.

“We are old and cannot use social media but at your age you should engage them on social media. Do not be beaten there. Get there and defeat them online,” he said.

The Zanu PF youths have left no stone unturned in pushing for their candidate under the tagline #EDHasMyVote while on the other hand opposition supporters are also pushing their agendas.

Elections watchdog Election Resource Centre (ERC) Board chairperson, Trust Maanda said the verbal interchange was healthy only if it did not spill into misinformation.

“As ERC, we encourage people to use social media responsibly and give information that is credible in order for this election not to be based on misinformation,” Maanda said.

With little restraint online, some users are carelessly touting fake news to either denigrate opponents or influence particular agendas and this may affect the election outcome, according to Maanda.

“Those who give false information may affect the elections and choices but I think most of our people are now a literate electorate to know falsehoods,” he said.
Like a double-edged sword however, this could also act as a positive necessity in assuring social stability during poll season in light of past violent trails elections brought.

A few months ago, videos of people coercing the public to submit serial numbers of their registration slips emerged serving as evidence to claims that had been made which prompted relevant authorities to act punitively.

“It (social media) helps in the early warning and early response to incidences of violence and intimidation. It also helps in gathering evidence of other election irregularities in case there is an electoral dispute,” Heal Zimbabwe Trust programmes manager, Sitabile Dewah said.

Heal Zimbabwe is non-governmental organisation aimed at “re-building national cohesion through promotion of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in local communities”.

Dewah also said different platforms, especially WhatsApp, have become handy in giving real time information of uncouth activities happening in places far from cities.

“Social media has been very useful in terms of sending information in near real time (and) this has helped in terms of exposing incidences committed in the most rural areas and also under the cover of darkness,” she said, although she acknowledged that fake news was still a problem.

With the assistance of social media relayed information, Heal Zimbabwe has to date recorded more than 5 000 cases of intimidation around the demand for serial numbers of voter registration slips.

In 2016, research by Internet World Stats suggested that about 6 million of the 14 million-plus people in Zimbabwe are connected to the internet and over 90% of that population uses cellphones for access- the numbers have increased.

WhatsApp is also considered to be the most popular internet application in Zimbabwe, accounting for up to 44% of all mobile internet usage in the country.

South Africa-based Nigerian Human rights lawyer and founder of White Code Centre, Adebayo Okeowo said while the social media occupies a significant space both locally and in the continent, its effectiveness and valuable contribution to the society depends on users.

“We all must just be accountable to each other because there are people using it positively and those using it to deliberately spread misinformation so we need to be aware and stand as vanguards of protecting the truth which is a community effort,” said Okeowo.

White Code Centre is a non-profit organisation focused on human rights, social justice, youth empowerment and good governance among others using multi-media tools
Okeowo recalled how in Nigeria 2015 elections online presence worked to the advantage of then opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari who is the current president of the West African country.

“A bulky part of elections in Nigeria was driven by social media, (the) branding given to Buhari even though he is of advanced age was exceptional as he had great visual content and that made him look appealing during the campaign eventually leading to his victory,” he said.

In the United States of America, social media giant Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm, were recently fingered in an elections manipulation scandal.

Although both have dismissed the elections rigging claims, it is alleged that they harvested users’ personal data and used it to influence voting in of certain candidates including incumbent president Donald Trump.

Reports put forward that the data may have been used to direct messages for political campaigns supported by Cambridge Analytica, most notably Trump’s election victory and the Brexit vote.

This means that propaganda shared through different Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), including cellphones, plays an imperative role on the ultimate outcome of polls.

Meanwhile, cyberbullying has also become a rampant phenomenon and Okeowo admits it may be an arduous task to stop this but joint effort could be the solution.

Zimbabwe recently added a portfolio to address the issue of cyber safety and security in the Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security ministry.

The move is part of the government’s mechanism to monitor social media abuse by the citizens although there are fears of state repression on the freedoms of speech and expression. – News Day