Zimbabwean Political Parties Turn to TikTok to Engage Youth Voters

A view of the TikTok app logo, in Tokyo, Japan, Sept. 28, 2020. The European Union ratcheted up its scrutiny of Big Tech companies on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, with demands for Meta and TikTok to detail their efforts on curbing illegal content and disinformation amid the Israel-Hamas war. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)
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HARARE, Zimbabwe — Ahead of the August 2023 elections, Zimbabwe’s major political parties, ZANU-PF and the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), embraced TikTok as a dynamic tool to engage the country’s youthful electorate.

By combining politics with entertainment, according to Social Media expert, Oswelled Ureke of the London School of Economics, these parties leveraged the platform’s playful nature to attract and win over young voters.

TikTok as a Political Playground

TikTok’s surge in popularity, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, has made it a powerful medium for reaching Zimbabwe’s young population. The platform, often associated with light-hearted and entertaining content, aligns well with the demographics of the country’s youth, making it an effective channel for political campaigning.

In a country where freedom of expression is limited and public media tends to favor the ruling ZANU-PF, social media has emerged as a crucial avenue for public discourse. Anonymity on platforms like TikTok allows citizens to voice their opinions and criticisms without fear of retribution.

CCC’s Campaign Tactics

CCC-linked TikTok accounts focused on showcasing the personality and relatability of their then-leader Nelson Chamisa. Videos frequently depicted Chamisa engaging with supporters, drawing large crowds, and portraying him as a charismatic and approachable figure. These accounts emphasized Chamisa’s youthfulness and ability to connect with ordinary people, suggesting he could address Zimbabwe’s issues single-handedly.

The CCC accounts also criticized ZANU-PF for the country’s socio-economic and political problems, urging young voters to register and participate in the election to combat voter apathy. They used contemporary music, especially the popular Zimdancehall genre, which resonates with urban youth, to enhance their messages.

ZANU-PF’s Digital Strategy

TikTok accounts aligned with ZANU-PF promoted President Emmerson Mnangagwa, highlighting his achievements during his first term. The content included testimonies from beneficiaries of Mnangagwa’s development projects, such as social welfare programs and infrastructure improvements. Celebrities and social media influencers openly supporting the ruling party also featured prominently in their campaign.

ZANU-PF’s TikTok content often evoked nostalgia for the liberation war, using music and dance to celebrate war heroes and the party’s unity. Some of these songs, however, contained innuendos of violence, serving as a reminder of past election-related violence, and instilling fear among opposition supporters.

The Future of Political Campaigning on TikTok

Both ZANU-PF and CCC effectively used popular hashtags like #zimtiktok to increase the visibility of their content. This strategy ensured that political messages were discovered incidentally by users searching for trending topics on the platform.

The 2023 elections marked the first significant use of TikTok in Zimbabwean politics, demonstrating the platform’s potential for future campaigns. As political parties continue to explore this relatively new digital frontier, their tactics are likely to evolve, potentially reshaping how politics is conducted in Zimbabwe.