By Farai Chirimumimba
The demographic of the electorate is changing with a new shift towards new modes of information outreach centred on social media, which has rapidly grown to prominence as a platform for political activism in its diverse forms. Social media platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Instagram and Whatsapp are providing innovative ways to stimulate citizen engagement in governance of their country, where elections and electoral campaigns have a central role.
In fact, personal communication using social media brings political parties and independent candidates much closer to voters. This is happening fast and political parties and politicians in Zimbabwe have to quickly adapt to this changing reality that social media is a game changer in the 2018 harmonized elections. The influence of social media was experienced in a way never seen in the world in the United States presidential elections of November 2016, a subject, which is still under inquiry to this day with Facebook announcing a fortnight ago that it will hand over to Congress information pertaining to ads bought by Russians. This also led Facebook to introduce changes to ensure political ads on its platform are more transparent.
Hannah Byne O’Morain of Maynoolh University of Ireland in a study suggested that three main reasons for using social media during an election campaign are marketing, mobilization and dialogue. Marketing is for highlighting their candidacies as well as the positions of their parties to voters. Mobilization involves the use of social media to encourage followers to take part in something, usually to attend rallies, meetings, and to persuade people to vote for them like what is currently happening with Advocate Fadzayi Mahere a aspiring independent candidate for Mt Pleasant House of Assembly seat. She is mobilizing people in her constituency to go and register to vote through a host of initiatives such as sponsor a ride campaign to offering prizes to individuals who mobilize the most people to register as voters. In terms of dialogue, social media presents an opportunity to connect and engage with voters in discussion, as well as receive feedback on political issues much faster than traditional methods.
Major political parties in the country ZANU-PF and MDC-T have opened their pages on social media; although they obviously severely lack regular updating their activities and purpose usually opting for the traditional media. Social media pages of leaders of parties are more visible and active as opposed to party accounts. There a danger in personalizing people instead of the party. In reality, despite the fact that the political parties are lagging behind youths who make up over 66 percent of the population are being overwhelmed by the enormous influence of social media. According to Postal and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ) first quarter 2017 report, mobile internet and data utilisation increased by 4.7% to record 2,688,410GB from 2,567,401GB recorded in the in the last quarter of 2016”. The report goes further to state that, “using the 2017 population figure of 13,727,493 as per projections by the ZIMSTAT, the Internet penetration rate was 49%. This represents a 1% decline from 50.1% recorded in the previous quarter”.
The influence of social media in Zimbabwean politics has a history dating to 2013 several months before the harmonised elections. Zimbabwean social media users were mesmerised by the Baba Jukwa phenomenon. Baba Jukwa was a Facebook faceless character who posted insider and up to date gossip of political developments within the ruling ZANU- PF. The character’s up to date information on the happenings within ZANU- PF went viral and the page got over 50 000 likes. In 2016 the social media activism discourse took another level with the spectacular entry of #ThisFlag.
The coming in of #ThisFlag ignited social media wave that gave rise to other hush tags and a culmination in protests over the lack of employment, police roadblocks, cash shortages and worsening poverty in the country. The response by government showed a sense of panic and confusion within the Harare authorities. Government and political heavyweights responded by issuing threats and insults towards the dissenting voices. The threats were laced with the common language of protestors being western sponsored by the so called fifth column, regime change agents, dissident, social media abusers and malcontent. Probably the biggest response by the government is the ongoing crafting of the Computer Crimes and Cyber Crimes Bil,l which may be tabled before parliament before the end of 2017.
This has not deterred citizens from using social media with aspiring independent candidates like Advocate Fadzayi Mahere leading the way through showing how to effectively use social media for elections campaign. This social media has become a crucial platform where anyone and everyone can interact as equals. As noted earlier, dialogue on national issues is happening on social media at a pace that even the politicians themselves have to play catch up with what is happening or they remain out of touch with reality. We are likely to have more politicians’ canvassing for voters using social media ahead of the 2018 harmonized elections.
Whilst protest groups view viral engagement as a platform to air grievances and encourage dialogue that influence the political processes. Some politicians are using it as a campaign tool to lure voters whilst for government social media use is now an agenda with authorities increasingly interrogating their perspectives on viral engagement. It remains to be seen if political campaigns will be regularised ahead of the general elections considering that a new Ministry of Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes and Detection of Threats was created last week. It is important to however, the difficulty with social media is always about distinguishing the truth from false news. However, the benefits outweigh the propaganda, which after some time is diffused through counter interactions.