Will social media help determine elections in Zimbabwe?

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A prominent supporter of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Citizens’ Coalition for Change, was arrested and brutally tortured by police in the country’s capital, Harare, in March this year. But barely an hour after the horrific attack, images of his serious injuries made the rounds on social networks.

In the past, such police brutality against opposition political activists was largely hidden from the public; but with the growing use of social media in Zimbabwe, political and human rights activists and whistleblowers can now quickly bring these attacks to the attention of the public – internally and externally from Zimbabwe.

But fears abound about an escalation in state-sponsored violence against supporters of opposition political parties in the country ahead of the 2023 general election.

However, Jessica Geraldine, a young political and human rights activist, felt that although the police and ZANU PF had launched violent campaigns against supporters of the Citizens Coalition for Change – in a way reminiscent of the bloody general elections of 2008 – this time, thanks to the media, they will not be able to get away with it.

“2008 [state sponsored violence] loading, but this time we woke up. 2008 no one could circulate photos of victims; you [the government] said there was no evidence. You controlled the state media with propaganda. Right now it’s less than an hour [after the attack] the whole world can see through you,” Geraldine tweeted.

As the country races towards the 2023 general election, the Nelson Chamisa-led Citizens Coalition for Change has unleashed an army of willing, tech-savvy young Zimbabweans to reach out to supporters and the electorate via social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, TikTok and Instagram, among others.

Geraldine is one of the young Zimbabweans to use social media to speak out against state-sponsored violence and any attempt to rig elections in favor of ZANU PF.

“I hope we will have a [country]. I have often seen and heard people say that I am a [political or human rights] activist. I can’t qualify either, I just want a change,” Geraldine told FairPlanet.

Having already won most of the vacant seats in Parliament and the Council in the by-elections on March 26, 2022, the Citizens Coalition for Change is optimistic that the power of social media will be successfully harnessed to swing the 2023 general election into its favor.

In Zimbabwe, the mainstream media landscape remains heavily controlled by the government and skewed in favor of the ruling ZANU PF party, which is led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa who seized power from Robert Mugabe in a coup. military in 2017.

Social networks counter regime misinformation

Opposition parties, in particular the Citizens Coalition for Change, were denied access to public newspapers, television and radio stations. With only one terrestrial television station – Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation Television – owned by the state and a number of radio stations owned by the government or friends of the ruling party, it is difficult for opposition parties to make hear their voice in the mainstream media.

But with the rise of social media, the power to publish information now belongs to anyone with a smartphone and access to the internet. The monopoly of traditional media editors as the ultimate gatekeepers of information in Zimbabwe is therefore slowly fading away. And, according to datareportal.com, in January this year there were 1.55 million social media users in Zimbabwe. The number of social media users in the country grew by 250,000 between 2021 and 2022, the data agency reported.

Bernard Chiketo, media expert and editorial cartoonist, said social media had so far effectively buffered the disinformation campaign of the ruling government, ZANU PF, through its closely-knit state media apparatus. control.

“Public confidence in the credibility of information communicated through various platforms has also increased amid government censorship and the capture of traditional media platforms. [Social media] shapes public opinion and the perception of political actors is undeniable,” said Chiketo, known as Ben Motorcycle.

Chiketo added that the growing influence of social media has made it the new main battleground, with all political players confident that whoever can control it will be able to sway the vote, which they believe will indeed be decided. by young people – a constituency that considers itself native to these platforms.

“That social media is shaping the outcome of the 2023 general election is a given. Using Facebook to organize online rallies and Twitter spaces to conduct interviews with voices that could never find space in the media has even emboldened opposition citizens. Coalition for Change chairman Nelson Chamisa is even considering banning Zanu PF-controlled media from participating in his rallies and events,” he said. he declares.

Don Ostallos Siziba, the deputy national spokesperson for Citizens Coalition for Change, said Zimbabwe faces an extremely difficult issue in the elections, especially when it comes to reforms.

“One of the key areas for reform is access to state media which has been monopolized and used as a propaganda tool by the ruling class in an effort to accumulate and retain power,” Siziba said. “But as a modern democratic movement, we have realized that we need to find opportunities and platforms to be able to articulate and spread our messages in an organized society.”

He added that social media has been undermined by the ruling regime in Harare but has scientifically proven to be an effective tool for the Citizens Coalition for Change to communicate with ordinary people in this country; people the party could not reach through state radio and television.

“So we were able to communicate clearly with our people through social media platforms, especially WhatsApp which is mostly used by many people,” he said.

Essential tool to galvanize society

Siziba said his party uses social media to organize supporters.

“It has been an essential platform to organize and structure our people in different communities. At the community level, citizens have been able to communicate and organize meetings, programs and ensure that our message reaches the deep ends of society” , did he declare.

“Politics is also about building momentum in what philosophers call moment-consciousness. So we’ve been able to galvanize communities by building momentum for the citizens’ movement through the use of social media,” he said. he declared.

He added that social media platforms have played a vital role in summoning leaders, especially in the era of COVID-19, as the party has used online platforms to hold meetings on Zoom, Facebook and Twitter. .

“On Twitter, we were able to connect with key stakeholders like Zimbabweans in the diaspora, tapping into the intellectual capacity of citizens to be able to fundraise using spaces and platforms like Facebook live.”

Siziba further said that the Citizens Coalition for Change has been able to tap into new social bases – the middle class and millennials – who follow the party’s activities on Instagram and TikTok. The party sends messages and creates content on these platforms for and by ordinary people in their own communities.

“Social media in this regard has been a key weapon for us to articulate the message and most importantly to expose the authoritarian regime,” he said.

Image by zimbabwe MONUSCO/Sylvain Liechtioting.

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