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Social Media: How African Users are Confronting Propaganda, Lies

A raging war of ideas is ongoing between social media users in Zimbabwe and Africa. Popularly known as Netizens, they are regularly embroile...

A raging war of ideas is ongoing between social media users in Zimbabwe and Africa.

Popularly known as Netizens, they are regularly embroiled in bloodless fights, always seeking to outsmart each other, and convince followers using the power words, images and videos.

By @Comic24Derick

The brutal, unapologetic Zwitter (referring to Zimbabweans on Twitter) community is not for the lily-livered. Here, nothing is sacred, no topic is spared, almost everything is debated in earnest. 

The ongoing cyber contestations consist of two main rivals, those fighting on the government’s corner, against those opposed to the alleged state’s repression, corruption – and these are often labelled as government opponents or ‘sellouts’. 

The robust engagements are prevalent on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

No sacred cows

Days after Coven Energy Ltd, a relatively unknown company received the government’s nod to build a new fuel pipeline, award-winning journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, a social media influencer, questioned how a company, barely a year old, had acquired the rights to build a pipeline valued at a whooping US1,3 billion from Mozambique to Zimbabwe.

The tweet, of the alleged corruption, igniting a flurry of comments. Investigative journalism website, The News Hawks unearthed further rot. 

Before this incident, Chin’ono was previously arrested for inciting public violence, after he used his Twitter account to whistle blow the alleged abuse of COVID-19 funds by prominent citizens, which led to the sacking of the former health minister.
The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has enjoyed broadcasting monopoly since independence in 1980

Another post of a retired teacher who was paid $57,242.72 (US $373 at parallel market rates) as pension payout, after 26 years of loyal service ignited debate. 

Other concerned Zwitter users weighed in with more gory stories of eroded pension payouts, leaving pensioners as paupers, after years of loyal service in various companies. 

Inadequate recently ignited a protest by a group of war veterans to complaining about their petite earnings, leading to their arrest.

The debates on social media are welcome, Dr Trust Matsilele, a Journalism Lecturer and Researcher, told this publication. “Well, certainly social media is reconfiguring the political and social landscape in Zimbabwe both for positive and negative reasons,” he said. 

“Citizens are able to expose and shame power when excesses are discovered like the abuse of COVID-19 funds which was largely mediated through social media led to the resignation or firing of (former minister of Health) Obadiah Moyo and also exposed of Kembo Mohadi’s (former vice president) sex scandals led to his resignation.”

As the 2023 general elections in Zimbabwe inches closer, the volume of the debates is being turned louder and more militant in their approach. 

Often, the debates get out of hand, sometimes harsh words are used, luckily because of distance, they don’t translate into physical fights. 

The trending hashtags #RegisterToVote2023 and #RegisterToVoteZW are gaining momentum, with social media influencers using it to raise awareness, largely driven by the need to attract the media savvy youths to exercise their right to vote in the forthcoming elections. 

The huge influence of social media in the recent Zambian elections to spread political messages has been commended by political observers.

“(Zambia President) Hakainde Hichilema’s successful election campaign made great use of social media, with messages pitched very much at the young. The lesson is that you must choose your audience and pitch directly to it. Keeping it casual and informal is important. His nickname, Bally, was first given major exposure on social media. Bally is slang for ‘Daddy’. Just by using the name, he was saying ‘Dad’s got your back,’” said Professor of World Politics, Stephen Chan.

In Zambia, a total of 7 million people registered to vote in the just-ended election, translating to 83 percent of the country’s eligible voters. Turnout at the polls was above 70 percent, and the majority were youths, who are believed to have represented the protest voters. 

The 2018 harmonised election in Zimbabwe recorded a 75 percent voter turnout, out of the 5 million registered voters.

Professor Chan, however, said it is difficult to know how political debates on social media are helping to shape the future of African politics. 

“Given that there are 54 African countries, not all with reliable internet access, there can be no general answer. However, the primary pioneering example of the use of social media was in the Egyptian Arab Spring, where the huge crowds in Tahrir Square were mobilised by social media. The actual debate is less a feature on social media as protest, satire, and psychological engagement. An imaginative meme can have a huge effect,” he said. 

Social media crusade

The Zimbabwe government and the ruling party are not docile, they have embraced the use of social media, often using the hashtag, #Vision2030. In an attempt to conquer the hearts of the youths, who represent the majority, the ruling party has engaged charismatic preacher, Prophet Passion Java. 

The youthful preacher, who resides in the US commands 443,000 followers on Instagram alone and is respected for dishing out trinkets and cash to his supporters. On social media, he regularly posts images and videos with the president, whom he publicly endorses.

In a country with a high unemployment rate, soaring poverty inflicting nearly 7.9 million of the population, Java’s parading of wards of cash, shopping of latest brands and posing with posh cars, is cherished among the youths as heroism. 

Java also owns a music studio, and recently romped Congolese Soukous giant Koffi Olomide for a duet with Zimbabwean urban grooves singer Rockford Josaphats, known in the musical circles as Roki. The song has garnered 5.5 million views on YouTube so far, three weeks after premiering, a record for the country is largely seen as an endorsement of the president and the ruling party, a move that has sparked social media debates.

The song has divided opinions, surprisingly, the Rhumba offering was hailed, by then Zimbabwean information minister, now turned government opponent, Professor Jonathan Moyo. 

“AFTER ALL, HAS BEEN SAID @jahprayzah, @winkydonline & #Roki are among, if not, Zim’s top talents with the quality & promise to scale the music heights, contribute to the country's GDP & create opportunities for their compatriots at global levels. They deserve everyone's support!”

Some critics were less amused by Moyo’s endorsement, saying artists who support the current government must not be supported, however, Moyo believes they must be supported to be independent of political manipulation. 

Moyo’s challengers accused him of seeking to sanitise his past as a government spin doctor under the Robert Mugabe regime. Then, the now exiled Moyo once championed music galas in support of the ruling party and government, and Roki was part of the performing artists.

Propaganda checkmate

To their credit, the full-bodied social media debates are putting the state propaganda machinery under constant check. 

A Tweet by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Nick Mangwana, shared a reportage by the state daily, The Herald, claiming that, “Soon after the inauguration, President Hichilema followed President Mnangagwa to his hotel where they held a 30-minute closed-door bilateral meeting, focusing on trade and relations between the two countries.”

The August 24 tweet was interrogated by many, including exiled Professor Moyo, who responded starkly to the misleading tweet attributed to a state official. In the ensuing exchanges, Mangwana defended his post, saying he was expressing media freedom.

Professor Moyo’s third response seemed to silence Mangwana. “Good morning to you too Secretary. I note your explanation save to say that you effectively endorsed the newspaper's clear and ridiculous misrepresentation by quoting it in your tweet when you should have corrected it. Freedom of the Press is not Freedom to Lie or Misrepresent!”

A tweet by the new Zambian president later mentioned that he had met some Heads of State after his inauguration, including Mnangagwa. Hichilema included a picture with him and the Zimbabwean president, after the meeting. 

More images with other dignitaries, including his long-term political ally, Nelson Chamisa, posted on his handle suggest that he held all his meetings in the same room.

Media monopoly tested

Since gaining independence in 1980, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation (ZBC) has enjoyed an uncontested media monopoly as the sole state-controlled television station. 

Viewers, including opposition political parties seeking airplay, have opted for satellite television stations or rely on social media stations for a diverging view. Both satellite and online platform access options are however limited due to their exorbitant pricing.

Despite these obvious barriers, the use of social media in the country is on the rise. Figures show that as of January 2021, Zimbabwe had 1.30 million social media users, an increase of 320,000 between 2020 and 2021. The total users translate to 8.7 percent of the total population of 14.98 million in January 2021.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said, “Social media is complementary to traditional broadcasting. While there are lower barriers to sharing and distributing new ideas, it still has a limited reach across sub-Saharan Africa. Social media is most impactful when news, ideas, and movements leap from the online world to the street and the marketplace.”

Professor Chan further, added that: “It (social media) functions best as a means of channelling dissatisfaction as opposed to advancing complex new ideas. Most social media in Africa is accessed by cell phones - not large screen computers. You'd lose an audience trying to cram a full-length political programme onto a tiny cell phone screen. But its constant use to express dissatisfaction is itself a sign of the 'new democracy' and its freedom of expression.”

One of the serious limitations of social media is surveillance by the state security apparatus, according to Dr Mastilele. 

“The use of social media for protest allows easy surveillance by the state as we leave a digital footprint in our social media,” the Journalism Lecturer observed. There are reports of governments, including in Africa, who have invested heavily in Pegasus spyware manufactured by an Israeli surveillance firm, targeting rights activists, journalists and lawyers around the world.

Both Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe have been victims of a partial or total internet blackout. During the recent elections in Zambia, most social media and messaging apps were shut down by the state. 

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the embargo during an interview with CNN. A similar embargo was experienced in Zimbabwe in January 2019, with reports of a crackdown on protests in the country after a hotly contested 2018 general elections. 

The constriction of internet access was repeated a week later. Ghost accounts are also used to divert genuine issues raised on social media.

Winds of change

Despite the contestant harassment, surveillance and social media embargo imposed by the Edgar Lungu government, Hichilema effectively used social media to his party’s advantage, although his opponents labeled him a ‘Facebook president’. 

“Keep it light and keep it casual. Make it slick and well produced but not stilted and artificial. And it can’t just keep looking backward. Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. 41 years have passed since then. Most of the population wasn’t born in 1980. It's got to look forward. It’s got to talk about the IMF and China, not in derogatory terms, but saying clearly that the presidential candidate has got a plan and has got the skills,” said Professor Chan.

The CSIS added that “The events in Zambia showcase how an opposition, following years of loses at the box office and in the face of creeping authoritarianism, can unseat an incumbent. It underscores the importance of unity of purpose, persistence, and popular mobilisation. 

President Hichilema’s victory (as well as Chakwera’s in Malawi in 2020) also reveals the importance of institutions, especially the courts, in leveling the playing field or at least stymieing efforts to tilt the election in favor of the ruling party.”

Joseph Kalimbwe, the Information and Publicity Secretary for Zambian United Party for National Development (UPND) in a phone conversation with Al Jazeera, said the use of social media was one of their political strategies.

“There were people who told us that our party UPND will never win an election, on the basis that our party was only on social media, so that is what the previous ruling party failed to understand, that we were engaging the masses on social media and going on the ground.”

Kalimbwe added, “The Edgar Lungu regime blocked us from going to the masses on the ground and we used social media to engage and bring about the debate on why they needed to vote for our beliefs but we cannot deny that going on the ground helped us.”

Urged by recent developments in Zambia, and elsewhere, Netizens are convinced their content creation will one day bring change in Zimbabwe, armed with nothing more than their social media handles, but Professor Chan, cautioned that “You need organised opposition parties. Campaigns need to be organised. But you have to demonstrate you are a leader by acclaim, not by coercion or hard tactics. Hard tactics create an image almost impossible to erase.” 

“However, the government using hard tactics against your party always goes down well. The Financial Times had two reporters running TOWARDS the trucks and their trigger-happy soldiers. All opposition events need people with cameras or good cell phones ready to record brutality.”

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