Social media transforms political ground

Emmanuel Kafe
Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook have transformed the way political figures interact with their constituencies.
Fifteen years ago, campaigns were drastically different.

Reflect back to the Robert Mugabe vs Morgan Tsvangirai election of 2002. There was hardly any social media.

Facebook was to be launched two years after these elections, and when it came to life, it was only available to a handful of people.

Twitter did not hit the Internet until 2006, and it wasn’t widely used by the general public for some time after its launch.

During that 2002 election, candidates didn’t speak directly to the public via social channels, and everyday people didn’t have as many outlets to share and debate their political views.

Today, social media gives politicians a direct line of communication. That’s a positive change.

But on the flip side, social media is an uncontrolled, democratised soap box where individuals can spread opinions that are not substantiated, which can change the public’s view of things overnight.

But the good thing is that the internet never forgets.

What you say online remains online. This is crucial to remember for any online activity, even if deleted immediately, thousands may have already seen and documented it.

The ongoing Zimbabwe elections has stood the test of how social media can negatively have an impact on polls.

In Zimbabwe, one of the key constituencies in these elections were the young people.

Despite the digital divide, young people are increasingly online and get their news and information via mobile devices, and less from traditional media sources.

Over the past few years, there has been growth in popularity of social media in Zimbabwe.

Statistics show that there were almost seven million internet users in Zimbabwe as of December 2017.

Events that unfolded pre-election, during and post the election period in the country is enough testimony that the social media needs some regulations.

Was it not a grave mistake for the Government not to turn focus to social media, to ensure elections regulations recognise the crucial need to govern social media messaging?

In addition to the threats of misinformation and disinformation regarding elections outcomes, political context and social challenges means tensions are high and there are real dangers that inflammatory language and misinformation could spiral into disastrous violence.

This is true to the violent demonstrations that rocked the city early last week.

The party leaders of the opposition party had posted that they won the presidential elections before the electoral commission announced the poll results.

They later chose to defend a result that had not been announced by inciting violence through social media.

But it is not just the parties dealing with the impact of fake news, the electoral commission has also had to work overtime to correct disinformation peddled through social media about the process and its own personnel.

The eyes of the world were and are, rightly, focused on the Zimbabwean election and the role of social media cannot be undermined.

It raises anxiety and curiosity in the general public.

Zimbabwe’s emerging democracy is too precious to be undermined by those seeking to destabilise the nation through random — or targeted — tweets and Facebook postings.

However, the growth of online platforms in Zimbabwe means national polls are not immune to a campaign of disinformation.

Threats to the country’s elections are coming from internal forces: people keen to misinform the public, spread fake news and scare stories in an attempt to influence the outcome of the results of the just ended polls.

Social media has become a theatre of extreme opinion, with political representatives trading blows in a way we have never seen before.

It has become a playground of those wanting to promote hate and other forms of discrimination.

It is clear that people feel they can express views on social media that they would be unlikely to express on a person-to-person basis.

But it isn’t only hate speech that flows, but more commonly the ability to spread misinformation and run co-ordinated campaigns across social media, where “bot’’ accounts can repost and give the illusion of huge followings.

In the short term, such tactics undermine the dignity and credibility of those they target and may do little to affect trust in the media overall, but in the long term they play a key role in undermining media credibility.

The disturbing reality is that, as things stand, there is no mechanism to protect the country’s democracy and a key part of the democratic process from social media abuse during times of elections.

Experts say it is critical that the key stakeholders, including the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the portfolio committees on communication and home affairs, as well as political party representatives, key media stakeholders and social media platforms find pragmatic solutions to imminent threats and challenges.

Is there a need to ensure that social media is governed in the same way as traditional media or an Act that must come in place the moment an election is declared?

Citizens need to know who to report violations to, and what the consequences are. There are other issues too: what sanctions should be applied to abusers of the social media platform? What if they refuse to pull down factually incorrect posts? What should the authorities do about posts that are false, offensive, discriminatory or inflammatory? What if they don’t do anything?

In addition to this, there is need to ensure that parties commit themselves and their candidates to expose any wrongdoing on social media, to adhere to the same rules as with other media, and to actively use their social media to discourage prohibited conduct of their supporters.

Maynard Shamhuro, a social media expert and media practitioner, said social media, governance and politics increasingly go hand-in-hand these days.

“In Zimbabwe, politicians are joining the online community in droves to communicate with their audiences.

“They are quick to tell you that although the online community does not necessarily vote, they are a key demographic who shape and influence perception,” he said.

He added that the only problem with this is that social media users on the continent are typically a small portion of the population, middle class and educated.

Whilst Twitter and Facebook are still some of the fastest ways for politicians to connect with their audiences, they are also an instant way to get ‘feedback-mobbed’.

Social media strategists in Zimbabwe say the current wave of fake news could force the Government to wield a heavy hand in regulating over the top services after election.

Zimbabwe has a Cyber Security Bill that could be passed into law in the next few months as a draft has already been published. The Act will penalise the spread or possession of offensive content.

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