The Sunday Mail
IN the age of technology and widespread internet access, the political campaigning landscape has experienced radical transformation. Gone are the days when political campaigns were confined solely to bustling rallies in town squares or impassioned debates broadcast on television and radio.
Instead, the vast realm of online media, encompassing an array of social platforms, has emerged as the new frontline for politicians and parties to engage their constituents.
As Zimbabwe readies itself for the harmonised elections scheduled for August 23, a shadow has been cast over the fairness of the electoral process. A recent investigation indicates a meticulously planned operation of social media manipulation and disinformation, with fingers pointing squarely at the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) as the orchestrator of these deceptive tactics to engineer a false sense of grassroots support.
The CCC, in recognising the power and reach of digital platforms, has crafted a strategy with specific focus on engaging younger, more digitally literate voters. Their dependence on and trust in online content makes them a prime target for parties seeking to shape public opinion. But this same dependence of the youth on the social media as a primary source of news and information also renders them vulnerable to the deluge of viral content and trending narratives, regardless of their veracity.
Major platforms — including Twitter, Facebook and TikTok — have become central to many people’s daily consumption of news and updates. Their algorithms, which prioritise popular and engaging content, can often inadvertently aid in the propagation of misinformation.
Recognising this, the CCC has seemingly tapped into these platforms’ mechanics to further its own agenda.
While, at first glance, their digital campaign might be commended for its modern approach and adaptability to the changing times, a closer look reveals a shadowy influence operation striving to artificially sway domestic public opinion in the lead-up to the vote.
Multiple investigative teams and cyber experts have delved into the digital footprints left by the CCC and have uncovered a concerted strategy of social media manipulation and digital disinformation. Preliminary findings suggest an extensive web of automated accounts — or “bots” — and coordinated content dissemination designed to amplify the party’s narrative across platforms. This calculated push is not merely to share the party’s agenda but also appears to be aimed at disseminating misleading information to sway public sentiment.
This raises significant concerns about the integrity of the upcoming elections and underscores the need for heightened digital literacy and scrutiny amongst the electorate.
In the digital age, political campaigns have evolved, but so, too, have the means of subverting the electoral process. The aforementioned group of independent digital researchers and analysts, renowned in their fields, have recently shone the spotlight on a concerning underbelly of the online political landscape.
Their meticulous analysis has exposed a well-coordinated effort to amplify X (formerly Twitter) accounts associated with prominent figures of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) opposition, with Nelson Chamisa and his closest deputies being the most prominent.
The findings are compelling and hint at an influence operation of significant scale.
The researchers did not merely stumble upon a few random anomalies.
Instead, a systematic trend emerged as they scrutinised the data: There has been an unprecedented surge in account creations associated with Chamisa since the beginning of July 2023.
The data is hard to refute.
To illustrate, consider a sample size of 10 000 X posts that have directly mentioned or tagged Chamisa. July witnessed a new account creation rate that soared to more than double the average of the past decade — an average that had been relatively consistent since 2012, at about 45 new accounts per month.
Such an abrupt and marked increase is statistically highly unlikely to occur organically.
Furthermore, the intricate patterns and characteristics of these accounts suggest the workings of advanced automation — algorithms and bots designed to mimic human interaction.
The complex nature of these operations points towards not just significant financial backing, but potentially the involvement of foreign entities that specialise in digital subversion.
But these newly minted accounts are not passive; they serve a distinct purpose. They are engaged in aggressively promoting pro-CCC narratives, popularising hashtags like #TakaNoVoter, #CCCManifestoLaunch and #ForEveryone.
Their mission? To paint a picture of widespread grassroots support for the CCC, thus magnifying its perceived digital influence.
Taking a closer look at individual accounts provides more clarity. One such account, @GotoTafidza, serves as a prime example.
Since its creation on July 3, it has produced an astonishing 15 000 tweets in a mere six weeks.
That is an average of 330 tweets every single day — a rate far beyond human capability and well beyond established thresholds for identifying automated bots, which stands at ±70 tweets per day. The nature of these tweets further corroborates the researchers’ suspicions.
A deep dive into @GotoTafidza’s engagements unveils a pattern of interaction with key CCC figures, including official CCC accounts, Chamisa and even international allies like US-based Freeman Chari. These interactions are not sporadic or random. They reflect a clear strategy aimed at promoting the CCC agenda.
While harnessing digital platforms for political campaigns is a legitimate evolution of modern politics, the strategy employed by the CCC, as evidenced by the data, blurs ethical boundaries. A campaign built on manipulation is a disservice to Zimbabwe’s rich democratic traditions, which champion transparency, fairness and truth.
Using bots betrays a desperation to manufacture support and create the impression of a political consensus, which does not exist.
This deceit not only compromises the trust of the Zimbabwean people but poses a grave threat to the very essence of democratic elections.
The implications of such digital manipulations extend beyond the digital realm. By altering perceptions, such tactics can misinform the electorate, alter opinions and potentially sway the outcome of the polls.
It is a challenge to democracy, instilling doubt and distrust among the citizens.
As Zimbabwe prepares for the harmonised elections, these unsettling discoveries underscore the urgent need for vigilant oversight, enhanced education on digital literacy and rigorous verification mechanisms.
Both Zimbabwean citizens and the global community must stand guard to ensure the sanctity of democracy is preserved. As the nation stands at this crucial juncture, ensuring a transparent and untarnished election process is not just a priority; it is an imperative.