By Takura Zhangazha*
Harare, August 7, 2013 – Zimbabwe’s social media has had an ambiguous role in political events in the last twelve months and particularly with the yet to end July 31 2013 harmonized electoral period. Local ICT experts have lauded the expansion of mobile telephony and 3G internet as signifying definite improvements in citizens access to information and freedom of expression. Given the fact that the country faced a highly contested electoral period, the use of social media applications came to be dominated by matters related to politics and the targeting of voters. In other spheres such as in the mainstream media, social media was used to increase online readership and in part re-brand their titles into trendy multimedia publications. Civil society organizations also utilized the increasingly fashionable social media for voter education campaigns as well as to communicate variegated positions on the state of affairs in the country.
For those that were the end receivers of news received via Twitter, facebook or whatsup (among others), they took to it less to act on information received and more to express their own opinions on anything (from the religious to the political). In most instances it has become a platform more for information, entertainment, rumour-mongering and sensationalism that has transcended levels never seen before in Zimbabwe’s media and communications history. This ,to the extent that social media has left many a user upset, confused, seeking legal recourse or trying to contact the complaints email of one social media company or the other.
But perhaps what is of immediate concern are its political dimensions in Zimbabwe. Its arrival signified a major shift in how political news and events in the country are received and interpreted. Because it does not have a specific journalistic ethos as regards its content, the news that social media users put into the public domain were more for communication of opinion, personal matters than serving to professionally and ethically inform a somewhat unlimited number of persons. This would then point to the fact that the arrival of social media led to the expansion of the right of Zimbabweans to receive and impart information in a manner that was more personally empowering and without direct censorship. It is a right that in this electoral period Zimbabweans enjoyed all too well (if they could afford to get connected).
The overall impact of such usage of these media platforms on the overall election is something that pollsters and academics will take some months to give a verdict on, but it is important to place a few matters on the table.
The first of these is that social media usage and its evolution in Zimbabwean political matters was largely one of mimicry. Its political utilization was framed within the framework characterized by the Arab Spring, particularly the Tunisian version of it. Except that here it was more for incremental change than any perceived or anticipated revolution. So the initial political usage of social media within the context of elections was more or less framed within the ambit of access to information and not action on information. This means that its usage in Zimbabwe was not in the aftermath of a specified injustice but in anticipation of a political event and therefore it had to be introduced and not enhanced.
This introduction of civic/political education and mobilization social media platforms literally unleashed a stream of what I would like to call ‘immediate/defensive consciousness’ related to various but specific political affiliations. And this is the second point to place on the table. More often than not, social media did not necessarily change the political viewpoints of users, it gave them a platform on which to reinforce or defend them against rival ones with greater urgency and immediacy. In the process it also served as a medium of rivalry even beyond political parties but also between differing civil society actors.
The penultimate issue relates to the emerging question of whether in Zimbabwe’s case, social media leads to action from the virtual and into reality. When one looks at the electoral period, beginning with the March 2013 Constitutional referendum, social media was important in generating public interest in various political issues but did not however significantly replace the direct need for either door to door lobbying, campaigning or political rallies. It was used more often than not after a major event and not as an event in and of itself. The campaigns to lure the youth to register to vote and eventually do so via social media could not be left merely to the internet by way of mobilizing. There had to be a prioritisation of physical mobilization and accepting the social media as ‘toppings’. Emphasis had to be placed on the real before turning to the virtual.
The final matter to be placed on the table is a rather controversial but necessary one to make. This being whether social media platforms have created new platforms for critical engagement or have merely extended the reach of propaganda. In the case of our country, for now, social media has reflected not only the mainstream views in our society but also the rival mainstream ideas about elections and/or their results. This binary character to the ‘critical thought’ one encounters on these platforms means for now, whatever the hegemonic and counter hegemonic trends in real society, these will come to be represented in the new or alternative media.
So as it is, and during our electoral period (which has not yet ended) social media has been most useful as an alternative source of information for many citizens. It has also allowed greater participation by citizens in debates that their opinions may have never seen it into any newspapers, radio or TV stations. It has not however, been as great an agent of direct change. For now, it remains direct and real mobilization that works.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)