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Zimbabwe's Elections 2013 - Index of Articles
social media, elections and mobilisation
August 07, 2013
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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