As is increasingly the case across the world, social media is now a permanent fixture of Zimbabwe’s political battleground. And again as is the case in every country that lays claim to being democratic, its use for political mobilisation processes escalates during election campaigns.
By Takura Zhangazha
Given the fact that Zimbabweans shall be voting on July 30 2018, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp apart from being sources of information have become purveyors of a great deal more political opinion, innuendo, bias and activism.
Because of this, it is important to think through the current and contextual placement of social media may mean for Zimbabwe’s scheduled elections.
One thing that is almost certain is that there will be no role for global political consultants such as was the now “non-existent” Cambridge Analytica that could allegedly invade what little privacy rights remain on social media and use algorithms to sway voters to a particular side.
But as is now already the case, there are organised groups of social media specialists and party supporters, sympathisers that are actively tweeting, ‘whatsapping’ and ‘facebooking’ for their side.
And all the main political parties that are in this election appear to be expecting their supporters to harness social media to demonstrate either their popularity or the effectiveness of their campaigns.
And its all fair game. For now. Though I anticipate that social media content on the elections and between parties will get more rabid as the Election Day nears and as the results start to be officially announced.
The striking characteristics of the electoral campaign related social media content is that it appears to be serving the primary function of fortifying political positions of functioning almost strictly as “echo chambers” of already held perspectives/views.
At least for those that are online or have some sort of intermittent access to the internet. This means that the initial primary target of the political social media content is to those that are “converted” by way of which party they support.
So their party, its leaders and supporters must be actively seen to be on social media for the purposes of giving each other confidence and demonstrating the amount of (sometimes contrived) public support that they have. These campaigns are, therefore, designed for instilling greater confidence and “pride” for party members and supporters.
In the second instance, these now confident online party supporters then try and expand their party’s reach to a broader audience. And in most cases this is the urban and Diaspora-based Zimbabwean voter who has greater access to the internet and social media.
Here the content is as with the first primary target audience, highly politicised and intended to demonstrate an already existent political strength (through numbers shown by pictures of rally attendances and embellished negative stories of rival political parties.)
In turn the targeted voter also accepts, likes, receives, shares information that suits their preferences. Especially on the Whatsapp platform. Bringing to the fore, again, the fact that electoral content on social media for the 2018 elections is mainly about confirming, strengthening their already established preferences.
This is largely because of the highly personalised, materialist and loyalist nature of our country’s electoral-political culture.
The middle ground of this social media content is hard to find. It’s largely comprised of election related support organisations that will either urge people to crosscheck their names on the voters-roll or put out analysis on the law and other requirements for a free and fair election.
All juxtaposed against what obtains. Such social media content is largely “instrumentalised” by one political contestant or the other depending on what the issue is. If it is critiquing the current electoral system, it will be used to malign the ruling party. If it is commending the electoral system it is used to malign the mainstream opposition.
Then, there is the personal dimension to political content around the elections that is increasingly coming to the fore. Prominent activists and celebrities on Zimbabwean Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp have also taken to putting out content that clearly indicates which side they are rooting for.
And in some cases there have been some Twitter spats between them, again, based on their preferences. One can only hope that these spats stay online and remain more than political banter.
Though in most instances it does seem that these will spill over from the online to the physical.
And where we discuss the relationship between the online world that social media represents with the real world, we also have to be wary about how electoral content may also affect the emotional and psychological state of those that are putting it out or consuming it