The 2018 election is exciting to many for various reasons: for communication and technology enthusiasts the most interesting prospect is the impact social media campaigns can have on elections.
Relatively unknown young candidates have emerged vying for seats within council and Parliament, in a buzz that has led jokers to remark that “independent candidacy is the new prophecy”; likening the proliferation of electoral runners to that of charismatic church leaders.
Fair to call these new entrants by their novice titles; they seem to prefer engagement on the web than the traditional boots on the ground approach synonymous with age old political parties and actors. Twitter and Facebook have changed from being social networks where people post about their vacations to being an arena where political careers are being birthed and incubated. Names that come to mind early are Linda Masarira, Vimbayi Musvaburi, Fadzayi Mahere, Kudzai Mubaiwa and many others whose names would choke this column of space before the point cache is emptied. Most of them are independent and running without the backing of an existing political party.
That means they will be running campaigns from their pockets and the generosity of financiers who may be willing to extend a bit of change towards their ambitions. On this basis, the rationale to stick to the Internet as a campaign platform makes sense for the many who will be operating on relatively thin budgets.
But can it deliver results?
The Zimbabwean Internet space is complex, for all the celebrated mobile Internet penetration in the country, very few people go beyond WhatsApp, with about 40 percent of the mobile Internet traffic being dedicated to the chat platform.
Which means, depending on demographic, messages cannot reach their intended destinations unless carefully organised for WhatsApp, which has its fair share of demons in fake news.
Ruvheneko Parirenyatwa is a recent victim whose name was thrown in the hat by an excitable admirer as a possible candidate. Besides the participatory density, Twitter and Facebook provide an illusion, with the diffusion of space involved in communication, engagement is geographically blind. Responses a candidate garners every time they pronounce an idea may not be from people who are going to cast the ballot, which means there is a risk of banking on a crowd that is ineligible to advance their cause.
Imagine a person running to be a legislator for Seke South spending time outlining their vision to a Twitter user based in Luton in the United Kingdom.
It may help their algorithm, but may not have a positive impact on their end goal since successful election campaigns are validated by gaining access to the intended office, not retweets.
There is a high probability of brilliant political cuisines being served to those who do not deem them edible. Politics does not always hinge plainly on ideas, no matter how profound they may be. Voting decisions are a product of enthusiasm, the triggering of emotional nuances within the electorate helps sell a political appeal better than most techniques.
Enthusiasm based voting is the reason why orators find it easy to gather votes, maybe except in the case of one unfortunate Acie Lumumba in 2013 who lost the Hatfield seat with all his eloquence. But his demise was because he underrated the opponent he was up against. Video messages cannot replace the morale a rally has in terms of psyching people up in the middle of political contestation.
Sloganeering has been chided by futuristic political thinkers who prefer strict policy pronouncements, but in the hunt for votes, it still serves a key purpose of triggering euphoria at political gatherings.
This is an aspect social media is yet to show competence in; the lack of human contact reduces the intensity.
With most of the new school prospective candidates bracing to square off with seasoned players in the political game, they may have a tough task in beating a person who delivers his or her message after rocking the crowd with songs and slogans they relate to.
Just like in the good old game of draughts, social media borrows a principle in a touch is a move.
What one said or did on the Internet remains part of one’s identity as long as it is still accessible.
For example, Vimbayi Musvaburi just after former President Robert Mugabe’s resignation ran amok with a few acquaintances smashing his portraits to the ground. They visited a number of local hotels that night and, thanks to technology, it was captured on video.
Those captured moments may be used against her during the campaign trail with her opponents having a simple task of outlining how a person who does not respect private property cannot be trusted with public office.
Donald Trump had to explain a number of pre-recorded actions during his campaign to become president of the United States.
Trump went away with some of the cringe-worthy statements because of a sophisticated public relations machine characteristic of elections in America; same cannot be said for some self-funding independent candidates in Zimbabwe. Their recovery may be a mammoth task.
The avant-garde electoral candidate pack, arguably led by Fadzayi Mahere, has brought a new trajectory to political engagement in the country, probably drawing from continental templates.
There is precedent: in Kenya there is a photographer and activist Boniface Mwangi, who ran a campaign whose traits are visible in Fadzayi Mahere’s campaign.
It was run with similar energy and the response on the cyberspace gave an impression that Mwangi’s election was a forgone conclusion.
On election day, he lost the Starehe parliamentary seat to Charles Njagua, also known as Jaguar, who rose to prominence with his musical hit “Kigeugeu” in 2011.
Both man were unorthodox political hopefuls, but Mwangi conceded a loss he described as a learning curve.
Njagua, the man who beat Mwangi, was a well-known musical entertainer who was known by people beyond the screens of their smartphones.
If we are to draw parallels, Mahere may be well known on the Internet, but she could be up against a seasoned Jaison Passade (if he wins primary elections) whose foot has been on the ground for a substantial time.
Mount Pleasant, together with other constituencies, will be an interesting case study to measure the political impact of the Internet and social media.
It has been recognised as a key tool in the electoral game-play even by the highest office in the land; but is it enough to grant political victories on its own? Only 2018 will tell.