Christopher Farai Charamba Political Writer
One of the first things I do when I wake up in the morning is look for my phone. Usually it is on the charger, by the bedside or lost somewhere under the covers.
Once in my hand, I squint at it, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the bright light of the LCD screen.
I then open my applications, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp among the first, in any random order. Once satisfied that I am caught up with what I missed while I was in slumber, my day can officially begin.
This has become routine, one I’d hazard a guess and say is common to many, particularly those of the millennial generation.
Social media has become the place that I receive the news, or rather the day’s headlines, not only from Zimbabwe, but around the world.
The Global News Podcast then catches me up in more detail with what is happening in different parts of the planet and in a couple of my group chats, we discuss the trending topics in Zimbabwe reported in the country’s major dailies.
Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found between 2013 and 2016, there was decrease in people accessing their news from print media and a corresponding increase in social media being a source of news.
Social media are platforms which people can use to communicate with each other in real time, regardless of where they are in the world.
When something happens anywhere on the planet, there is usually an instant reaction on social media.
One can get eye witness accounts and varied perspectives and narratives on the same event.
Some would even go as far as arguing that news breaks faster on social media.
The real time nature means that there are instant reactions from those that are there, be it a football match or a royal wedding.
Media organisations, however, have not been replaced; they have just integrated into this modern means of information consumption and are participants in the sharing of news on social media platforms.
But when something happens, a bombing or explosion, for example, one of the first places I turn to for information is social media.
This was the case this past weekend when an explosion went off metres away from President Mnangagwa at White City Stadium in Bulawayo as he was leaving the podium.
Both Facebook and Twitter had videos of the incident; the rally was being live streamed and there were comments from those who were at the scene describing what they saw.
WhatsApp groups were also alive with pictures and videos from the stadium and people mentioning that something had happened.
Unfortunately, however, this is as far as social media goes. Outside of knowing that there was an explosion, the Internet was unable to provide credible information as to who it was who carried out the attack and what had become of those who were in the area.
One had to turn to the trusted traditional media for authentic updates on the situation. It was through the traditional media that the Presidential spokesperson informed the nation that the President was safe.
Traditional media was also the medium through which the President did an interview and was the one to release pictures of the President visiting victims of the attack in hospital.
On social media, speculation was brewing. There were rumours as to who was responsible, conspiracy theories being thrown around by everyone from common twimbos (a moniker for Zimbabweans on twitter) to “trusted” media moguls.
This is the downside of social media. Not only is it difficult to authenticate information, but there is competition to be the loudest voice in the room and “break” news first.
The nature of these Internet-based platforms sees people competing for likes, shares and retweets, which give way to sensationalism and clickbait.
A great amount of care is, therefore, required when engaging with information on social media and in WhatsApp group chats.
This does not apply to incidents like the one that took place this past weekend, but any information relating to any other event.
As the election draws closer, one should be more vigilant when they encounter news from various platforms so as to not be led astray by those seeking to advance their sinister agendas.
The first thing that people should do is check the source of the information.
Know that everyone has an angle and an agenda; so it is up to you the reader to check the source of information and then cross reference with other sources.
Traditional media outlets are a good place to check for truth on a matter, but one should be aware that these institutions also have an agenda and, therefore, it would be wise to check with multiple sources to get a more balanced view.
Always question what the motive of the person or institution posting the information might be. Zimbabwe has an extremely partisan political environment and that means things people say and share are more opinion than fact.
Another important thing to do is wait for official comment. After the explosion on Saturday, there were many rumours as to what had happened, who had been targeted and who was injured.
Nothing was confirmed, but people were sharing this information as if it were fact. To avoid being exposed to inaccurate information, it is best to wait for official comment from the relevant authorities on that issue.
This applies not only to government, but also other political parties and individuals. A number of these institutions have spokespersons and they should be relied upon to provide accurate information about their organisations or principles.
People should also check the dates of items posted and consider the context of when something might have been said.
The Internet never forgets and so there are bound to be pictures and videos of people saying things they may disagree with today that resurface.
In smear campaigns, such footage is gold, but it may not be a true representation of that person today. With time, circumstances and people change and, therefore, it is always important to cross reference and examine the wider context in which the information you are receiving is placed.
Social media has made the world think that everyone is a journalist.
The term citizen journalism has grown in use and a number of organisations make use of user-generated content in their reporting.
The difference, however, is that journalists adhere to certain standards and ethics where those on social media exercise their freedom of speech to the fullest and share what they want.
One should, therefore, be diligent in filtering different types of information they receive from the Internet, especially if they intend to come closer to the truth.
This is not to condemn the use of social media, as I have already noted that it is an integral part of my daily routine, but for people to understand the imperfections of certain tools.
All systems have their flaws and it is only through recognising them that one can avoid falling into a trap.