Social media: An elections game changer

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ZIMBABWE has been an unpredictable country over the past 13 years, but in a checkered history that has kept lurching from crisis to crisis, one event has kept coming back with certainty –– elections.

Candid Comment with Dingilizwe Ntuli

Past elections have been marred by violence and intimidation coupled with the state-controlled media’s relentless demonising of Zanu PF’s opponents.

However, since the last elections in 2008, a social media revolution has transformed the political and journalistic landscape in Zimbabwe and indeed the world.

The development of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp has drastically changed the way we interact with each other and dramatically altered how the public consumes information and news. Social media has also increased the speed information is gathered and disseminated.

Gone are the days of previous elections when people solely depended on the polarised media for news and information.

While Facebook states on its homepage that it “helps you connect and share with the people in your life”, it also provides a relatively safe forum to debate political issues without fear because of the cover of anonymity it provides, particularly in our restrictive media environment.

On August 28, 2009 mobile service provider Econet launched the country’s first mobile broadband enabling cellphone users to access the internet via their smartphones.

This helped surge internet connectivity in Zimbabwe to the current levels of 4,5 million.

According to polling organisation Gallup International, Zimbabwe has about 1,5 million Facebook users, but the figures could be higher considering the mobile phone penetration of 97%.

As US President Barack Obama proved in his 2008 election campaign, social media has proved to be a useful organising tool.

It provides a means for news to travel in smaller, more digestible forms and has also become increasingly important in keeping constituents tuned in to political news and happenings as well as providing a means of cheap and efficient communication not bound by geographical limitations.

Our political leadership has proved time and again to be out of touch with reality and to distort the truth. Social media has come in to address some of these challenges.

The Arab Spring, which saw a series of protests and demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen that began in December 2010, is widely credited to have been organised, publicised and updated via social networks.

A Social media phenomenon like Baba Jukwa has effectively used Facebook to push the boundaries of media freedom and the free flow of information by exposing some dark state secrets.

Baba Jukwa has become a social media sensation in Zimbabwe with about 280 000 Facebook likes compared to the pages of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who have about 100 000 likes each.

Next week’s elections provide Zimbabweans with the perfect opportunity to make use of social media to take election coverage to new levels by sending live updates in their respective locations, given the lack of transparency of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the Registrar-General’s Office.

Zimbabweans must make use social media to increase capacity for open discussion of political matters.

 

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