Social media new threat to dictators

THE success of last week’s mass stay-away and other protests countrywide against President Robert Mugabe’s misrule and the deteriorating economic conditions co-ordinated largely through social media, illustrates how new forms of media have become a nightmare for dictators.

By Hazel Ndebele

Typical of dictator regimes, which thrive on controlling information and limiting the freedom of expression, Zimbabweans on Wednesday woke up to find WhatsApp shutdown as government tried in vain to limit the flow of information on the stay-away day.

It was, however, not a surprise to many as the government has promulgated several laws to limit the access to information including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act which was enacted in 2002 to oversee how the print and electronic media operate in the country. The Interception of Communication Act (ICA) of 2007 also gives government significant powers of surveillance over the communications of its citizens. Under ICA, internet service providers are required to install at their own expense the hardware and software required for the state to carry out surveillance.

Zimbabwe has also further drafted bills such as the Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill which will allow government to remotely install spying tools onto citizen’s communication devices.

But with social media, freedom of information and speech has been extended beyond the grasp of dictators through high and increasing usage of the internet. The use of social media has proved that it is becoming increasingly difficult for any government to control flow of information and ideas as citizens can share what they want as last weeks’ events attest.

Mobilising for the stay-away was made possible mainly by social media where people shared information.

The stay-away, a civil protest against misrule and economic failure, began with the hashtag #ThisFlag which is a campaign spearheaded by Pastor Evan Mawarire. Mawarire, arrested and released this week in a bid to pre-empt further stay-aways, came into the limelight after posting a video on Facebook decrying Zimbabwe’s decay under Mugabe, stocking patriotic fever with hashtag #ThisFlag on Twitter. He also posted a video online urging Zimbabweans not to report for work.

Passing of information via social media has freed people from relying on the traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers as in the past, which are largely state-controlled in Zimbabwe.

With the advent of the social media, the influence of state propaganda has been severely limited as vast sources of information which are beyond government’s control are now accessible to ordinary people.

The internet has proved to be a threat to dictators in many respects. Some governments such as the Chinese administration, spend vast amounts of money on equipment used to control the flow of information.

The exercise is, however, very expensive and broke governments such as the Zimbabwean government cannot keep pace with the rapid technological changes.

One of the reasons why the Zimbabwean government and other dictatorial regimes are afraid of social media is because of its role in the Arab spring uprisings.

The Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and in the Middle East heavily relied on social media to accelerate social protest. The Arab Spring revolts began on December 17 2010 on the streets of the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid when an impoverished and desperate street vendor, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze. After that act of self-immolation, within weeks a once seemingly indestructible regime was toppled and riots engulfed the region.
According to the Arab Social Media Report, a study conducted by the Dubai School of Government the influence of social media was critical for protesters to organise demonstrations, disseminate information about their activities and raise awareness of ongoing events locally and globally.

The Syrian government, however, tried hard to limit the social media by among other things monitoring online behaviour. It temporarily shut down the internet on May 7 2013.

In apparent shock after the success of the stay-away, the Zimbabwe government through state regulator Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) and telecoms operators said it would use its database to identify those sending out “subversive” messages. The move reminded many of the Syrian government’s attempt to control social media.

“Potraz together with all telecommunications service providers in Zimbabwe have noted with concern the gross, irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services made through our infrastructure and communication platforms over the past few days,” the statement read.

“… All sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified. We are therefore warning members of the public that from the date of this notice, any person caught in possession of, generating, sharing or passing on abusive, threatening, subversive or offensive communication messages, including WhatsApp or any other social media messages that may deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest.”

Despite the threats, Zimbabweans have continued to mobilise themselves for more protests through various social media platforms.

Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza said social media was a genuine threat to government as it had given a voice to the middle class.

“Last week’s stay-away was a middle class-driven process unlike the one which took place on Tuesday December 9 1997 where it was largely driven by the working class,” said Mandaza.

“Social media plays a critical role in the revolutionary process as it makes it easy for information to be shared, the middle class, nurses and teachers back in the ’60s and ’70s during the struggle would not participate in anything, but now they are directly affected by the social and political malaise.

“The middle class worldwide is known to influence change and our government is bound to fear because in the history of Zimbabwe the middle class would just stand back and watch.”

Social commentator Takura Zhangazha said social media plays a huge role in today’s world as last week’s stay away proved.

“There were few public meetings, fewer physical paraphernalia such as fliers to be distributed on the streets and no ‘boots on the ground’ or door-to-door campaigns,” Zhangazha said. “WhatsApp replaced what would have been routine/regular mobilisation strategies of bigger meetings and mainstream media campaign strategies. The WhatsApp groups became the small town meetings and gathering points. All sorts of groups, from those related to churches, families, sports, social clubs, informal traders, formal companies and human rights/civil society organisations converged on WhatsApp.”