The fate of prospective political office bearers in this year’s general elections lies literally in the hands of the electorate, if technological innovations of the last few years are anything to go by.
BY ANDREW KUNAMBURA
Gone are the days when newspapers, television and radio channels were the only platforms for reaching mass audiences.
Now the smartphone — which first made a huge political impact seven years ago during North African uprisings — is the new political battlefield for the hearts and minds of the electorate.
Since the last election in 2013, the capabilities and proliferation of mobile devices has increased exponentially, along with attempts to reach voters through mobile notifications. Could the new channels created by mobile technology, especially the social media networks, change how voters react and respond to political campaigns?
But the real battle is happening elsewhere, underground and unseen. It is an “invisible election”, some say.
Social media has basically eroded the influence of legacy media which has worked in favour of Zanu PF since it controls the state media — Zimpapers and ZBC — with the only television in the country and an array of radio stations.
In an attempt to be seen opening up the media space, licenced Zanu PF sympathisers as evidenced by the licensing of ICT minister Supa Mandiwanzira’s AB Communications to run a radio station. They have also enjoyed positive coverage from Zimpapers and its newspaper titles.But the terrain has radically changed. People no longer wait for news bulletins on radio or television; they follow topical issues on their mobile phones, thanks to social media, which has enabled instant messaging, live social media broadcasts and internet television.
These platforms have opened the frontiers of coverage and debate, reaching far out where the traditional media has never penetrated before. For instance, an Information and Media Panel of Inquiry report of the official inquiry into the state of the information commissioned by government in 2014 states that the majority of rural Zimbabweans cannot access ZBC television signals unless they are privileged to have satellite connection.
Panelists were told during the inquiry that the only radio with a proper nationwide coverage is the Voice of America.
Such a scenario gives social media an unbelievable advantage, which most parties and individuals participating in this poll appear to be very much alive to. People are targeted with personalised, tailor-made messages. At least 90% of urban Zimbabweans have been following this election cycle glued from their phones, particularly social media, according to a new study by Afrobarometer.
According the survey, the biggest reason voters gave for following politicians on social media was to find out news before other people did, and to become more personally connected to the candidates as well as receiving news stories and updates on the election.
Likewise, a 2016 study published in a United States publication, PLoS ONE, found that the more someone relies on their smartphone for information, the less likely they are to trust “neighbours, strangers, and people from other religions or nationalities.” In contrast, obtaining information through any other method including TV, radio, newspapers, and even the internet more broadly predicted higher trust in those groups, according to the authors of the study.
“We’ve heard a great deal about the impact that social media and the internet more generally has had on the US election, from The Economist reporting that Facebook more accurately predicted a variety of swing states than polling, to the numerous reports on voters’ consumption of fake news and the echo chambers of the internet that have created a fiercely polarised electorate,” the study said.
However, as this study highlights, less attention has been paid to how we physically consume this information and what impact that might have.
Sometimes, being connected to a campaign via cellphone translated to increased political activity. These voters were more likely to encourage others to vote or to attend a campaign event than people who did not read campaign news on their phones.
For instance, at the Zanu PF meeting for white Zimbabweans in Harare last Saturday, a number of those present told the Zimbabwe Independent that they had learnt about the event on social media.
Likewise, MDC candidates and campaigners have been updating their followers about their events relentlessly on the social media. Zanu PF took this type of campaign to a whole new level when it started sending messages to all registered voters on their mobile phones, raising speculation that they were in some unholy alliance with the supposedly independent Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
The other 54 parties contesting in this poll vehemently protested at the apparent collusion between Zec and Zanu PF. On one hand, all this could just be seen as the modern-day equivalent of the advertising placard. On another, it could be a way to get around strict limits on local campaign spending. But now, more than ever, questions are being asked as to how this can be regulated, especially because in addition to accurate information, social media have been responsible for the spread of falsehoods. The falsehoods are deliberately peddled to affect a rival’s chances of winning the election, or to altogether injure their reputation. It has certainly been a handful for spin doctors. There are a few examples here.
In one such case, a message was circulated indicating that MDC Alliance presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa was excommunicated from the AFM Church, where he is a pastor, for his political activities.
A check with the church later proved that no such thing had happened. In another incident, Mnangagwa’s nephew, Tongai, who is vying for the Harare South National Assembly seat, had been chased away by the constituents and had his vehicle stoned.
It also later turned out to be untrue. These and many other incidents have left many wondering what has come of this technology era.
University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Tawanda Zinyama believes this raises questions about election regulations.
He said: “It is totally non-transparent. That is, if a party has a billboard or a party political broadcast on television everybody sees it and they know what they are saying to people and they can assess that accordingly. But on a social media platform it is a secret world that is unique to a small group of people and we just do not know what those advertisements are saying or how they are targeting people or about their accuracy and I think that’s what’s different and that’s what’s worrying.”
For all the technical opportunities that campaigners will be presented with, they will have to make sure they do not overstay their welcome by sending too many messages, repeating the same message too often, contacting people without their consent or making adverts that are so personal they may turn off potential voters.
“People are used to adverts now, but if it’s clear that you are hyper targeting this person, that’s where you might get people to start to cringe a little bit,” said another political scientist Lawrence Mhandara.
“You do have to protect against backlash.”
But for technology expert Robert Ndlovu, the mobile smartphone is the place to be for any modern-day Zimbabwean.
“Some campaigns will invest in digital and mobile, and others will still act like it’s the 1990s. They still want to believe that people watch television as a family at 8pm,” he said.
“If you receive a tweet on your mobile device, it’s really easy for you to send that out to somebody else. And when that second person gets it, it’s from you. So you have, in effect, become a third-party endorser for what’s on that tweet. Whether you believe what’s on that tweet or you just think it’s funny or interesting,” he added.
Apparently, every politician now understands that the smartphone can work him or her some wonders, which is precisely why, at the age of 75, Mnangagwa opened his first Facebook and Twitter accounts to reach out to the electorate. Many say he did not want to be outdone by Chamisa, his younger adversary, who has been on social media for years.
Supporters of Mnangagwa and Chamisa recently went on an all-out war against each other on social media.
Zealous followers of Chamisa have been branded Nerrorists while Mnangagwa’s foot soldiers have been branded Varakashi (the vicious attackers). In this war, however, there is a very critical mass which is being left out: the rural folk.
The Afrobarometer report says that only 10% of rural Zimbabweans follow the elections on their cellphones, while 46% rely on television and radio. The rest rely on the traditional interactive meetings.
But whatever the case, the fact remains that smartphones — powering the social media — have now become an inescapable part of our elections, with implications for our democracy.