WASHINGTON DC —
Some Zimbabweans are known to be tech-savvy and of late they have been using social media in an effort to effect social, political and economic transformation in the country.
Protests staged by citizens like Evan Mawarire of #thisflag movement and Tajamuka-Sesijikile Campaign, which is demanding the immediate resignation of President Robert Mugabe, appear to have been spearheaded through social media like Facebook and Twitter, and the messaging application, WhatsApp.
This appears to have unsettled the government as Zimbabwe's Information Technology Minister, Supa Mandiwanzira, is being quoted by a South African news organization warming the country's social media users that their phones can be tracked if they spread messages that President Mugabe's government deems abusive.
But Mandiwanzira is on record as saying the government won’t block social media like in some authoritarian states.
Are social media a tool for effecting political transformation in Zimbabwe? For perspective, Studio 7 reached Nigel Mugamu of 263Chat, an award-winning Zimbabwe media company encouraging dialogue using social media, guest blogs, live events and providing training and social media strategies, and Kholwani Nyathi, editor of the independent Standard newspaper.
Nyathi said social media are playing a critical role in enhancing the necessary transformation in Zimbabwe though at times such media can be destructive.
“What has happened in Zimbabwe is that due to the economic situation and the restrictive media laws that we have … we have very few official media channels and because of social media people have found channels outside the mainstream media and social media has a wider reach that the mainstream media.
“The difference between social media and mainstream media is that there is that feedback aspect. It’s no longer one way ... people can exchange messages and they can generate their own stories that they can debate on social media and this means that information travels much faster. There is a lot of freedom in that space and this is why its easier for activists to push their messages than through traditional media.”
But Nyathi noted that social media can also be destructive. “There is always danger in an environment where information is restricted. People end up speculating. Like today and the past two days the government hasn’t paid civil servants and there are a lot of messages flying around. There were people announcing several pay dates for civil servants and in the end you don’t know what’s true. When there is a vacuum people come up with all sorts of things to fill the vacuum and that is one of the first challenges about social media.
“With the first stay away (in Zimbabwe) there were people who were sending each other messages on how to make bombs and such things and that’s when social media has such consequencies that are not intended. It’s for a good cause but they can also be dangerous.”
Mugamu concurred, noting that social media are having a huge impact on Zimbabwe’s political processes. “I think it is (making an impact) just watching the ruling party and their reaction to what is taking place.
“This flag (Evan Mawarire’s #thisflag movement) initially I remember a month ago it was like … ahh.. this social media thing is not going anywhere and all of a sudden we saw people recording videos from beyond the urban areas … Something caught on and I think our leaders didn’t expect #thisflag and this movement to grow and has grown and now there was a funeral this week and the president mentioned Pastor E (Evan Mawarire) by name to say look there is this guy and this is what is going on.
He said such reaction is an indication that social media play a critical role in Zimbabwe’s democratization process.
“That tells you that they (Zimbabwean leaders) are paying attention. I have spoken to a number of people who work for state media who said they often believed that they controlled the media (sphere) by the shere fact that they have control of the TV, a lot of radio (stations) and offer print. I was talking to one gentlemen who told me that they thought they knew how people felt but what social media has shown them is that there is this other side.
Mugamu said Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms have come in handly for Zimbabweans, who don’t access state an private media.
He said the social media sphere has a bright future in the country as long as it is not regulated by the government.