By Gracious Madondo
Social media has an overwhelming impact in today’s heavily mediated life but its effect on politics and democracy is yet to be empirically measured, particularly with regards to Zimbabwe's harmonised elections scheduled for July 30.
But unlike other past elections, the present elections have been uniquely different in that parties and their supporters have swarmed social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, literally turning the platforms into mobilisation rendezvous.
Experts say as a first in the history of Zimbabwe and despite its deficits, social media has risen to be the hottest campaign tool but its impact on the election results remains untested.
Commenting on the vigorous use of social media in campaigning by various political parties in the country, political and social commentator from the University of Zimbabwe, Dr Tanaka Chidora said social media campaign is a new trend in the country’s election history that will largely benefit the social media operators in terms of profits.
“The 2018 elections are different from previous elections. One of the reasons is the prevalence of social media. Never before have I seen Zimbabweans engaging in political issues like they are doing now. This is definitely a plus for social media in terms of profits,” Chidora said.
He said instead of uniting and bring people together politics on social media divides people as they follow those they align their political views with.
“But for me, the elephant in the room of this new social media political space is what Samidh Chakrabarti calls 'echo chambers'. Basically, this is where people only acknowledge those views that echo their own and reject alternative voices. S
o instead of bringing people together, this democratic space that has been carved on social media spaces is actually further pulling us apart,” he said.
Chidora said social media can be a conduit that helps in the emergence of different political parties.
“Various forms of hegemony find expression and are normalized on social media. So can we say social media spaces can help change deeply ingrained human political instincts?” Chidora rhetorically asked.
Chidora said social media has the capacity to cause violence in physical space due to differences presented on social media hence the need for political leaders to encourage peace among their followers.
“The violent confrontation of perspectives on social media may actually represent violent confrontations that may take place on physical spaces.
This makes it imperative for the key political players of the 2018 elections to continue preaching peace.
They also need to be visible on social media platforms preaching this gospel of peace”, he said.
Another analyst, Professor Eldred Masunungure of the University of Zimbabwe Political Science Department said social media campaigns require great caution because it is a platform that is easily manipulated.
“In a democracy, social media can be both a blessing and a curse because it is easily manipulated.
It is important in popularising party promises outlined in their manifestos but it is not trustworthy because it is prone to fake news,” Masunungure said.
He said social media needs a regulator to filter out and avoid the circulation fake news.
“There is a need for the implementation of frameworks that govern the use of social media to filter out fake news something that is quite detrimental during election time,” he said.Masunungure said despite the popularising two of the country’s major political parties- the MDC and Zanu-PF, more still needs to be done on the ground in terms of campaigns.
He said despite social media's popularity, political parties need to use traditional models of campaigns such as community rallies, newspapers and radio campaigns, among others.
Earlier this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched a research initiative aimed at understanding the impact of social media on elections and democracy.
Reports indicate that the research came after Facebook came under fire during the 2016 United States of America Presidential elections after being involved in a scandal that saw a British political consulting company, Cambridge Analytica, being accused of using millions of data from millions of Facebook users to help political candidates in their political election efforts.
Zuckerberg is on record saying the new research initiative is aimed at protecting the integrity of elections around the world.
Social media is easily manipulated and due to the effects of its vulnerabilities, different African countries have been seen shutting down social media networks during elections.
African countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Congo, and Chad among others shut down social media networks in their respective countries for a couple of hours during an election.
It also happened in Uganda just before President Yoweri Museveni when social media was shut down leading people to resort to using virtual private networks to get around the restrictions.
Earlier this year, Ethiopia barred social media sites to prevent leakage of university examination.
But analysts agree that despite social media being virtual, its impact in swaying public opinion cannot be dismissed, as it has dramatically changed the way campaigns are run and how people exercise their democratic rights.