Zimbabwe: Sowing the seed for a social media “revolution”

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The past few weeks have seen an upsurge in online activism in Zimbabwe and reignited questions on the efficacy of online activism in the country.

An online activism campaign known as #ThisFlag spawned more activism, both online and offline, as Zimbabweans used their national flag as a symbol to air their frustration with the state of the economy and the country, leading to a “national shutdown” in July.

Debates on how effective online campaigns are have inevitably started, but Pastor Evan Mawarire, who started the campaign, has become a national phenomenon, to a point that thousands waited outside a courtroom on a wintry day, waiting for the outcome of his court appearance after his arrest on allegations of seeking to overthrow the government.

Zimbabwe’s response to online campaigns has not helped much, as there is speculation the government ordered internet service providers to shut down popular messaging platform, WhatsApp, indicating a high level of paranoia from the state.

A government minister has denied that they forced the blocking of WhatsApp in the country, although no one has offered a plausible explanation why the popular mobile platform was not working on all three mobile networks, while the state internet service provider shut down internet on July 6.

The government seems not to have a clue how to deal with online activism and has resorted to crass methods of trying to shut down the internet. The government has already threatened to prosecute and disconnect mobile phones, who use social media to make “subversive” statements, the clearest indicator they are out of their depth in how to deal with this growing wave of activism.

Social media platforms like Twitter offer users the options of anonymity, while WhatsApp messages are encrypted, meaning this could be an empty threat from the authorities.

The equalising effect of the internet, particularly social media platforms such as WhatsApp, which are totally disruptive of the government’s top-down approach to information dissemination, is undeniable and Zimbabweans are now able to organise and group themselves without government involvement.

In that way, social media have become empowering tools, where people are able to share information up to the minute, organise gatherings at courts and offer solidarity messages and in so doing subvert the dominant order.

For example, the political affect – rather than effect – of seeing people gathered at the magistrates’ court through posting selfies while carrying flags at Mawarire’s hearing encouraged more people to go the courts and soon this snowballed into something that no one could have predicted.

Mawarire raised emotions and was able to connect with Zimbabweans through this use of social media, and this frightened the government, who initially thought the campaign would fizzle out.

As one scholar remarked authorities have become adept at dealing with civil disobedience and in Zimbabwe’s case, they have come down heavily on anyone, who dares take to the streets in protest. Also, protesters have to apply in advance to the police and authorities are already in the know long before a protest, give them set route and are able to contain the demonstrations, effectively reducing the effect of on the street demonstrations.

Observers have questioned what reach online campaigns have and if they can change anything, as the majority of the people live in rural areas, where internet is expensive and connectivity is poor.

While this holds some truth, what they fail to take into account is that almost half of Zimbabweans (46 per cent according to the government regulator) have access to the internet and – minus children – this means a great number of people have access to the net.

The influx of cheap Chinese phones that can access the internet also means more people can communicate via the omnipresent WhatsApp, which is far cheaper than regular calls and SMS, thus, messages about protests and online campaigns reach far more people than what we can imagine.

The reach of WhatsApp groups is something that needs to be studied, as volumes upon volumes of information is shared and discussed on these platforms, meaning more people are engaging in political conversations and are able to vent their frustrations and these are breeding grounds for political conversations and participation.

Information on social media platforms is moving at light speed and the government just not cannot keep up, as some bureaucrats are technophobes of the highest order and consider new communication technologies an inconvenience.

This is not to say online campaigns are about to cause change in Zimbabwe, but they have sowed the seeds of a revolution and how the government responds could be telling. The power of social media cannot be underestimated and they will continue to haunt the Zimbabwean government.

A few short years ago, communication in Zimbabwe was the preserve of the mainstream media, with the government dominating most channels of communication, but now the subaltern is speaking and government is scrambling for ways to respond to so many voices speaking at once.

A good number of Zimbabweans are moving away from yacking – incessant and tiresome talk online – and are beginning to organise and group on issues that are affecting them and are now challenging authorities.

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