Zimbabwe: A look back at the misinformation that preceded the elections on social networks

Both the ruling ZANU-PF and the Citizens’ Coalition for Change, the main opposition party, made extensive use of manipulated photos and videos.

Photos doctored to make crowds appear larger than they really are, publications praising fictitious government actions… Misinformation is omnipresent in the run-up to Zimbabwe’s elections, particularly on WhatsApp. The country is preparing for a tense poll on August 23 to elect the president, members of parliament and municipal councillors, against a backdrop of opposition repression and fears of electoral fraud.

Large-scale misinformation campaigns in the run-up to elections are now commonplace in Africa, and Zimbabwe is no exception. But whereas in Kenya and Nigeria, the disseminators of false information acted openly during the recent elections, most often on Facebook and Twitter (recently renamed « X »), in Zimbabwe this takes place mainly on the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp, according to experts, making it more difficult to verify the false content that proliferates there.

« For most Zimbabweans, the Internet is WhatsApp, » observes Nqaba Matshazi, a journalist with the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in Zimbabwe. Only a third of the country’s 15 million inhabitants have access to the Internet, according to a 2023 report by data analysis firm DataReportal. But while only 9% of Internet users frequent social networks, WhatsApp is much more widely used, and many Zimbabweans see it as a safe means of communication in a country where criticizing the government can send you to prison.

On Twitter, few people discuss politics under their real names, because of the « risk of arrest », stresses Mr. Matshazi. But WhatsApp isn’t a free zone either, with several people ending up in prison after posting there, he adds. In May, Zimbabwe approved a vaguely worded law imposing harsh penalties on anyone who harms the country’s « sovereignty and national interest ». A text which, according to its critics, effectively prohibits any criticism of the government. This law has aggravated « an already infected wound in an environment where freedom of expression is frankly restricted », says Mr. Matshazi.

Parties also used tactics to suggest that their rivals had few supporters, and campaign messages were deliberately distorted. A clip from CCC leader Nelson Chamisa, for example, was altered to say that he supported a reversal of the radical land reforms of ex-president Robert Mugabe (1987-2017, dies 2019) and a return of land to white farmers. Television has not been spared: according to observers, public broadcaster ZBC often portrays the CCC as an unpopular party and takes its leaders’ words out of context.

Expatriate Zimbabweans, in South Africa and the UK in particular, play a crucial role in amplifying misinformation, experts explain. « A lot of discussion about the Zimbabwean elections takes place on the Internet and in the South African, European and American media, mainly because of restrictions in Zimbabwe and the fear of reprisals, » says analyst Jamie Mighti.

Keneth Ononga

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