Fake news on the upsurge as Zimbabwe gears up for elections


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Doctored documents bearing logos of either government, political parties or the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission are being circulated on social media to drive particular agendas. Examples include:

  • A purported official letter announcing the resignation of the president of the newly formed National Patriotic Front.
  • The circulation of a fake sample of a ballot paper aimed at discrediting the electoral commission.
  • A photo-shopped image of the head of the electoral commission Justice Priscilla Chigumba wearing a scarf bearing ZANU-PF insignia in a bid to portray her as biased, and
  • A sensational claim that Chamisa had offered to make controversial former first Lady Grace Mugabe his vice president if he wins.

A number of these fake images and documents have gained credibility, after they were picked up as news by the mainstream media.

This speaks to the diminishing capacity of newsrooms to verify information from social media, in the race to be first with the news.

And, contrary to electoral guidelines for public media partisan reporting continues unabated.

The state media houses are endorsing Mnangagwa while the private media largely roots for the MDC-Alliance.

These are the first elections in a significantly developed social media environment in Zimbabwe. Mobile internet and social media have been rapidly growing over the years.

Internet penetration has increased by 41.1% (from 11% of the population to 52.1%) between 2010 and 2018, while mobile phone penetration has risen by 43.8% from 58.8% to 102.7% over the same period.

That means half the population now has internet access, compared to 11% in 2010.

Ideally, these technologies should be harnessed for the greater good – such as voter education. Instead, they are being used by different interest groups in a way that poses a great danger to the electoral process. This can potentially cloud the electoral field, and even jeopardise the entire process.

A good example are the attacks on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which has become a major target of fake news. These attacks threaten to erode its credibility as a neutral arbiter.

For example, an app bearing its logo, prompting users to “click to vote”, went viral on WhatsApp. But, responding to the prompt led to a message congratulating the user on voting for Mnangagwa, suggesting that the supposedly independent electoral body had endorsed the ZANU-PF leader.

Numerous other unverified stories have also been doing the rounds on social media, labelling the voters’ roll “shambolic”. This, and claims of bias against it, have forced the commission to persistently issue statements refuting what it dismisses as “fake news”.

Events in Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent point to the need for measures to guard against the abuse of social media, and bots to subvert democratic processes. There’s also a need for social media literacy to ensure that citizens appreciate the power the internet gives them – and to use it responsibly.

By Dumisani Moyo for The Conversation

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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