Zimbabwe’s information war on digital platforms threatens free expression

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By Kudzai Chimhangwa /

HARARE – When news broke that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) had appointed the daughter of Kembo Mohadi, the vice president of the ruling party, as a commissioner, a number of Zimbabwean citizens expressed outrage on social media.

Abigail Ambrose’s appointment raised heated debate on the independence and impartiality of the ZEC as citizens queried her appointment with regard to the timing of the 2023 elections.

Government spokesperson Nick Mangwana quickly defended her appointment, arguing that children and relatives of high-profile people have the same right to employment and service to their country as everyone else. “That’s why it’s called, ‘Equal Opportunities,’” said Mangwana.

The ensuing discourse on the issue ultimately reflected a high level of polarisation between dissenting voices and the government on political issues, as propaganda and disinformation have continued to hog the country’s social media landscape.

As Zimbabwe heads towards elections in 2023, the political environment has become a hotly contested battleground for accepted narratives between the state and alternative voices.

An incursion into the country’s political history shows that citizens remain susceptible to persuasion through coordinated inauthentic behaviour campaigns online by key political actors, as the latter group aims to gain mileage and entry to political office.

Ever since the coup that deposed the late strongman Robert Mugabe in November 2017, Zimbabwe has been experiencing an economic freefall precipitated by increased international isolation over human rights abuses by the regime and institutionalised corruption.

The state narrative is therefore inclined towards churning out information that casts the regime in a positive light, regardless of the authenticity or truthfulness of the information.

The Ministry of Media Information and Broadcasting Services has taken propaganda and information manipulation to a higher level as the government seeks to justify its behaviour.

This is evident in government spokesperson Mangwana’s argument that there was nothing untoward or irregular about the appointment of Mohadi’s daughter to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. This is also evident in the spokesperson’s justification of ill-gotten wealth by the ruling party elite.

The human rights situation in the country has continued to deteriorate, while civic space has continued to shrink, as the regime seeks to consolidate political power.

President Mnangagwa has previously accused what he termed “government detractors” of using social media to incite citizens into anti-government protests, in a bid to remove him from power through regime change.

This has led to a form of hybrid technology-driven warfare as a new era of disinformation and propaganda has taken root in Zimbabwe’s social media ecosystem.

The role of technology in the politics of the country

Before the November 2017 coup that removed Mugabe from office, the ruling party and the army tolerated social media mobilisation to take to the streets against Mugabe. Propaganda was effectively used to convince the masses that Mugabe had to go, on both state television and social media platforms.

The current leadership under President Mnangagwa knew the power of social media in implementing revolution. A few years later, the new government is cracking down on social media and arresting voices of dissent who disagree with the official state narrative on alleged regime change agendas by foreign detractors and unjustified sanctions.

Yet, it becomes more important to understand the dynamic interplay between digital technology and strategic information dissemination.

African Centre for Media Excellence Online Content Producer Clare Muhindo

In an interview with Advox, African Centre for Media Excellence Online Content Producer Clare Muhindo points out that there is a distinct difference between disinformation and propaganda.

“Disinformation is patently false information that is deliberately peddled to spread falsehoods and cause harm. Someone decides to spread false information, most times with an agenda. However, propaganda is also a subset of disinformation laden with malice and negative connotations,” Muhindo told Advox.

Asked about the role of digital technology, Muhindo said digital technology has made the work of agents who spread disinformation easier.

“Digital technology has played a huge role in spreading propaganda and disinformation because these offer a huge platform, which appeals to a large number of people. This has also provided agents of disinformation with the tools to make the dissemination of propaganda easier,” she said.

Muhindo further added that digital platforms have at best served to exacerbate the pre-existing problem of the spread of false information, and this is strongly influenced by the culture and values of a people.

A propaganda war has continued to play out in Zimbabwe as the ruling party seeks dominance over national discourse. For instance, ruling party stalwart and advisor to President Mnangagwa, Chris Mutsvangwa, previously argued that Western sanctions were not the cause of the nation’s troubles, but that it was rather economic mismanagement by the Mugabe regime.

However, in 2020, Mutsvangwa pushed the narrative that sanctions were designed to undermine Zimbabwe’s confidence. This is evident in the value which the ruling party places on mass communication to justify its continued stay in power, including using digital platforms to achieve persuasion objectives.

In another interview with Advox, Namibia Media Trust Director Zoe Titus explained that the digital age has made people think differently about information and how it is shared. “Propaganda is designed with particular intentions, deliberate and aimed at swaying public opinion with the objective of achieving a particular outcome,” she said.

Titus pointed out that a key factor influencing how digital technology is roped into the information dissemination matrix is largely dependent on the business models that social media platforms use. “Information is a matter of life and death. Social media platforms have to assume a level of responsibility because these platforms are unregulated,” she said.

Disinformation and free expression

The government values social media platforms as important areas for spreading its propaganda as it remains aware of the high number of internet users in the country.

However, the war for dominance over narrative space between voices of dissent and the state remains a conflict area with substantial repercussions on free speech on social media platforms.

The development and growth of propaganda and disinformation by the state using online platforms has led to the consolidation of authoritarian rule and democratic regression.

*This post is part of Advox, a Global Voices project dedicated to protecting freedom of expression online.