Politics is all about managing public perception. That cliché is just as attributable to Frank Underwood as it is to any real life political analyst or candidate for public office.
Whether it’s a fictional character or a real-life political mind, though, it doesn’t take anything away from its accuracy. Beyond the work that elected officials are mandated to do, they have to deal with the image communicated to the same people that vote them into office.
Which is why they are affected by any form of media that has the attention of the masses. Right now that spot belongs to social media, thanks to the way it has disrupted the rapid distribution of information.
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All the noise that’s made about the mobile revolution and people’s preferences for content that is in the palm of their hands is backed by an avalanche of data on growing mobile access, increased data consumption and the way traditional media is reacting to the attention that is now shared with mobile phones.
The same indicators hold true for Zimbabwe and an increasing amount of content is being accessed through mobile internet access.
All this is happening against the backdrop of a political landscape that is undergoing some serious transformation as old and new political forces collide. Which is why, now, more than ever, social media is setting itself up to be one of the most effective ways to make the right impression among potential voters.
Once upon a time, this role belonged to traditional media with the newspaper, radio, and television being the only ways to get a message across, but as options for accessing information have changed, traditional media is being outpaced.
New media is the popular media
Just how much of an impression does new age media have locally? There are key numbers that paint a particular picture here.
The first is for population makeup. The 2012 National census indicated that 55% of Zimbabweans were between the ages of 15 and 64 years with the majority of that group falling in the 15 to 44 age set.
This indicates a young population which is generally more engaged with social media and as such likely to consume most of its content through such platforms.
The other figures are on usage and they tell an even more compelling story. According to the most recent quarterly report from the national telecoms regulator, POTRAZ, 34% of internet data used in Zimbabwe was directed towards WhatsApp with Facebook coming in second with a distant 3%.
The remaining internet traffic is split among all the different online services and it’s worth pointing out is that this aggregate total also includes other social media platforms like YouTube.
These numbers have been largely influenced by the WhatsApp and Facebook bundles offered by the country’s mobile operators as a way of packaging Over the Top (OTT) services.
Another major influence has been the huge value propositions that WhatsApp and Facebook present.
For Facebook, besides the way the social media giant has positioned itself as a provider of news, it also has features like Pages and Groups which enable the aggregation of users with similar interests who can effortlessly and consistently pass on messages and communicate information.
Zimbabweans have already explored this for commercial benefit but it can have a major impact on the delivery of a politically inclined message, something that most people will remember from the 2013 election period with the infamous Baba Jukwa page.
WhatsApp does, however, offer a more interesting case for politics. Besides its huge popularity among Zimbabwean internet users, it also has a host of features that make it a prime tool for political use.
There’s multi- media communication that now also caters for different types of documents, group features that let a user command the attention of 255 people, a message broadcast feature, End to End Encryption (E2EE) for all types of messages plus all of this is for instant messaging.
Ideas, both good and bad, have been sprayed on WhatsApp and as long as you are part of a diverse set of groups you are bound to come across a video, stolen web article, voice clip, meme or well thought out long-form text that has a bigger message behind it.
Can it actually be effective for Zimbabwean politics?
One thing to remember though is that Zimbabweans aren’t quick to speak out when it comes to political thought. In a country where there have been cases of activist abduction, citizens tend to tread lightly when it comes to protest. However, social media is changing that.
There have already been some cases that have emerged as examples of citizen engagement through social media.
If we cannot cause the politician to change, we can inspire the citizen to be bold.
That statement was tweeted by Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean pastor who’s managed to attract a lot of attention through his social media protest called the #ThisFlag campaign.
Through self-shot videos that have been published almost daily for almost a month, Mawarire and his #ThisFlag protest has started discussions around the sensitive issue of public service accountability in the face of a government that is a failing to deliver on its promises to an electorate.
As far Zimbabwean activism and protest goes, the campaign has gained a lot of traction, not only through the views registered for each of the videos but also through the responses it has triggered from elected officials.
It’s not surprising that like other hacktivism efforts and protests rooted in social media, #ThisFlag has been viewed as just another ephemeral hashtag fest that will fizzle out without making an impression where it matters.
However, with an objective to embolden citizens, Mawarire has successfully delivered his message through social media proving that it can be used as an impactful tool for expressing such messages and cultivating engagement.
#ThisFlag isn’t the only politically related effort online. Former Zanu PF member Acie Lumumba also tapped into social media to start his #DigDeeper series which has been meant to expose corruption within the ruling party.
Even Twitter has been adopted as a platform for rapid political exchange with some cabinet Ministers like Jonathan Moyo, Supa Mandiwanzira and David Coltart constantly sharing their thoughts and engaging with citizens.
Strategies should include social
In 2018, Zimbabweans are set to go to the ballot in another set of national elections. By then internet penetration will have increased, along with an even higher adoption of tools like WhatsApp for communication as long as the government keeps its promise to not ban them.
With an increasing use of social media for politically minded discussion, all politicians need to start cultivating strategies around the more popular platforms.
This could be anything from starting a page, joining Twitter and answering questions or shooting videos to pass on that vision that has been articulated on paper.
If it’s not to carve out clear voices on policies and communicating their plans, it should at least be used to drown out their rivals’ voices because they will be speaking up online.
The landscape has changed and whoever wants to be crowned king in their own domain cannot afford to overlook this.
image credit – Facebook