There truly is nothing new under the sun. Not even in a dynamic place like the little teapot we call home, Zimbabwe. It was only a few years ago that we were making fun of the former finance minister, Chinamasa, when he was made ‘social media prefect.’ Turns out his legacy lives on, the social media prefects are back.
The govt is back to its ways and has set up a new team to monitor what Zimbabweans post on social media. I’m a little disappointed that the team is not being led by a former finance minister, I thought the precedent had been set. But wait a minute, who told me there is no former Finance minister in the ranks of these mysterious Facebook police? The man himself, ED, is a former finance minister so could he…? Nah, but…, nah.
The first coming of the social media prefects
They say you gotta look backwards, to 2017, before you go forwards. The circumstances that led to the govt realising social media had to be monitored seriously are still vivid to me.
As people do, some spread the message that there was an imminent shortage of cooking oil coming. The posts went viral and as human nature dictates, Zimbabweans went on a panic buying spree.
Disregard whether the posts were self fulfilling prophecies or not. The fact remains, the situation was not helped by people buying 10 times what they normally would. That whole episode was the beginning of the troubles for the bond note. The govt took notice and to be fair, it should take notice. It is just that it is limited in what it can do to combat the negative effects of social media.
A Cyber Security ministry was set up to deal with this new threat, which apparently could impact the economy. Even jokesters with no real malice in their stupid posts could and still can cause a fair bit of chaos. The ministry was mocked to the gutters, feelings were hurt and eventually it was disbanded. It is no longer a separate ministry but cyber security (social media security?) remains a focus.
The semi-bright spot is that the Cyber Bill went through parliament and should be law soon. That should help in policing cyber, and especially social media crimes in the future.
The case for monitoring social media
We have seen the destructive effect social media has. Just last month Facebook (now Meta) and Instagram (still Instagram) were in trouble after leaks showed how damaging the platform is for teens. The US govt cracked down on this, the US Senate turned into social media prefects, just like our dear Chinamasa did when you all called him the WhatsApp headboy.
Then there is the other matter of some fools who think they are The Joker and just want to watch the world burn. We have seen the complete disregard for the consequences of forging government departments’ letterheads and spreading disturbing lies. Some of these fabrications are convincing and so innocent, trusting Zimbabweans fall for them.
Some love warning people about upcoming extreme weather after their drunken premonitions. This has led to deaths and mass evacuations in some parts of Africa. In Zimbabwe, while we may not have any recorded deaths, mukukwidza ana Moms BP amana (you’re raising our mothers’ blood pressures.) So at least indirectly, we may have deaths here too.
National security is another concern. Zimbabwe is not unlike a ticking time bomb. We have a govt and a population eyeing each other suspiciously. An economy so fragile, $73 million could destabilise it and so yes, a single rogue tweet can cause untold damage. We saw the Democratic party in the US blame Facebook for their loss to Donnie. If the Zimbabwean ruling party wants to retain power, social media will have to be monitored.
The reincarnation of the prefects
This is what the Information Minister had to say,
“We have actually come up with a cyber-team that is constantly on social media to monitor what people send and receive since we cannot wish social media away,”Monica Mutsvangwa
Apparently, it’s just a matter of lack of ability to do so, but if the Zimbabwe government could, they would have wished WhatsApp away. No wonder we are close friends with China, who knows, we could get pointers and assistance and ‘the great Zimbabwean firewall’ could become a thing.
However, for now, the govt says they are not interested in regulating social media. They just want to know what’s going on, who’s saying what and to whom. Aren’t we all looking to find that out, so we can’t fault the govt for this.
They promise there will be no intimidation this time around,
“People used to have fear and respect on social media during Mugabe’s time, but all that is no longer there in the second republic.”Monica Mutsvangwa
I don’t think she meant ‘respect’ in that quote. There is no way the second republic would pride itself in the fact that respect is dead under their oversight. That said, I do think they have changed tactic this time around.
Here on Techzim, we have seen increased activity by political trolls. I believe this is an extension of the duties of the social media prefects. They are not intimidating people, just trying to advocate for the govt in the face of criticism, perceived or real. It is an interesting strategy, rather than bomb offices, engage the heretics and provide a different way to look at things.
How successful will they be?
Well, that depends on what they are truly trying to achieve. If they want to get in front of misinformation and offer the correct positions then they will have moderate success.
If they want to find out where the collective opinions lie, they will have to scrounge through the crude jokes but they will find out what Zimbos think about particular issues.
Social media is a recycling factory and if you join just a few WhatsApp groups, you start to see the same stuff posted in all groups. That’s why ‘we don’t do groups’ is a statement. So, end to end encryption counts for nothing in the end.
If they want to shape the thoughts of suggestible Zimbos, they probably won’t have that much success. If the efforts of the current online trolls on their payroll are anything to go by.
But, if the main goal is to monitor what people send and receive like they say, I’m confident they will get what they are looking for. For better or worse.
All that said, before you post that killer tweet, remember mukoma vari kubokola, big brother is watching.