Zimbabwe: Fake News, Social Media - the New Battleground for Zanu-PF Wars

Photo: The Herald
Grace Mugabe during one of her attacks on then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa.

There is generally a collective agreement that Grace Mugabe had a way with repulsive language and lacked the etiquette befitting of a first lady.

Every time she stood before the nation, she spewed words incompatible with the decorum and behaviour expected of a first lady and often invited comparisons to her husband's late wife, Sally. Sally was loved by Zimbabweans and is often lauded for her philanthropic work and cordial relations with government officials.

But in all her mephitic tongue lashing at political foes, nobody was helping Grace in that regard better than Chatunga Bellarmine, her beloved last born son, whose social media exchanges with his followers was often met with sighs of disappointments and a barrage of insults.

And what a wrong time it was to choose social media sparring for Chatunga. He chose the time Mugabe was fighting for his political life and the whole country was up in arms against him -- they wanted him to vacate State House.

In one of the posts, in reference to his father Robert Mugabe --then under house arrest by the army, but having been given leeway to preside over the Zimbabwe Open University graduation ceremony -- Chatunga said: "The president, commander in chief of the defence forces and chancellor of Zimbabwe universities will be capping Zimbabwe Open University graduates today.

Gushungo. #ProudOfYouDad."

This invited a barrage of angry posts from many of his "friends", with one Vanessa Tsue Mufari being particularly brutal: "Look at him! He is screaming for help! At 93 you a$%#s should be taking care of him, not the other way round! Lord."

Undeterred, Chatunga was to post again on November 19: "You can't fire a revolutionary leader! Zanu PF is nothing without president Mugabe. Gushungo will always remain the champion of champions! Proud of you, Gushungo, proud of dad. Gushungo always and forever to death. People like Wellence Mujuru celebrate and march became (sic) of jealous (sic) and ruchiva [envy], acting as if he cares for the people and unnecessary attacks!"

Two days later, Mugabe stepped down after 37 years in power, amid cheers and shock as the world came to the realisation that history had been made.

That politicians and their kith and kin use social media to demean opponents or perceived enemies is a fact that is as old as time, but it has, of late, caught up with Zimbabweans.

Grace has been quiet ever since she fell from her high horse but recently a Twitter account with a handle @dr_grace_mugabe, purporting to be that of the former first lady, has been attracting attention.

Although showing all the signs of being fake because Grace's major allies in the form of former Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo and ex-Local Government minister, Saviour Kasukuwere are not following the account, the handle is generating retweets and discussions.

One of the account's controversial posts alleges: "I was there when President Mugabe called Chiwenga in 2008 and said 'General, the people have spoken and I am willing to accept' and Gen Chiwenga said 'Shefu you stay put, you're going nowhere'".

Efforts to get a comment from Moyo to confirm if the account was genuine were fruitless as he did not respond to the enquiry via his Twitter direct message facility.

But a casual analysis shows that there are no clear similarities between the language of tweets and how the former first lady expresses herself. To cap it all, top politicians in the G40 cabal are not in any way retweeting or following "her".

Admire Mare, a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg and Fake News research associate at Wits Journalism department, said it was expected that politicians should take advantage of available platforms to speak.

"I think it is normal because people often use available platforms to speak out. In this case, people like Professor Jonathan Moyo are using a platform they have some 'control' over to expose political opponents. Look, he has over 200 000 followers on Twitter, that is a huge audience," he said.

Speaking about imposters, Mare added: "Unfortunately, fake accounts and bots are becoming the norm on social media. These imposters can sow seeds of disunity within a party or even regime."

Mare said it was expected that ousted Zimbabwean politicians now living in exile would use the only platform of dissemining news they have access to.

"My point is that in any context where people have limited access to the mainstream public sphere, they often resort to alternative safe spaces like Facebook and Twitter to speak truth to power. Only a few weeks ago, people like Jonathan Moyo and Patrick Zhuwao had access to the mainstream media but now things have changed, hence the strategic use of social media to deconstruct the ruling regime and present themselves and their struggle as legitimate."

In June, Moyo's vitriol on Twitter attracted censure from Zimbabwe Defence Forces Commander General Constantino Guveya Chiwenga who felt the professor's attack on a government initiative called command agriculture was not justified, adding that it [criticism] had to stop because it was part of subversive activities set to destabilise government.

Politicians from the opposition MDC-T like youth leader, Chalton Hwende, MDC-T secretary for recruitment, Job Sikhala and MDC-T spokesperson, Obert Gutu, are prominent Facebook users who spend hours on end engaging supporter and foe alike.

Hayes Mabweazara, senior lecturer in Journalism studies at Falmouth's University in the UK said: "The practice of exposing closely guarded secrets for political expediency is not necessarily a new thing -- it has always been a key part of political communication.

"What is new is that politicians can now do it directly themselves on their social media platforms --Twitter in particular -- thereby undercutting, or even rendering somewhat irrelevant, the role of the political journalist whose role is simply reduced to that of 'orchestrating' or elaborating on what is already in the public domain.

"Politicians no longer see the need of going through the editorial filter -- that patience/ caution is thrown to the wind, especially when they find themselves on the receiving end of factional politics, as most Zanu PF politicians are at the moment. Social media becomes a weapon of sorts, true to the saying that politics is a dirty old game."

On imposter social media accounts that international media in the recent past have been embarrassed before in quoting as authentic news sources, Mabweazara said: "That to me speaks very much to the hazards of social media. In the era of pervasive fake news online, if you do not tread carefully as a reporter, you will step on a minefield."

What is clear is that a new window for the public to play peeping toms into the happening of governments and political players has been opened. How this is enhancing or playing barrier to political discussions on issues of development on social media is a matter of conjecture.

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