Rumours and the misinformation politics in Zimbabwe

 

Dr Masimba Mavaza

Zimbabwe has become obstructed with falsehoods deliberately designed to undermine Government.

Recently a rumour that Vice President Chiwenga had been fired made rounds on social media. The idea of such rumours is mostly designed to tarnish the image of the Government.

Falsehoods have also been circulating that the increase in passport fees by the Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube when he presented the 2024 national budget is meant to ban Zimbabweans from travelling.

This is aimed at setting the people against their Government. Misinformation pervades Zimbabwean politics and it spreads faster than the wild fires.

The outcome of the 2023 harmonised elections is perhaps the most pressing issue in point.

Every serious-minded political and legal inquiry into the subject including reports by institutions such as the SADC and European Union have rejected former CCC’s assertion that the opposition party did not lose the elections.

Major media organisations now routinely label these statements “lies.” Yet CCC’s unfounded claims have gained wide traction among its followers.

Misinformation and the political effects of rumours is so damaging to any system.

There is an African saying which says, “A home is not built on gossip and rumours.” True to that, power is not gained through misinformation and gossip.

Misinformation has affected Zimbabwean politics, from the early days of independence to today.

Today, in the age of social media, citizens are actively engaged in crafting and spreading information to others and in some cases without verifying the facts.

Surprisingly often, these rumours share similarities to conspiracy theories and portray the ruling party as “evil”.

In the age of social media, the spread of political rumours is fast.

Why are people susceptible to political rumours? How does the rumours affect political trust, and when can their potential harmful effects be remedied? These questions have been asked in all circles of politics.

Rumours and misinformation play a role in Zimbabwean politics-and a dangerous one with direct consequences, such as wrecking trust in Government, promoting hostility towards truth-finding and swaying public opinion on otherwise popular policies.

Political rumours and misinformation pollute the political landscape.

If misinformation crowds out the truth, how can Zimbabweans communicate with one another about important issues?

It is sad that political rumours exist and persist despite the unsubstantiated and refuted claims. Unfortunately, many people are most likely to believe falsehoods and this causes a stir in the political arena.

Many political actors and their handlers have weaponised mistruths.

Coming to grips with misinformation is really hard in this day of social media as anyone with a phone can become a journalist.

There is need to accept the challenge and reframe our thinking about misinformation.

We must not just think about the message we must also think about the messenger.

While not many people believe a lot of false political rumours, others believe and that is enough to cause confusion and distress.

Some people accept political rumours and genuinely believe them; at the same time, partisanship heavily influences what people are willing to believe.

As a country we need to worry about the people spreading falsehoods and those who are gullible to the rumours.

Falsehoods have the potential to undermine democratic functioning of our society and as Zimbabweans we must rise against rumours and its mongers.

We must not only focus on how to set the record straight but how to stop and punish the perpetrators of such destructive practices.

On the other hand, it is much more effective when a political leader tells the truth to their followers, at the expense of their own self-interest.

We must learn to be responsible leaders and wedge a political fight honestly and fairly without spreading lies about those around us.

Those who spread falsehoods through social media should have their accounts closed.

The prevalence of anti-Government falsehoods in Zimbabwe, may have an effect on people’s trust in authorities.

The opposition uses misinformation to promote falsehoods to reduce citizens’ trust in the Government.

Falsehoods will erode political support in any state.

The ‘Jingoes’ who… sang “We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too” accurately diagnosed the three essential elements of political power: armaments, man-power, and economic power.

But man-power is not reckoned by mere counting of heads. The art of persuasion has always been a necessary part of the equipment of the political leader.

It is the duty of the media to accurately inform the audience and to put the record straight on certain issues.

By correctly packaging and disseminating news through the proper channels, it is possible to alter the public’s perception of false news.

As a country we must have responsible politicians.

It is not easy to find politicians who will willingly speak out against their own perceived self-interest, even in service of the truth.

It took the courage of Sengezo Tshabangu to wave a magic wand and whip CCC into line. He managed to bring them down to earth.

It can be debated how costly or not it would be for certain politicians to make those statements and take a bold move like Tshabangu.

Overall, though, significant evidence points to the powerful role that politicians play in shaping public beliefs, misinformation is difficult to combat because of the way it aligns with partisan interest.

It should be clear that misinformation is evil and fighting it is easier with responsible leadership. Misinformation strives in situations which are exacerbated by the lack of credible public information from media.

Rumours can also be detrimental in democracy. Falsehoods can be even more destructive to democratic governments, since they are an alternative form of media that directly competes with official information and mainstream media, and therefore constitutes a counter-power against official power and official truth.

Sanctions have been imposed on Zimbabwe because of such falsehoods against Government.

While opposition propaganda is in most cases inaccurate, exaggerated or purely fabricated, these claims and myths have been accepted by some individuals and organisations.

Although rumours can circulate via various means of communication, internet rumours especially social media (for example, microblogging), have dramatically increased the ease, speed and extent of rumour propagation.

Despite the presence of censorship, the internet has become the most dynamic, contentious, and even chaotic battleground for information and ideas in Zimbabwe.

Understanding the political challenges posed by information on the internet will enable people to survive the wave of falsehoods that circulate in the country.

Citizens are susceptible to thinly evidenced anti-Government falsehoods, but they can also be persuaded by the authorities if the latter can bring forth powerful evidence to support their story or win the endorsement of public figures widely perceived to be independent.

Unless the underlying political and socio-economic issues are somehow addressed, rumours will erode political support in any state.

A professor of Politics, Prof Berinsky says, “It’s that politicians are not behaving in a responsible way. We shouldn’t only blame the people. We should blame the politicians who are spreading misinformation”

Indeed, he adds, “If we’re looking for a lasting fix to the problem, it’s not that we can inoculate people against misinformation, or come up with a perfect way to correct for misinformation after the fact. What we need to do is reduce the misinformation coming from politicians. That’s easier said than done.”

To deal with misinformation Government should introduce laws which will deal with whoever originates or distribute falsehoods in any form.-[email protected]

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