The intersection of digital poverty and information disorders in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's August 2023 harmonised election paved the way for emerging digital rights issues where people without access to reliable internet and media literacy skills were exposed to deliberate information disorders. Political parties, candidates, and social media parody accounts were participants in the spread of information disorders to influence the electorate and the outcome of polls.

In this article, I unpack my observations on the intersections of digital poverty and information disorders with insights into low internet bandwidth messenger platforms (such as WhatsApp) used to peddle information disorders generated on higher bandwidth platforms (such as X, formerly Twitter) by political campaign brigades. In addition, during the election cycle, there was a proliferation of media projects and social media parody accounts tied to political parties. These fake social media accounts produced problematic, inaccurate information that could not be verified by people with low media literacy skills and low internet bandwidth, including 4G ready devices. The most concerning digital rights problem is how the ruling party, ZANU PF, randomly sent out unsolicited political messages via bulk SMSes, the authenticity and origins of which could not be verified by the majority of recipients.

Comparing this to Zambia's information ecosystem during the country's election period in 2021, it is evident that information disorders in internet-based communication were more pronounced in Zimbabwe than in Zambia. Although Zambian communities were equally affected by digital poverty and low media literacy skills, politicians sought to retain power through the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act of 2021 to silence voices of dissent on social media, as stated in the African Media Barometer report for Zambia 2021, in the extract below:

“They control print and broadcasting, but they have struggled to stake a claim in the social media space," a panellist declared, noting that the government's stated ambition is to control the social media space, especially Facebook.

In Zimbabwe, the issue is that implementing the Data Protection Act, which criminalises spreading false information, is difficult because it would implicate political campaign brigades on social media.

So, this is how digital poverty in Zimbabwe accumulated into a problematic condition in the information ecosystem during the election cycle. Zimbabwe has five commonly used internet service providers, three of which are government-owned and have stronger internet bandwidth available in urban areas.

The digital divide in Zimbabwe is a serious concern as most of the population (67%) live in rural areas. Data is also unaffordable to the majority of citizens, with 8 gigabytes costing between US$25 and US$28. Therefore, many settle for cheaper social media bundles to access WhatsApp. This allows discourse and multimedia content created on high bandwidth internet-based platforms to be shared on WhatsApp without context filtering tools to verify the authenticity of the media or generated text. This leads to misinformation gaps infiltrating data-insecure WhatsApp users. The African Media Barometer report for Zimbabwe 2020 unpacked digital poverty against the average earnings of media professionals in the extracts below:

  • Salaries for entry level public relations officers in government stand at approximately US$60 per month. Journalists earn approximately US$110 per month.
  • Information is generally accessible, but whether it is affordable is debatable – especially in terms of broadcasting and the internet.
  • The internet penetration is 62%, but 83% have access through mobile phones (mainly using apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook). Internet costs are high. 1 GB of data costs approximately ZWL190 (US$11.10).

Despite the significant increase in internet penetration, there were only 5.01 million internet users in Zimbabwe in January 2021. Internet penetration was at 33.4%, and social media users were 1,300,000, an increase of 320,000 users in 2020. Affordability, bandwidth, and device type remain barriers to full digital user experiences sufficient to filter and disarm information disorders.

Against the background of evident digital poverty, Zimbabwe's media question becomes: How much internet is enough to counter information disorder? Undoubtedly, the case of Zimbabwe's pre- and post-election periods has proven that inadequate internet bandwidth and digital media literacy skills amount to vulnerabilities among people affected by digital poverty.

In efforts to digitise communities, the government of Zimbabwe launched Community Information Centres (CICs), using old post office buildings in various parts of the country, as part of the National Development Strategy NDS1. However, there is an acute shortage or absence of follow-up media literacy programmes in schools and communities. The urban-centric media literacy programmes failed to reach marginalised communities, with efforts by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), and Internews et al. targeting only journalists. Over 23 operational media organisations are reluctant to declare 3% of their proceeds towards the media development fund as required by law through the establishment of the ZMC. This failure increases the ZMC's narrow budget inefficiencies in broadening media literacy training.

Here are some real-life instances where information disorders were witnessed and how threats to digital rights were presented to people without access to media literacy initiatives and reliable internet bandwidth.

Unsolicited political messages

During the 2018 election, ZANU PF sent unsolicited political messages via bulk SMSes, which caused an outcry from civil society about digital rights violations, privacy violations, and disinformation.

The same political messaging strategy was used in the August 2023 elections, with society suggesting elements of microtargeting social groups. The recipients were grouped according to their constituencies and wards, with the bulk SMSes purporting to be sent by the President of ZANU PF, Emmerson Mnangagwa, urging people to vote for the party.

Here is the problem: many people who received the SMSs on mobile phones without internet connectivity hardware could not have verified on internet-based fact-checking platforms if the messages were truly sent by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

If one were to receive a personalised political message from the president, one would feel recognised and subscribe to the contents of the unsolicited message.

Those with access to 3G and 4G ready devices and the internet had the opportunity to verify the authenticity of the messages through other internet-based platforms, where the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ) was openly engaged through a written letter by MISA Zimbabwe Director Tabani Moyo on the digital rights issues presented by the unsolicited bulk SMSes.

POTRAZ has not accounted for the bulk SMSes, and President Emmerson Mnangagwa has not made a statement about whether he sent the messages.

The unsolicited political messages by political parties exposed message recipients to political messaging that was engineered to influence the outcome of the polls.

In this case, Zimbabwe's Cyber Security and Data Protection Act of 2021 was undermined since the law prohibits data processors and handlers from providing data subjects to third parties; however, in this case, ZANU PF had access to personal identifying information about data subjects.

Manipulation of multimedia content

Social media parody accounts tied to political parties also circulated deliberately edited and engineered multimedia to sustain political narratives at any cost.

Multimedia manipulation is a cross-cutting issue, exposing the public to information disorder across social groups. The election cycle witnessed the prevalence of deep fakes created by generative artificial intelligence (AI). This challenge was enabled by low media and ICT literacy.

Social media platforms, such as X and Facebook, were flooded with images of deep and cheap fake crowds during political rallies, many of which were old images purported to be new.

Those who were media literate and had access to the internet could investigate suspicious multimedia content with online fact-checking tools such as Google Lens. It must, however, be noted that there is also a category of people who have access to the internet but lack digital security knowledge.

Microtargeting on messenger platforms

WhatsApp Messenger is the most popular digital communication platform in Zimbabwe. This preference is backed by affordability. With internet service providers charging US$1 for a 120 MB WhatsApp bundle, this is what ordinary people in Zimbabwe can afford.

With 120 MB of social media data, users cannot verify and fact-check multimedia content or chain messages received on messenger platforms. The social media bundle does not allow them to access a web browser to investigate or access fact-checking tools available on the internet.

For example, screenshots of a fake X account masquerading as Head of SADC Election Observer Mission, Dr Nevers Mumba, claimed that Zimbabwe elections were null and void, as demonstrated by the extracts below.

It is a clear-cut case that cheaper internet-based platforms were targeted for disinformation campaigns due to the unavailability of information filtering tools and internet bandwidth.

The information disorders were problematically inaccurate, malicious, and created to influence the electorate and the outcome of the elections.

Deployment of social media trolls and bots

Without a national strategy for using and deploying AI, the pre-election period was also characterised by sophistry in spreading propaganda. Bots were deployed to repost and share content on X with candidates and political parties, assigning social media trolls to sustain political narratives that regenerated into misinformation.

Such was the case of the ZANU PF’s Varakashi (The Destroyers), a brigade of trolling accounts responsible for peddling misinformation and disinformation. The main opposition led by Nelson Chamisa also had a contingent of social media trolls, The Nerrorists.

Content generated on internet-based platforms would still find its way to messenger platforms in the form of screenshots and voice recordings without context, presenting information gaps with dead ends

Call to action

There is an urgent need to craft a media policy that prohibits the irresponsible use of AI to cause harm through disinformation. Priority should be given to a law that governs the deployment of AI-generated content by news organisations to combat the industrial production of information disorders.

Civic society and media organisations should advocate for policy to reintroduce and revamp media literacy programmes in educational institutions across the social divide. The statutory legal instruments must target schools in low-income communities, and efforts to provide infrastructure for equitable access to media literacy training and education (including Wi-Fi at community centres and public libraries) need to be reinstalled and revamped.

Government and industry must work together to expand internet connectivity and capacity to meet the demands of the big data economy. The data regulator in Zimbabwe, POTRAZ, should consider granting licenses to satellite-based internet service providers like Starlink with a more affordable track record and broader coverage in outlying areas. In the aftermath of AI, it is important to encourage start-up projects to enhance digital literacy.

About the author

Richard Kawazi is an award-winning journalist and digital rights defender with projects centered on digital accountability and media development in Zimbabwe.

The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

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