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Pro-Kremlin Disinformation in Zimbabwe: A mix of state and non-state actors’ influence

Opinion & Analysis
This article explores how the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and daily newspapers, implement a strategic and hybrid diplomatic role as a proxy to the state in sustaining pro-Kremlin content against the background of the Russo-Ukraine war.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Zimbabwe has been flooded by Russian disinformation on the conflict. This disinformation has been led by both state and non-state actors through legacy and social media platforms. Central to this discussion is how social media such as X (formerly Twitter), WhatsApp news aggregate platforms, and Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster’s outfits are utilised as instruments of pro-Kremlin content and disinformation targeting the Zimbabwean population.  The period in question is from the height of the Russo-Ukraine war in 2022 to the present.

This article explores how the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and daily newspapers, implement a strategic and hybrid diplomatic role as a proxy to the state in sustaining pro-Kremlin content against the background of the Russo-Ukraine war.

In Zimbabwe, there is no statistically recorded rate for the population’s media literacy indicating a lack of established mechanisms for the audience to detect and filter out disinformation in the media. A 2023 report by Data Portal indicates an increase in the number of social media users in Zimbabwe with the majority being WhatsApp connections. Also, efforts by civil society organisations conducting media literacy programs indicate the need for information disorder awareness against the background of an increasing number of social media connections. Consequently, most of the state broadcaster's audience has limited access to content filtering tools in an information ecosystem dominated by pro-Kremlin content.

The pro-Kremlin content targeting Zimbabwe qualifies as information disorder due to its frequent lack of contextual framing and incomplete presentation of news. Consequently, this sustains a pro-Russian narrative within Zimbabwe's internet-based communication ecosystems, particularly concerning the Russo-Ukraine war. Russia’s mining interest and fertiliser and aviation hardware donations to Zimbabwe pave the way for the ruling party-led government to strengthen bilateral arrangements with Russia creating opportunities for the spread of Russian disinformation. This was evident in a report targeting a Zimbabwean audience, which made accusations of Ukraine being a Neo-Nazi state.

A report by VOA headlined “Zimbabwe Leaning to Russia as others shun Moscow for Invading Ukraine” attempts to expand on the historical background between Russia and Zimbabwe with regards to ideology and military support towards the now ruling party ZANU-PF in the country’s fight for independence in the 1970s.

The extract below from Dr Alexander Rusero, who heads International Relations at the Africa University in Zimbabwe, exemplifies the polarised nature of pro-Kremlin media content as perceived in Zimbabwe’s academic arena. In the extract, contrasting views expose the possibility of a polarised perception of the Russo-Ukraine war between proxies of the state and the public.

“And given the realities that Zimbabwe is perceived as a pariah state, it is perceived as an outpost of tyranny by the Western international community, by the United States which is currently in an antagonistic relation with Russia, so Zimbabwe historically and ideologically will be leaned more to Russia and China than the Western international community,” said Rusero.

Harare-based independent political commentator Rejoice Ngwenya says Russia has an interest in Zimbabwe’s minerals, such as gold and platinum.

“Not to mention the business arrangements and relations that have been established in the last two decades. So, it is not realistic to expect any drastic change of any policy between Zimbabwe and Russia on the basis of the Ukraine war. It is important to condemn invasions of any country, but unfortunately, international politics also works in terms of self-interests and self-preservation,” said Ngwenya.

News Aggregate Platforms

The most problematic area of discussion is how pro-Kremlin disinformation is penetrating Zimbabwe’s information ecosystem. One such avenue is through messenger aggregate platforms that share any type of news on their WhatsApp platforms. Due to digital poverty, aggregated news on messenger applications is the most affordable platform to access digital news. Presently, numerous aggregate news platforms lack editorial oversight or content moderation, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation as channels for disseminating pro-Kremlin narratives. This unchecked dissemination specifically targets the Zimbabwean population since WhatsApp aggerated news is a cheaper option for sourcing news to the 2.05 million people living in Zimbabwe connected to social media.

Such is the case of news aggregator Nhau/Indaba with over 500 WhatsApp communities and an average of 900 members in each group where aggregated news is shared.

On 7 May 2024  Nhau/Indaba aggregated a pro-Kremlin story originally published by  BNE Intelinews which appeared to be an advert on the aggregator’s website.  Nhau Indaba news aggregator implements disappearing messages in these WhatsApp communities which have a lifespan of not more than 72 hours, illustrated by the clock icon in the top left corner of Figure 1 below. This is presumed to be an attempt to avoid litigation for the questionable content they are sharing, which is at risk of violating Zimbabwe’s Data Protection Act and copyright laws. The creators of the pro-Kremlin content targeting the Zimbabwean audience use the aggregation system as a convenient channel to reach broader audiences.

Figure 1. Screenshot of a pro-Russian content targeting a Zimbabwean audience aggregated by Nhau Indaba, a popular news aggregate WhatsApp platform among Zimbabweans. Pay attention to the source of the story as outlined in the URL of the aggregator’s website.

The screenshot above demonstrates how Zimbabweans rely on WhatsApp aggregated information, as a result of widespread digital poverty, where messenger application data bundles are much more affordable ($1 for a 120mb WhatsApp bundle) compared to web browsing bundles. As a result, the public is faced with a lack of thematic variety and a choice of their source of digital news.

The architecture of news aggregation on messenger platforms in Zimbabwe lacks the core tenets of credible journalism, thus the platforms are prone to abuse and can be effective tools for reaching communities that depend on low-bandwidth internet infrastructure for communication.

The Role Played by State Media

The Kremlin’s influence is not only limited to internet-based communication platforms but also legacy media such as Zimbabwe’s National Broadcaster, which has been pro-Russia since the start of the Russo-Ukraine war. On 8 November 2023, ZBC ran a story titled “Ukraine has lost the war.”

In the report, ZBC declares that “A stalemate entails a long war of attrition. A long war of attrition favors Russia because Ukraine will run out of men”. This kind of reporting presents a highly biased and speculative statement without providing evidence or considering the complexities of the conflict, thereby potentially misleading the audience, and oversimplifying the situation.

Subsequently, the ZBC is performing a strategic diplomatic role on behalf of the state to disseminate pro-Kremlin media without an adequate contextual background for the Zimbabwean audience. This narrative is problematic because the pro-Kremlin misinformation influences public sentiment that perpetuates negative attitudes towards Ukraine and other parties involved.

Russian disinformation also reaches a wider audience through the state-owned daily newspapers complementing efforts by the state broadcaster to sustain a pro-Russian narrative across public media entities. On 24 March 2024, the state-controlled daily newspaper The Herald published an interview with the Russian Ambassador to Zimbabwe Mr. Nikolai Krasilnikov who claimed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was aimed at de-Nazifying the Kiev regime.

Figure 2. Screen captured on The Herald website, with a published interview “We will win against the West” with Russia’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe.

The published article titled “We will win against the West”, disseminated pro-Kremlin content targeting the general population of Zimbabwe through the state-controlled daily newspaper. The strategic dissemination of this narrative indicates an effort by the Kremlin to cultivate anti-Western sentiment and align Zimbabwean public opinion with Russian geopolitical interests.

The Bloggers

Microblogging accounts on X linked to Zimbabwe non-state actors with high followership on social networks are also accomplices to pro-Kremlin disinformation targeting Zimbabweans.

A prominent X handle  @ali_naka, on 2 April 2024, posted “ Why are they trying to make Africans hate Russia”. Statistically, the post reached over 35k impressions, and the content faced resistance by engagement with other X accounts. Technically, since 2022, Ali Naka’s X timeline has significantly posted pro-Kremlin content targeted at the Zimbabwean audience paving the way for open debates that lack contextual framing. The X handle creates conditions for engagement and debate for audiences who lack an authoritative background understanding of how to place Zimbabwe in the Russo-Ukraine conflict. In such debates, the historical background between the Kremlin and Zimbabwe’s revolutionary party Zanu PF wins the debate as a matter of precedence. 

Ali Naka’s high command in followership and reach compliments the state broadcaster’s efforts to access a broader audience on social networks. ZBC’s official X account has been flagged by followers as an instrument of Russian propaganda. The evidence of disinformation in the content shared is premised on the engagement with other X users demanding context and facts that come along with the media packages.

Figure 3. This is a screenshot of a ZBC post on X (8 November 2023) with pro-Russian inclination in the Russo-Ukraine war.

The screenshot above (Figure 3) demonstrates how the ZBC augments its official X account to post pro-Kremlin content which lacks context for thorough interrogation of facts by the audience against the background of a complex conflict. An X user, who further engages with the ZBC post by running a poll (Figure 4 below), alleges that the Kremlin’s reach in Zimbabwe is a function of the ruling party ZANU -PF’s influence in state media institutions. This poll was conducted in the same thread of the ZBC post headlined “Ukraine has lost the war.”

The screenshot below (Figure 5) shows engagement on the same ZBC post where an X user is questioning the national broadcaster’s mandate and involvement in sensationalism. The engagement captured from the screenshots demonstrates how some Zimbabweans perceive the Russo-Ukraine war content posted on the national broadcaster’s social media handles.

Figure 5. A screenshot on the same ZBC post where a user flags the national broadcaster's X handle for information disorder.


The close allegiance of ZANU PF and the Kremlin dating back to the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence has necessitated a pro-Russian narrative of the war in Ukraine by state actors in Zimbabwe. Non-state actors on X have equally complemented this narrative through misinformation and disinformation campaigns, creating opportunities to influence public opinion, sway political alliances, or destabilise perceptions of Western nations among Zimbabweans. This is further amplified through aggregators and messaging platforms such as WhatsApp which lack content moderation and filtering mechanisms. The aggregated content reaches the masses of Zimbabweans who rely on aggregated news to satisfy information needs. This discussion surmises that poor digital media literacy levels augment misinformation and disinformation whose prevalence on legacy media platforms generates credibility that denotes a skewed pro-Russian narrative of the Russo-Ukraine war.

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