Feature: Zim fights fake news with lessons in spotting disinformation

File pic: Fake News

AN opposition leader has quit, voting has been postponed for rural residents, and a man has been eaten by a lion in a national park: these are just a few of the lies Zimbabweans have seen circulating on social media.

As the southern African nation gears up for elections next year, misinformation training is helping citizens spot online fake news that experts say threatens to undermine trust in democracy and fuels risks of politically-motivated violence.

“Speculation, opinions and lies are part of the news diet in Zimbabwe,” said Zenzele Ndebele, director of the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE), a non-profit organisation running lessons for residents in Dete, a town in rural Matabeleland North province.

“People must be trained to tell the difference between fake news, misinformation, disinformation, and real news.”

Misinformation is simply incorrect information, while disinformation refers to deliberately sharing information that is known to be false with the intention of deceiving people.

Misinformation and hate speech have surged across Africa as more people get online, from abuse of female politicians ahead of Kenya’s August election to calls for violence against ethnic minorities in Ethiopia and against migrants in South Africa.

In Zimbabwe, where Zanu PF has dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1980, the stakes for next year’s general polls are high.

It will be Zimbabwe’s second vote since the 2017 coup ousted the late former President Robert Mugabe, seen by critics as an autocrat willing to rig elections, unleash death squads, and violently crush political challengers.

The main parties are the ruling Zanu PF, led by President Emmerson “The Crocodile” Mnangagwa, the centre-left opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and its newly-created offshoot the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), led by former MDC head Nelson Chamisa.

Mnangagwa defeated Chamisa in the 2018 poll, according to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, but the opposition leader said the result was rigged and social media was flooded with fake election results, according to independent fact-checkers.

Six people died and 35 others were injured after the army stepped in to quell post-election street protests on August , 2018.

“Misinformation and disinformation have the potential to escalate politically-motivated violence,” said Delta Sivalo, who works on a programme countering misinformation in Zimbabwe for the International Republican Institute, an American non-profit organisation.

“The biggest threat disinformation poses is that it puts a dent in the credibility of elections. It makes it challenging for citizens to make informed political choices.”

Social influence

About a third of Zimbabwe’s 15 million population constitutes internet users, according to digital data website DataReportal.

The most popular social media platform is WhatsApp, with some 3,5 million users nationally, found a 2020 report compiled by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe.

Nearly 1,5 million Zimbabweans use Facebook, and about a quarter of a million are on Twitter, DataReportal said.

Nearly 70% of Zimbabwe’s print and broadcast media is State-controlled and journalists often fear criticising authorities, said Press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, though Press freedom improved slightly after Mugabe’s removal.

Citizens are looking online for news partly because State media tends to favour Zanu PF — but also because it is cheaper, said Kuda Hove, an independent technology policy researcher.

“A daily local newspaper costs about $1 — the same as a loaf of bread — in a country where almost half the population lives under the poverty line,” he said.

Social media firms say they are working to tackle fake news and information, including investing in moderation and nudging users to verify claims, though critics have said they are failing to effectively counter a tide of disinformation.

Political parties have taken notice, with teams of public relations experts and supporters aiming to spread their party’s messages online, said Dumisani Moyo, a professor at the University of Johannesburg, in an article for The Conversation.

He said in the 2018 election, Zanu PF’s “online warriors” were known as “Varakashi” — or “destroyers” in the English language — while the MDC’s digital cheerleaders were dubbed the Nerrorists in honour of then-leader Chamisa’s nickname Nero.

Influx of misinformation

African media literacy programmes like CITE’s and fact-checking organisations are stepping up to try to counter falsehoods and teach people to spot dubious claims.

Zimbabwe-based ZimFact, set up in 2018, worked to debunk myths during the last election and the COVID-19 pandemic — from fact-checking politicians’ speeches to exposing false online claims about COVID-19 home remedies and vaccines.

The organisation is now gearing up for the 2023 election.

“The lack of data, information and credible expert opinion is a challenge, especially in a polarised society like ours,” said Lifaqane Nare, ZimFact’s head of programmes.

“Election periods are normally characterised by an influx of misinformation, and there is need for more fact-checking.”

At a CITE session in Dete, participants brought examples of dubious information they had seen in the traditional media and online. Trainers discussed how to spot suspicious claims and check facts.

“These people use social media in their day-to-day lives, so we want to train them to really understand what sort of information is online,” said trainer Ndlela Ncube.

“As we are going into the election, this is critical because bad information can have a huge impact.”

After the training session, participants said they were eager to test their new knowledge.

“There are people in my community who post fake news on the internet,” said Derrick Masina, 17.

“This has taught me how to fight fake news — for our own good.”



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