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How Facebook and Whatsapp fuelled chaos and confusion in Zimbabwe

17 Jan 2019 at 15:59hrs | Views
The riots wouldn't have happened without Facebook and Whatsapp. On the morning of January 14th 2019 a swelling mob of hundreds of angry residents flocked the towns filling the streets in the commercial hubs of Zimbabwe.

The accusations against government was centred on the triple fuel rise and originally reported on a blog, exploded when they made its way to Facebook and WhatsApp synonymous with the internet in Zimbabwe. Many among the crowd had seen the Facebook post, which was widely shared including videos and messages inciting people to stay away. This included ultra-nationalist pastor named Evan Mawarire and lot more social media activists who have a massive following across the country.

As anger rose among the throngs of people police struggled to disperse the growing crowds, firing rubber bullets and trying to corral rioters into certain sections of the city. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful. Soon, drunk men were marauding through the streets of Harare and other towns on motorbikes and by foot holding guns machetes and sticks. Rioters torched cars and ransacked shops. Police officers were assaulted and some were killed.

Road blocks were imposed in the city and surrounding townships by the gangs of armed youths. Authorities were fearful that the violence would spread to other towns that had seen not seen outbreaks of violence before. The mayhem did not spare the innocent citizens but during the multi-day melee in Harare nine people are believed to have been killed and around 200 others were injured. The unrest was the latest in a string of flare-ups, often violent, between security forces a d the citizens. Zimbabwe under the new regime had removed restrictions on free speech and the internet were steadily loosened starting. Waves of violence broke out in the towns soon after elections leaving nearly 7 people dead and injured hundreds and reverberated across the country in the months and that followed. It should be noted that the military is not under civilian oversight and retains an outsized role in the country's political arena, controlling a quarter of all parliament seats as well as key ministries. So it becomes easy for cabinet to agree to sending the troops in to deal with any violence.

Desperate for a way to stem the mayhem, Zimbabwe contacted those in control of social media transport to try to contact Facebook on behalf of the President's Office to see if anything could be done to halt the spread of disinformation. The whatsapp activists were spreading rumours making it sound as the truth. Within a minute the social media professionals turned the social media to be an enemy of the state. Now faced with such an enemy the powers that be started to panic and they did not know what to do. . They were quite worried. Facebook does not maintain an office in Harare , and there was a confusion over how to reach officials at the company. Soon, a decision was made by the President's Office to temporarily block access to Facebook and any internet related vehicle.

The decision was the right one, because it put a stop to the clashes and misinformation. in response to the violence the country must speed up translation of the sites' user guidelines and code of conduct so that abuse of social media will be limited.

Looking at the social media wall hate speech was exploding on the platform and could have real-world consequences. The government must discuss hate speech and fake user pages that are pervasive to peace and unity. Hate speech seems to be the order of the day in Zimbabwean use of social media.

Zimbabwe is a small but unique market for the company, and Facebook has taken a multi-faceted approach in recent years to better serve users but it has not done anything to block hate speech which incites people to violence.

Facebook must hire additional Zimbabweans to review content, improving reporting tools, and "developing local and relevant content" to educate users on how to best use the platform. " Zimbabwe must work to try to reduce misuse and abuse of social platform and to try to drive the benefit that connectivity can have within the country.

The country must work with the service providers to understand Zimbabwe's cultural nuances, an avoid over-reliance on a small collection of local civil society groups to alert the company to possibly dangerous posts spreading on the platform. All of these reflect a decidedly ad-hoc approach for a multi-billion-dollar tech giant that controls so much of popular discourse in the country and across the world.

Social media's role in society must be again under intense scrutiny, both in Zimbabwe and around the world. On social media our military has been accused of rape, arson, and arbitrary killing of demonstrators during the violent demonstrations and militant attacks on police stations and goverment infrastructure. The State lambasted Social media's conduct in the crisis, which bears the hallmarks of genocide," by serving as a platform for hate speech and disinformation, social Media and Facebook had "turned into a beast."

At the same time, Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg are under global pressure for mishandling users' data and the part the company played in influencing elections, particularly in the the United States. Two years ago Zuckerberg testified before Congress over two days on a myriad of problems within his company, from Russian agents using the platform to influence the US elections to a lack of data protection.

This shows us that social media needs the control of the state. Measures must be put in place. Government must have power to take down accounts of individuals and groups that generate hate speech, and introduce products specially designed for the country, though he offered few details on what these would entail.

Facebook announced on July 18 2018 that it would expand its efforts to remove material that could incite violence. Zimbabwe simply needs to set us a department which is dedicated to view the social media and flag the undesirable messages. All other first world countries do this in their fight against terrorism. This had worked well and many people have been arrested for terrorists related cases and child abuse cases.

It must be noted that the scale of this problem is significant and it is already apparent." Facebook's rise in popularity in Zimbabwe came at a time of tremendous political and societal change which fueled and enabled the platform's growth.

One of the most significant accomplishments done by ED was the liberalization of the country's closed telecommunications sector, which had long been dominated by a state-owned monopoly. Under that regime, internet connectivity was severely limited and frustratingly slow. The country's internet penetration was less than 10 percent in 2009 and there were just 1.3 million mobile subscribers, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations' agency.

This slowly began to change, and in 2012, mostly in major cities SIM card prices fell to a dollar from over a thousand, making them a god reach to most. As internet connectivity expanded, so did social media.

Last year, a public opinion survey from the International Republican Institute found that 88percent of people polled got most, if not all, their news from Facebook. Respondents said that they were most likely to get their news from Facebook rather than newspapers, though radio, relatives and friends, and TV were more popular. There are now an estimated 6 million people who use Facebook in Zimbabwe according to the company. The arrival of Facebook provided a country with severely limited digital literacy a hyper-connected version of the country's ubiquitous internet cafes where people gathered to swap stories, news and gossip. Zimbabwe is a country run by rumors, where people fill in the blanks, There is a great insecurity and fear among people in Zimbabwe that unseen powers are working in the shadows to control the levers of power, The arrival of Facebook provided a platform for these rumors to spread at an alarming rate. "Facebook could have done more to proactively talk about positive speech,"how to look at things on Facebook to avoid pitfalls, and the dangers of negative speech, put their brand behind a more constructive approach to the platform."

The fear of web suppression is not unfounded. Zimbabwe had in the past restricted access to the internet. in an attempt to keep news of the demonstrations and subsequent crackdown from leaking out the first thing any government will do is to block the net. While people "The answer to bad speech, is more speech. More communication, more voices," in the middle of these voices we need a collection of civil society groups to begin working with Facebook to flag dangerous posts and misinformation on the platform, hoping to speed up the removal time for content that could fuel violence.

This would bring emergency escalation system, which still operates in largely the same manner, relies on a small group of individuals finding potentially dangerous posts, contacting Facebook officials, who then expedite the referral of the content to a moderation team for review and potential removal. This will help spreading fake news and confine people to responsible posting. Misleading Facebook posts continue to trigger confusion, threats of violence, and government overreach in Zimbabwe.

Consider the case of a soldier who in August was targeted online after users began circulating a picture they claimed showed him shooting demonstrators at 45degrees. This was not even the one but one person just took his picture and spread it all over. There are pictures circulating on social media of the decapitated heads. These pictures are not even from zimbabwe but they are being used to bolster the case against Zimbabwe.

Social media has caused great damage to the country. The recent disturbances were advertised on Facebook and Whatsapp. There was no actual organiser but a lot of mischievous characters circulated fake news purporting as coming from ZCTU or any other credible organisation. On the strength of whatsapp messages people were mobilised for demonstration.

This left the authorities with no actual person to talk to or to control the mob or maybe the demonstrators. So the only reasonable thing to appeal to the demonstrators was to block the internet and then only then can attention be paid to authorities.

Many people hide behind their phones and cause havoc in the nation. Some went further to spread information that the demonstration was the only way to get prices down. Some were fooled to believe that the demonstration was to change the president. What followed the call for civil disobedience was anarchy heavily supported by social media. Pictures of sheer catastrophe were circulated as a means to encourage others to do something.

Some created live news on facebook even lying that the army has taken over. All this was meant to cause confusion. It should be known that confusion causes anarchy.

With all this calculated mayhem the government was very right to nip the rot in the bud. It is now that the government must put measures to protect the nation from irresponsible use of the internet.

In the Western world any thing posted which seem to support terrorism will be brought down with authors getting arrested This can and should be done in Zimbabwe. We need to term the jungle and sort the space.

Vazet2000@yahoo.co.uk

Source - Dr Masimba Mavaza
All articles and letters published on Bulawayo24 have been independently written by members of Bulawayo24's community. The views of users published on Bulawayo24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Bulawayo24. Bulawayo24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.

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