By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
CYBERISM can be defined as a doctrine promoting and focusing on the social benefits of information technologies.
In its naive political manifestations, this belief can be represented by the frequent exhortation to the povo to ‘Embrace technology’ instead of the more cautious and strategic urge to ‘Harness technology’.
Towards the 2013 elections, Zimbabwe was still smarting from the aftermath of the 2008 ‘harmonised elections’.
Some cyberists were quick to blame ZANU-PF’s poor performance in those elections on the Party’s slow uptake of information technology and to credit the more savvy use of the same technology for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change’s electoral gains (though not amounting to decisive victory) against ZANU-PF.
Using the once-off example of Barrack Obama’s contest against Hilary Clinton for nomination as candidate for the US Democratic Party, one social media expert came to Zimbabwe with a social media proposal on how ZANU-PF could adopt it and overcome both the MDC opposition and the ‘Baba vaJukwa’ cyber phenomenon.
As we get closer to 2023, there are cyber optimists, both in Government and in political parties, who are selling social media solutions similar to those once offered towards 2013.
But the 2013 elections were not decided on social media use at all.
ZANU-PF managed to exploit its role in the Global Political Agreement (GNU), its role in Constitution making through the Parliamentary Constitution Committee (COPAC), and its role in the subsequent nationwide referendum to approve the 2013 Constitution where the MDC failed to emerge from opposition to real national leadership.
To go to the US example, if one looked at Al Gore, Obama and Donald Trump, it becomes obvious that the optimism about reliance on social media has been simplistic and overplayed.
First of all, Obama represented a conjunctural moment or phase in US history in which youths, minorities and new technologies came together and seemed to demonstrate the best gift ever offered to North American liberalism.
In that conjuctural moment of optimism, social media were seen, in terms of promise, as a tool, an asset, for political good.
But in the Trump and post-Trump period, with its horror of the January 6 2021 terrorist assault on the US capital co-ordinated via social media similar to those used by Obama youths, the image of the same cyber technologies changed completely.
Al Gore was a cyberist and cyber optimist long before Obama and Trump.
The social and political benefits on information technology which he prophesied at the turn of the millenium did not work out for him in politics or for US society and the world at large.
The disillusion had long started with the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Zimbabwe: 2013 and 2023
In his ‘Researchgate’ study of Zimbabwe’s 2013 harmonised elections, Roger Southal accepted most of the opposition MDC’s explanations (some will say excuses) for its massive defeat to ZANU PF.
But at the end, he conceded that the opposition MDC lost the election because it lacked a clear sense of purpose beyond effective opposition.
He used the image of two suitors dressed in what they think are their best outfits ready to go out.
One has several, well-mapped and well-prepared places to go; the other one is just better-dressed with no real place to go, except perhaps to go on all the social media platforms.
Real places to go meant clear direction.
ZANU PF took responsibility for land reform and land redistribution; for the Global Political Agreement, why it had served its temporary purpose and had now to be wound up; for the economic indigenisation policy and the resulting attacks from detractors; for opposing imperialist aggression in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere; and for fighting against white Anglo-Saxon sanctions imposed on the people of Zimbabwe for daring to reclaim their land from white settlers.
All platforms: one message
The advice given to ZANU-PF then and now was to occupy and use all platforms if resources allowed and as long as there were skilled cadres to adjust the same message for all the different platforms and to maintain consistency.
The tendency among the cyber optimists was to mistake trolls, detractors and mere hecklers for primary audience.
The energy spent chasing and pinning down a heckler or troll should rather be spent on listening to one’s primary audiences (constituencies) and developing content that resonates with their real community needs.
Cyber optimism vs economic reality
Real poverty and the on-going financial warfare against the Zimbabwe dollar should temper any cyber enthusiasm.
Digital technologies, air time and data bundles can be afforded only by a small elite.
The danger of playing into the cyberist gospel is that people will be lured to purely sponsored platforms where costs do not matter.
Even with the proliferation of radio stations in Zimbabwe now, one cannot miss the fact that most of them cannot match the coverage and programming capacity of the Voice of America using the euphemistic disguise of Studio Seven.
In fact, I understate the challenge: Too many of the new stations resort to narrow call-in talk shows because of lack of programming capacity.
In fact, the people who end up dominating the talk shows come from a small and narrow group who already know one another and can afford the digital gadgets, airtime and data bundles.
That is where sponsorship and subsidisation come into play, with all the risks entailed.
Whose voices are we hearing or jeering on Studio Seven?