Zimbabwe had a crazy weekend, a really wild one. Retired General Costantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November 2017 coup that toppled the now late long-time ruler, Robert Mugabe, stealthily came back from China, sending social media speculations into overdrive.
Chiwenga, the man, who swapped the camouflage for a civilian suit, spent four months at a high-security military hospital in China battling an undisclosed illness and many speculated about his demise or being shoved down the pecking order in Zanu PF power echelons.
On the other hand, the economy had been on a southward dive, driving many into abject poverty to the extent of imagining another coup. A coup many believed could be led once again by Chiwenga. He is the only man, many perceive to have the spine, to stand up to President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Scenarios were drawn and redrawn as his return was said to be imminent. Zanu PF provincial structures had started rooting for Mnangagwa to run again in 2023, against the speculation that started in 2017 that he would be a one-term President, handing the reins to Chiwenga after a cooling off period from donning the military fatigues.
Chiwenga’s return was dramatic. No prior announcement, no senior government officials to welcome him back, except Chinese embassy officials. When the 2017 coup happened, Chiwenga had just returned from China and many saw this as a second coming.
Is it that Mark Zuckerberg’s social media platforms, Facebook and WhatsApp, have changed the way people relate, debate or communicate on serious issues? The fact that people can hide behind anonymity has spurned a whole new media category for click-baiting and fake news.
Some scholars in new media technology have come up with the theory of echo chamber which is defined as: “A metaphorical description of a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system”.
Scholars Seth Freeman, Sharad Goel and Justin M Rao in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly wrote: “Social networks and search engines are associated with an increase in the mean ideological distance between individuals.
“However, somewhat counter-intuitively, these same channels also are associated with an increase in an individual’s exposure to material from his or her less preferred side of the political spectrum.”
They more importantly noted: “The vast majority of online news consumption is accounted for by individuals simply visiting the home pages of their favourite, typically mainstream, news outlets, tempering the consequences — both positive and negative — of recent technological changes.”
This may ring true to many Zimbabweans. People are always glued to their favourite WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and some online news sites. Zimbabwe has become a textbook echo chamber example. Another media scholar, Grant Blank said: “It turns out, if you look at media generally and you ask people what media do you trust, and then you rank the media in terms of trust, social media is at the very bottom of trustworthiness in terms of news.”
However, Zimbabweans have placed their faith in social media just as they did with charismatic prophets and celebrity politicians, without having grounded beliefs or ideological prisms from which they look at issues, simply because of desperation.
Over the months, I have seen many people retweet, like and share even an “Amen” on social media.
Probably it’s time the country goes back to basics and the mainstream media start rendering a better service to the paying public, verifying information and publishing facts than editorialised news. It is surprising that Zimbabwe, with so many people earning Doctor of Philosophy degrees (PhDs), the majority are still afraid to become public intellectuals, writing their views in public, because of polarisation or simply for the reason that they don’t care or are imbedded in certain political parties.
There are no public discussion forums that are simply for Zimbabweans to discuss their own issues without being prodded by donors. Of the few public discussions that are held in Harare, many degenerate into public mudslinging by the panellists.
Probably, Chiwenga’s return and the subsequent realignment of expectations by Zimbabweans after his first public statement will remind citizens of the false dawn of November 2017.
This would push the people to accept even begrudgingly that “revolutions shall not be televised” and that revolutions should be based on ideas, not simply hatred of people.
As life gets harder, Zimbabweans should remember that by staying in echo chambers they are simply trying to fit in, share a communal catharsis and at the end of the day they are worse off than yesterday.
Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist and writes here in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org