- Last Updated on 06 June 2012
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When Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook, he was not necessarily thinking of providing a platform for Arab protestors to express their frustration with hunger, unemployment and corruption. Nor was he planning for his website to become the battlefield between Iranian, Tunisian, Egyptian authorities and web activists. This, however, is exactly what happened, resulting in the largest revolts in the Arabic space in decades. And it is not just Facebook, thanks to Twitter, YouTube, Flickr websites that have emerged as powerful communication tools for the dissemination of news and for proving that courage is contagious and can go a long way in achieving democracy and freedom.
The media and communications landscape has changed in ways that make it possible for envisioning a more engaged citizen participation in democratic processes. Digital democracy referred to as "the use of digital communication technologies to enhance the democratic process by, among other things, making the process more accessible, increasing and enhancing citizen participation in public policy decision making, and increasing government transparency and accountability € is a growing phenomenon the world over, and may just be the 'bandwagon' that Zimbabwe needs to Board. The Internet is surely democratizing politics, it does mobilize inactive citizens and can make the public sphere more inclusive and will most certainly do much to collectively broaden political discourse in Zimbabwe.
During the elections in Iran in the summer of 2009, the role of the Internet and social media took on a new dimension through micro-blogging. Micro-blogging is an incredibly powerful tool during moments of political upheaval, which outside of Iran also gave the world a real-time account of the noise and events occurring from someone living next door to the raid and killing of Osama bin Laden.
Micro-blogging was a priceless encountre, not only for the Iranians who blogged, tweeted and You-tubed through the demonstrations linked to the elections, but also as a primary source of information for the rest of the world. Some described the newfound flow of communication inside and out of the country as a twitter revolution.
In 2011 the Tunisians used Facebook to constantly upload videos and up-to-the-minute Twitter feeds of street demonstrations. Some of the images of gruesome police brutality served only to outrage people even further. Tunisia where Internet penetration is roughly 35%, and where cell phone use is reportedly upward of 95%, joined Iran on the list of countries that underwent a "Twitter Revolution. € Tunisia's Twitter Revolution was different in one very important way: activists used Twitter to help protesters navigate the on-the-ground tumult, warning of sniper locations, for example. There, when the internet was virtually shut down, there were new digital innovations like speak2tweet which were made available to Tunisians through calling and having the audio translated to tweets. The power of digital democracy was clearly on show as people the world over were surprised to see the 29 year old Ben Ali regime go down as fast as a text message.One may never have heard about the revolt in Tunisia if it wasn't for the use of Twitter to engage in massive information warfare.
With such powerful and far-reaching effects, the Tunisian social media activism quickly caught on with their Egyptian and Libyan neighbours, who through YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, were able to over throw die in the cast dictators. In the process digital democracy, has curved its place in history, with some tempted to call it an intergral part of a new wave of democratisation. Both in the democratic nature within which citizens are able to engage with issues in cyber space, and also because of the democratisation processes that digital democracy itself has facilitated.
In the Egyptian revolution, social media was both a spark and an accelerant for the protestors. Facebook pages, such as 'We are all Khaleed Said', with more than 1.6 million followers, were used for spreading the message about protests and campaigns. Egypt and Zimbabwe are mirrors of each other in some respects, two especially. Both have a high rate of internet penetration ( inspite of the low estimate of 11% given for Zimbabwe in 2011 before Cell phone networks introduced fully fledged internet services on mobile phones and 24,4% for Egypt) and both have highly literate populations.
The conditions necessary for social media to be a catalyst are all there in Zimbabwe with mobile network access growing. This can be another way of reaching to as many Zimbabweans as possible for progressive ends. Social media, and the new wave of digital democracy, contray to ZANU PF assertion at their congress, are nothing to be feared. They can clearly be used to enhance government contact with its citizens and ensure that they are governing transparently and accountably. It is only unaccountable governments that have to fear being carried away by this wave. Contrary to common perception in Zimbabwe, given the availability on an increasing basis of the internet on hand held devices such as the phone - accountability and engagement of citizens using digital media can even reach a good number of people in Rural and remote areas.
The year 2011 will go down in history as the year revolutions were spurred through social media networks. The power to influence people is no longer the reserve of the rich or those who control television and radio station only, thanks to the influence of social media. Without Twitter, Facebook, and the internet in general, the world would not have come to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya's aid. Without the stories and pictures that flooded out of these nations, we would have been left with rumours only with no hard facts and the any self respecting entity would not act on rumours.
Zimbabweans are generally tech savy people, who are not shy of embracing technology. The authorities must embrace technology to interface and account. The masses should be let to use technology to engage freely, mobilise and if need be organise against their rulers. Zimbabwe's youths understand that the year is 2012, few of those who actually have phones still use it for text messages - most use whatsapp, facebook and other chat platforms. This is the reality even in Zimbabwe, part of the challenge is not just on authoriuties and masses to use these platforms. Civics also need to ask wether their orthodox channels of communication are in sync with the audiences that they are keen to engage.
Zimbabwe is at an interresting political moment. It has the infrustracture and the tech savy people that can allow it to join the new wave of digital democracy, which from the looks of it, is changing political and democratisation theory as we speak, and also how people interface, relate and engage with one another. Zimbabwe has missed previous opportunities and waves of democratisation, that other countries including its neighbours have been party to - there is no need to miss this new bus, given what we have to work with as a country. It is key to end by reiterating that digital democracy is not just about toppling regimes, regimes can also use the phenomen to be more democratic and save themselves the fates of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Lybia.