On July 30th, six million Zimbabweans took to the polls to elect new members of parliament and a new president. Taking place less than a year after former President Robert Mugabe’s longtime rule was brought to an end, these elections presented “an historic opportunity to break with the past 18 years of political crisis and mark the beginning of a genuine democratic transition.” The incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who played a role removing Mugabe from power, led the ZANU-PF against Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. Late last week, Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) announced that the ZANU-PF won the majority of the Parliamentary seats and that Mnangagwa obtained 50.8% of the vote—just enough to avoid a runoff election.
To assess the credibility of the electoral process, NDI and the International Republican Institute (IRI) deployed an international observation mission with a delegation of international leaders including former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. (Want to know what it’s like to collect data in realtime? Read Sarah Moulton’s liveblog of the 2017 Liberian elections to get an idea!)
Unlike in previous years, where SMS was the medium of choice, political discussions have moved to WhatsApp, which accounts for up to 44% of all mobile internet usage in Zimbabwe. On the one hand, these platforms have facilitated new mechanisms for civic engagement, as exemplified by presidential hopeful Fadzayi Mahere’s use of a Facebook-integrated bot for citizens to learn more about her campaign or sign up to volunteer. Similarly, Twimbot helped users discover the candidates running in their local districts. However, WhatsApp has also contributed to the spread of partisan disinformation, both against political opponents as well as the ZEC and voting procedures. One message, styled as an official ZEC communication, encouraged users to download an app to cast their votes, while others showed manipulated photos of election officials. A difficult endeavor in any circumstance, fact-checking these stories has proven even more difficult as large media houses in Zimbabwe have largely supported the incumbent.
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