Digital media, according to Lister et al, (2009:187) is viewed as a revival of the public sphere where ordinary citizens hold “multiple lateral public conversations, organise, generate, and communicate ideas to decision-making institutions.” In this same line of argument Jones (1994) sees new media playing a role in building opportunities for popular participation and establishment of countercultures, amongst other key roles. For the purpose of this assignment I will focus on protests in Zimbabwe between April to September 2016 where new media played various roles including, among other things, providing a platform for the protestors to share ideas, organise as well as mobilisation given the authoritarian nature of the Zimbabwean government. To a political reporter like me, digital media during the protests became a vital tool hence this essay will also unravel how it (new media) enabled and at the same time constrained our mobility as well as sense of belonging as we tried to enter into this new space. This essay will also explore new media dichotomies such as evolution and revolution, technological determinism and social constructivism as well as cyber-optimism and cyber-pessimism.
It is important at this juncture to state that at a more functional level, Joyce’s (2010) categorisation of the three broad perspectives on new media- optimists, pessimists, and persistents- offers a starting point in framing the debate on the function of digital/social media.
The optimist view, according to Joyce (2010:10):
argues that the connectivity between different people, the power of ordinary users as content producers with minimal or no professional training, the removal of traditional hierarchies, and the ‘democratic and socially inclusive’ nature of alternative media empowers the users to take action outside or in confrontation with the status quo.
New media, in the Zimbabwean case, has been harnessed to make political demands on human rights, accountability and good governance. Thus, from a cyber-optimistic view digital media made it possible for conversations around protests in Zimbabwe to be shared quickly and also for actors to mobilise and gather within a virtual space where they could contribute ideas, take positions and plan the next action without the interference of the state security apparatus. It is also important here to state that only those with shared ideology were accepted in Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags that were controlled by the social movements leaders. Social media platforms then provided new opportunities to various groups and gave power to people whose agendas would not have been reported in major mass media. In line with this thinking scholars such as Chaffee and Metzger (2001) argue that with social media, power is moved from elites to a greater proportion of media users, thus eliminating induced hegemony. New communication technology developments have, thus, provided the infrastructure that supports and encourages political action, and these create arenas for a free engagement of citizens in deliberation and public debate (Vatikiotis, 2005:8).
As protests unfolded in Zimbabwe the new media enabled the social movements to experience a much greater diversity of ideas which gave birth to a “networked public sphere” which broke elite stranglehold on democratic discourse.
Social media have become an integral part of public discourse and communication in the contemporary society. The fast development of social media has caused major changes pertaining the way people find groups of individuals with similar interests, the nature of information, the available news sources, or the possibility to require and share ideas (Stieglitz, Dang-Xuan, 2012: 1). More recently, the prominence of social media has been particularly highlighted in politics, given the fact that the use of social networking sites (Facebook) and microblogging services (Twitter) are believed to have the potential of positively influencing political participation (Stieglitz, Dang-Xuan, 2012). Optimists prospect that, as societies become more digitized, the power of digital technologies “will change the nature of power in the real world” (Joyce 2010:12).
As Zimbabwe developed into an authoritarian regime with less credible elections and low voter turnout (Sithole 2001) which also coincided with the steep economic decline, the government also introduced policies which closed all political spaces, the internet, and especially social media, thus emerged as a popular site for citizens seeking alternative information. Between April and September 2016 Zimbabwe witnessed massive protests against the ruling Zanu PF and Mugabe. What triggered the protests was a video posted on Facebook by a youthful cleric Evan Mawarire who challenged Mugabe’s government excesses and corruption. The government, however, responded by force to suppress the momentum of the protests by wanton arrests, detention and torture of the protest organisers. In Zimbabwean context, social media can be conceptualized as an alternative counter public sphere or a subaltern public sphere- a space where constraints and surveillance of an authoritarian state are circumvented (Gukurume 2017:51). Thus, during this period in question there was an increasing appropriation of social media by the youths as they used Twitter and Facebook as “new protest drums” urging the majority of Zimbabweans to protest against Mugabe’s government. Thus in this case social media was used as instruments of struggle by the social movements struggling against authoritarian regimes such as the ruling Zanu PF.
On the other hand, the pessimist view posits that given digital technologies’ moral impartiality, they are likely to be used as an extension of the current instruments of control through surveillance and persecution, particularly if they are in the hands of repressive regimes and existentialists (Morozov 2009). This also remains true of the situation as social movements in Zimbabwe increasingly appropriated social media platforms as an alternative form of political activism, the authoritarian regime reacted by closing down internet services restricting mobility into these virtual spaces. Soriano (2013:334) also argues that technology does not provide alternative media platforms when he contends that:
For cyber-pessimists, technology not only fails to support the democratisation process; but rather moreover it possesses characteristics that lead to regression, by endowing authoritarian regimes with resources that empower social control and the effective persecution of dissidents.


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