Does the dramatic uptake of new media tools such as mobile applications, digital media, blogging, social networking and video activism mean that citizens, citizen groups and service organizations have the power to challenge the state and mobilize political change?

This is a question that I’ll be pondering along with my fellow participants at the New Media: Alternative Politics Conference at the University of Cambridge. Below are some of my thoughts on the topic, as well as a specific look at the situation in Zimbabwe. After the conference is over, I’ll share some of the opinions expressed by key researchers and practitioners in this area.

Digital Media Affecting Change

In a recent article, researchers Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein argue that in the Middle East “digital media is becoming a new war zone.” Digital media has changed the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Israeli military occupation by offering local populations new tools to “interface with, support, contest, and/or agitate against state policies.”

Social media sites are being used, some more successfully than others, to rally interest for online political demonstration, election campaigning and to logistically organize on-the-ground activity. These platforms, such as Facebook, are enabling citizens, groups and politicians alike. Using these types of tools certainly seems to be a quick and simple method for supporters to demonstrate their political allegiance or to air their views. But are members and fans genuine and active supporters? Does the fact that they join a Facebook group imply that they can be relied upon to take action in a material way? Will they turn up to vote, boycott a product or participate in a rally?

One positive example came after a tragedy — when Khaled Said was beaten to death by the Egyptian police. A Khaled Said Facebook group was launched in his memory, and that group, along with Twitter and YouTube, were central in bringing together Egyptian activists and organizing protests to demand justice for Said.

Websites and blogs have similar power. In just one example, Kubatana.net, with its archive of over 17,000 reports from the NGO sector, is documenting the history of Zimbabwe’s political and economic decline over the past nine years. It serves not only as a digital record, but also as an aid to the community’s collective memory and a factual reference point for international media. Likewise, the Kubatana blogs site, with over 34 different authors, allows ordinary voices to be heard on a wide array of subject matter. BBC, CNN, Sky and the New York Times have looked to this site for a range of opinions from Zimbabweans.

Mobile Applications

Mobile telephony applications have also been widely used for political mobilization. In early September 2010 in Maputo, Mozambique, food riots were mobilized through the viral spread of text messages. According to a report from Russell Southwood on Pambazuka News, this may have resulted in the government putting pressure on the three local network providers to temporarily ban the SMS function.

In Kenya, SMS was used to incite ethnic violence during the 2008 post-election violence. This period gave rise to Ushahidi, a Kenyan crowdsourcing and mapping initiative and News Challenge grantee, which was developed to monitor and map the election violence in Kenya. (Read more about the project here.)

FrontlineSMS, which is free software for sending and receiving SMS and MMS messages, has been used in many countries, including Pakistan and Zimbabwe, to deploy SMS’s for election related logistics and results.

Mobiles phones — through voice, SMS and interactive voice menus — are increasingly
important tools for citizens to receive, validate, gather and offer information. Mobiles offer a large percentage of the population a new means through which to stay informed and share opinions. For instance, mobile pones can be used to rally and organize participation, monitor elections, poll opinion, track human rights abuses, assist with more transparent modes of governance and to report back on government’s service delivery. They can also be used for numerous other positive social benefits in the health, agriculture, education and emergency response sectors; and they can be used in a meaningful way to improve the lives of people at the bottom of the pyramid.

But to what extent do these examples of new media activities translate into meaningful change? Certainly, they facilitate remote participation; but how often does this convert into direct participation and/or action on the ground? We can assess opinion, reflect outrage, inform and inspire recipients, crowdsource information and record events without ever
meeting any of the contributors or consumers. Is there a danger that we will mistakenly believe our armchair activists will meet us in the street or at the polls? And how do we effectively measure the impact of new media? This inability to quantify new media’s impact could lead to false optimism/pessimism, incorrect presumptions and misaligned reactions.

Zimbabwe’s Traditional Media Landscape

In Zimbabwe, in spite of the two-year-old inclusive government, the media continues to suffocate under draconian laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA).

Television and radio remain firmly in the hands of the old guard, offering biased and highly politicized coverage. Community radio remains an elusive dream, and the government has redoubled its efforts to jam the shortwave radio signals of external broadcasters.

The licensing of five newspapers in May 2010 has not yet materially changed the media landscape as only one of them, NewsDay,
is actually operating. Added to this is the fact that the majority of the country’s population lives in rural areas, where they struggle to access newspapers due to cost barriers and limited distribution infrastructure.

So while there has been some token liberalization of the print media, overall Zimbabwe’s traditional media landscape continues to be tightly restricted, repressed and controlled. In its stead, new media initiatives are rising like green shoots in the cracks of the concrete, providing citizens with an alternate voice and means to bypass the state’s road blocks.

In Zimbabwe access to the Internet is largely limited to the elite. Due to poor infrastructure and high costs, only about 10 percent of the population have access to the Internet. This limits the number of people who can take advantage of the net’s abundance of news, social networking, blogs and services such as email. Not surprisingly, the 10 percent of Zimbabweans who have access to the Internet are benefiting from improved communications, information consumption, organizing ability and productivity. But the lack of overall access means that web-based media have limited power to mobilize political change within Zimbabwe.

Mobile Growth in Zimbabwe

While Internet access is far behind, there is much improved GSM coverage and rapidly growing penetration rates of mobile phone users, which according to government data is up to 49 percent from 9 percent in 2008. This sudden growth coincided with the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in late 2008 and is in stark contrast to the years preceding when people had to source SIM cards on the black market. Increased competition has brought down the cost of phone lines, but has had little impact on the cost of local calls and SMS. The lack of cooperation between mobile network operators has also resulted in the duplication of mobile phone towers to services areas, resulting in slower progress in the roll out of infrastructure and greater costs for callers.

At US$0.25 a minute, Zimbabwe has one of the highest mobile call tariffs in the world. This partly reflects the government’s lack of vision on how mobile communications can be embraced to benefit the nation. The sad result is that these costs and attitudes constrain the potential of mobile communications to increase productivity and improve lives.

The government has been clear about its unease with civic and political initiatives using interactive voice response phone services to share information with mobile phone users. Actions to date have largely been directed at the mobile network operators, whose licenses they threaten to revoke or not renew. However, out-dated legislation and the inevitable convergence or radio, telephony and web technologies make this a losing battle in the long run.