Zimbabwe fights fake news with lessons in spotting disinformation

Disinformation fuels political violence risk, experts say, as citizens seek news online ahead of elections

An opposition leader has quit, voting has been postponed for rural residents, and a man has been eaten by a lion in a national park: these are just a few of the lies Zimbabweans have seen circulating on social media.

As the southern African nation gears up for elections next year, misinformation training is helping citizens spot online fake news that experts say threatens to undermine trust in democracy and fuels risks of politically-motivated violence.

“Speculation, opinions and lies are part of the news diet in Zimbabwe,” says Zenzele Ndebele, director of the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE), a non-profit running lessons for residents in Dete, a town in the rural northwest.

"People must be trained to tell the difference between fake news, misinformation, disinformation, and real news."


Misinformation is simply incorrect information, while disinformation refers to deliberately sharing information that is known to be false with the intention of deceiving people.

Misinformation and hate speech have surged across Africa as more people get online, from abuse of women politicians in advance of Kenya’s August election, to calls for violence against ethnic minorities in Ethiopia and against migrants in South Africa.

In Zimbabwe, where the Zimbabwe African National Union– Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has dominated politics since independence from Britain in 1980, the stakes for next year’s national and presidential polls are high.

It will be Zimbabwe’s second vote since a 2017 coup ousted president Robert Mugabe, seen by critics as an autocrat willing to rig elections, unleash death squads, and violently crush political challengers.

The main parties are the ruling ZANU-PF, led by president Emmerson “The Crocodile” Mnangagwa, the centre-left opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and its newly-created offshoot the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), led by former MDC head Nelson Chamisa.

Mnangagwa defeated Chamisa in the most recent 2018 poll, according to the electoral commission, but Chamisa said the result was rigged and social media was flooded with fake election results, according to independent fact-checkers.

Six people died and 35 others were injured after the army stepped in to quell street protests.

“Misinformation and disinformation have the potential to escalate politically-motivated violence,” says Delta Sivalo, who works on a programme countering misinformation in Zimbabwe for the International Republican Institute, an American non-profit.

"The biggest threat disinformation poses is that it puts a dent in the credibility of elections. It makes it challenging for citizens to make informed political choices."

About one-third of Zimbabwe’s 15-million population are internet users, according to digital data website DataReportal.

The most popular social platform is WhatsApp, with some 3.5 million users nationally, found a 2020 report by national statistics agency Zimstat and telecommunications regulator

Nearly 1.5 million Zimbabweans use Facebook, and about a quarter of a million are on Twitter, DataReportal said.

Nearly 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s print and broadcast media are state-controlled and journalists often fear criticising authorities, according to press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, though press freedom improved slightly after Mugabe’s removal.

Citizens are looking online for news partly because state media tends to favour ZANU-PF – but also because it is cheaper, says Kuda Hove, an independent technology policy researcher.

“A daily local newspaper costs about $1 – or the same as a loaf of bread – in a country where almost half the population lives under the poverty line,” he says, while many smartphone data bundles include unlimited WhatsApp and Facebook use.

Social media firms say they are working to tackle fake news and information, including investing in moderation and nudging users to verify claims, though critics have said they are failing to effectively counter a tide of disinformation.

Political parties have taken notice, with teams of PR experts and supporters aiming to spread their party’s messages online, says Dumisani Moyo, a professor at the University of Johannesburg, in an article for The Conversation.

Moyo says in the 2018 election, ZANU-PF’s “online warriors” were known as “Varakashi” – or “destroyers” in the Shona language – while the MDC’s digital cheerleaders were dubbed the “Nerrorists” in honour of then-leader Chamisa’s nickname Nero.

African media literacy programmes like CITE's and fact-checking organisations are stepping up to try to counter falsehoods and teach people to spot dubious claims.

Zimbabwe-based ZimFact, set up in 2018, worked to debunk myths during the last election and the Covid-19 pandemic – from fact-checking politicians’ speeches to exposing false online claims about Covid-19 home remedies and vaccines. The organisation is now gearing up for the 2023 election.

“The lack of data, information and credible expert opinion is a challenge, especially in a polarised society like ours,” says Lifaqane Nare, ZimFact’s head of programmes.

"Election periods are normally accompanied by an influx of misinformation, and there is need for more fact-checking."

At a CITE session in Dete, participants brought examples of dubious information they had seen in traditional media and online. Trainers discussed how to spot suspicious claims and check facts.

“These people use social media in their day-to-day lives, so we want to train them to really understand what sort of information is online,” says trainer Ndlela Ncube.

"As we are going into the election, this is critical because bad information can have a huge impact."

After the training session, participants say they are eager to test their new knowledge.

“There are people in my community who post fake news on the internet,” says 17-year-old Derrick Masina.

“This has taught me how to fight that fake news – for our own good.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation