Impact of info disorders on citizen participation

2023 presidential ballot paper ... Gender-based information disorders negatively affect women’s participation in political spaces.

IN an era defined by the rapid dissemination of information through digital channels, the emergence of information disorders has cast a shadow over the integrity of democratic processes.

Misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information have become pervasive, infiltrating the very fabric of public discourse.

While the consequences of information disorders are far-reaching, their impact on citizen participation and, particularly, women's engagement in democratic processes is a matter of critical concern.

The foundation of any thriving democracy lies in an informed citizenry actively participating in decision-making processes.

Also as enshrined in our  Constitution of Zimbabwe Section 3, the founding values and principles have good governance, among them, and the tenets of good governance include participation, equity, and inclusiveness, among other things.

Participatory democracy is primarily concerned with ensuring that citizens have the opportunity to be involved in decision-making on matters that affect their lives.

At the same time, equity and inclusiveness mean that all members of society, especially the most vulnerable are taken into consideration in policymaking.

However, the prevalence of false narratives, manipulated facts, and sensationalised content has sown seeds of doubt, eroding trust in traditional news sources and undermining the democratic values we hold dear.

Such a climate of uncertainty hampers citizens' ability to make informed choices, leading to a decline in their overall participation.

In Zimbabwe, like in many other countries, information disorders have had a significant impact on citizens and women's participation in democratic processes.

Zimbabwe has faced challenges related to the spread of false or misleading information, particularly in the context of political and social unrest.

Disinformation refers to deliberately false or misleading information spread with the intent to deceive. It undermines trust in institutions, distorts reality, and erodes the foundation of democratic discourse.

Whether it is fabricated news articles, manipulated images, or viral conspiracy theories, disinformation poses a significant threat.

Moreover, women, who have historically faced obstacles in accessing and exercising their political rights, are disproportionately affected by the disruptive influence of information disorders.

The amplification of gender-based stereotypes targeted disinformation campaigns, and online harassment further marginalise women, limiting their engagement in political discourse and eroding their confidence to participate actively.

According to Media Monitors' report titled An Analysis of Gendered Information Disorders on the Communities during the 2023 Harmonised Elections in Zimbabwe, women in politics are disproportionately targeted by gendered information disorder campaigns compared to their male counterparts.

The report highlighted that the highest number of information disorders was found in fake news 27%, followed by misogyny 26%, defamation of character 24%, hate speech 12% and doxing 10%.

Gender-based information disorders negatively affect women’s participation in political spaces. The government has made efforts to level the ground but some practices by political parties and social media influencers make the spaces unsafe for women. 

On social media platforms, women have become vulnerable to information disorders or disinformation, which disproportionately affects them and this pushes women away from actively participating in leadership and democratic processes. 

According to the Media Monitors Report titled Reporting on Zimbabwe’s 2023 Harmonised Elections: An analysis of the media’s performance during the 2023 Harmonised elections in Zimbabwe,  women sources were less active participants in the 2023 harmonised elections where their election coverage was a paltry 11%,  compared to their counterparts, who constituted 89%.

In addition, female political actors were only 7% compared to their male counterparts, who took up 91% of media coverage. There was only one female presidential candidate, which is a huge decline from the 2018 elections’ four female presidential candidates.

Agents of disinformation in Zimbabwe have become so rampant and can be anyone from state actors, political groups, or even individuals seeking to sway public opinion.

Social media platforms, often unwittingly, amplify these narratives, making them accessible to millions.

Women mostly bear the brunt of being victims of misinformation and disinformation as they are called all sorts of names and described in the most stereotypical way which pushes them out of democratic processes.

In most cases, those who are active in these processes are described as being immoral or would have slept their way up.

Women are often targeted by gender-specific disinformation.

False narratives about women’s roles, abilities, and rights can discourage their active engagement.

Women experience disproportionate online harassment, which can deter them from expressing their views or participating in political discussions.

Disinformation perpetuates stereotypes, affecting women’s representation in leadership positions. When false narratives circulate, women’s voices are drowned out.

Besides affecting women’s participation, disinformation has a huge impact on human rights, and mostly the vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected.  Information disorders hinder freedom of thought and expression as it threatens the right to hold opinions without interference, and the right to privacy.

When citizens are exposed to false narratives they may unknowingly adopt harmful beliefs. Information disorders can limit citizens' access to accurate and reliable information.

In Zimbabwe, where media freedom has been restricted at times, it can be difficult for citizens to obtain unbiased and trustworthy information.

Disinformation and misinformation can fill the information void, shaping public opinion and hindering citizens' ability to make informed decisions.

Disinformation also weakens trust in democratic institutions because when citizens doubt the veracity of information, they become disillusioned with the system itself.

Disinformation also interferes with the right to participate in public affairs. Misleading narratives can sway elections, suppress voter turnout, and undermine the democratic process.

When false or misleading information is spread, citizens may become skeptical of official sources and may question the credibility of democratic processes.

This erosion of trust can discourage citizens from actively participating in elections, engaging in political discussions, or trusting the outcomes of democratic processes.

Information disorders can amplify existing divisions and polarization within society.

In Zimbabwe, where political tensions and polarization have been prevalent, false information can exacerbate these divisions.

Disinformation campaigns can target specific groups, exploit societal fault lines, and deepen social and political divisions. This can hinder constructive dialogue, compromise, and cooperation among citizens, impeding the democratic process.

According to the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment number 20 (2013) Section 44 the State and every person, including juristic persons, and every institution and agency of the government at every level must respect, protect, promote, and fulfill the rights and freedoms.

The same constitution in Section 51 states that every person has inherent dignity in their private and public life, and the right to have that dignity respected and protected.

This means to ensure a democratic society there is a need to avoid some dehumanizing that women go through when they are bullied, trolled, and called all kinds of names for demanding equal opportunities and inclusivity in democratic processes and having their dignity respected. Section 56(2) states that women and men have the right to equal treatment, including the right to equal opportunities in political, economic, cultural, and social spheres.

Few remedies can be used or followed to combat disinformation and create safe spaces for women to participate in democratic processes.

Governments must enact laws that address disinformation while safeguarding free speech.

The government must also ensure strict implementation of these laws to protect marginalized and vulnerable communities from harassment and promote access to equal opportunities.

Civil society organizations should also educate citizens about information literacy, critical thinking, and media literacy.

Empowering women to recognize and counter disinformation is crucial.

Information disorders threaten the very essence of democracy and citizens must be vigilant, fact-check, and engage critically with the information that they encounter. 

Promoting media literacy and fostering an informed electorate can safeguard democratic processes and ensure that women’s voices are heard.

  • Muswe is a media research and advocacy officer for Media Monitors Zimbabwe. She has interests in human rights, inclusivity and advocates for equal representation and equal access to opportunities for women in all democratic processes.

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