The crackdown on social media [in Zimbabwe], in part, is a demonstration of how the WhatsApp corner of the internet has become a powerful space for Zimbabweans. WhatsApp facilitated the spread of misinformation during elections in Brazil and has contributed to caste-based violence and mob killings in India. But it can also serve as a platform for democratized distribution of news in a country with a storied history of oppressing government critics.
Independent media in Zimbabwe are turning to WhatsApp as a primary distributor of news in the midst of an information landscape that is shifting to social platforms. State broadcasters and newspapers have long dominated the media, but alternative platforms began to exist and gain increasing traction in the last years of the Mugabe era.
Zimbabwe, with a population of 16.7 million, has a mobile penetration rate of close to 100 percent, and an internet penetration rate of about 50 percent. WhatsApp connections comprise almost half of all Internet usage in the country. Mobile network operators such as the country’s largest, Econet Wireless, provide data bundles specific to WhatsApp and Twitter, or Facebook and Instagram, for as low as $0.50 or $1 per week, making it more affordable for people to freely communicate in an economy where a significant majority are unemployed.
“When someone talks about internet access in Zimbabwe, they basically are talking about WhatsApp access,” said Thulani Thabango, a Ph.D candidate in media at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.