DISSENT AND HEGEMONY IN THE INFORMATION AGE: A Critical Exploration of Digital Activism in Zimbabwe

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The Internet and new media platforms have played a significant role in activism and political events of the last two decades, feeding into an almost canonical view that social media enhances participatory politics and democracy. The perceived democratising role of social media can be linked to four arguments: firstly, that social networking platforms improve access to information; secondly that with improved information people change attitudes and are more engaged in civic and political processes; thirdly, that networking platforms create a new form of public sphere for enhanced and inclusive deliberative processes, and; finally, that social media enable new forms of mobilising and organising collective action. Evolving concerns related to digital disparities, misinformation and polarisation, among others, challenge the deterministic link between communication technologies and political change. This study contends that understanding the complex relationship between media and politics requires nuance based on contextual insight and analysis of how people interact with ICTs. As such, the study’s approach draws from the theory of hegemony (Gramsci 1971) to build a context-specific exploration of digital media’s role and efficacy in supporting political dissent within non-democratic contexts. Combining in-depth interviews with online observation and documentary sources, the study examines how Zimbabwean activists and ordinary people deploy social media, particularly Facebook, to subvert an enduring hegemonic state. Through this exploration, the study finds that digital activism built on historical subaltern struggles and was shaped by the convergence of technological developments, a restrictive political environment and economic decline of the time, making it uniquely connected to its context. It is within these contextual dynamics that activists appropriated social media and constructed repertoires informed by their imaginaries of the role of activism and the potential contribution of digital media. Thus, while communication technologies help mediate activism, they are also simultaneously constrained by pre-existing and emergent challenges tied to the social and political context and to the inherent limitations of those technologies. The study concludes that while digital activism does challenge hegemony, its impact is limited and dependent on how activists deploy social media platforms in their causes. By probing contextual and historical dynamics, the study challenges current digital activists' practices and scholarship of digital activism in Zimbabwe, which are confined within the utilitarian perspective of social media and democracy-centric analyses.
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