EARLY last month, parents with children learning at Mutare Boys High woke up to shocking news that 70 students from the school had died when the bus they were travelling in overturned in Macheke.
There was so much panic, shock and heartbreaks as parents and relatives rushed to establish the safety of their loved ones. It later turned out that the report was false – that the “news” was nothing, but the work of an unscrupulous and insensitive ICT prankster.
Such are the dangers that come with the world of ICT where information flows unhindered and at breakneck speed.
The trend has seen mounting calls for regulations to curb unruly behaviour and abuse of information technology.
Police spokesperson, Chief Superintendent Paul Nyathi dismissed the Mutare school reports saying no such thing had ever happened.
“We want to make it clear that the messages circulating are not true. No such accident was recorded,” he said.
“This is not good at all. I almost got a heart attack. I could not stomach the news that 70 boys had perished in an accident. I have a child at the school and I thought maybe mine was among the dead. Something must be done to stop abuse of information and technology,” said a 64-year-old widow from Marondera who requested anonymity.
The world has become global as the interconnectedness intensifies leading to a communication systems revolution. Zimbabwe is one of the first countries in Southern Africa to embrace latest ICT programmes.
Developments within the past two decades have resulted in the transformation of people’s lives due to an upsurge in technology.
Recent statistics reveal the latest percentage of mobile phone users at 60% of the population. But the abuse of Information, Communication and Technology (ICTs) platforms in the country has been brought to bear on users of technology.
Social media applications have become a haven of false information and the government, private sector and individuals have often found themselves issuing press releases to give the correct position of circumstances after misrepresentation of information digital platforms.
Sometime last year another message, accompanied by what appeared to be a real photograph, went viral to the effect that a baboon-like baby had been born at Parirenyatwa Hospital.
Again the hospital had to issue a statement putting the record straight and saying the message was nothing, but the naughty product of someone’s fertile imagination.
Celebrities and government officials are also targeted. There have been many incidents where social media has run with “stories” that such and such a celebrity or politician had died, only for the individuals to emerge “from the dead” laughing or angry.
An example is that of former Miss Zimbabwe, Emily Kachote, being presented in nudity through doctored videos and pictures posted on social media apparently by people that were out to embarrass her.
Local Information and Technology expert Moses Hamudikuwanda said the use of social media to spread falsehoods could not be stopped by anybody, let alone law enforcement agents. Only self-restraint and discipline would do the trick.
“There are people who live to cause alarm and raise unnecessary dust. There is nothing much we can do to stop them. Maybe to minimise it, people should be responsible. That issue of self-censorship applies here.
“Some have highlighted the need for technology which traces where the message originated from, but that is a complicated exercise,” he said.
Legal practitioner-cum-politician Jacob Mafume echoed the same sentiments saying it was very difficult to criminalise the spread of hoaxes on social media.
“It would be an overreach to criminalise all falsehoods or false stories, especially on social media. It would need a whole body of police officers to deal with falsehoods on social media.
“The approach is to deal with the media in relation to a crime that one might end up committing. For example, if someone uses it to promote violence, terrorism or any other serious crime than to chase every falsehood that one can imagine
“The concept of falsehood itself is an ill-conceived and almost evangelical concept rather than a legal concept. The question is who has suffered from the so-called social media and at what cost and why should the State intervene. If one is defamed they can sue. The only areas of protection would be if someone is harming children or grooming them for sex, then surely, the law must and should intervene,” said Mafume.
Information Communication Technology, Postal and Courier Services Minister Supa Mandiwanzira said government was aware and working flat out to deal with the issue.
“There is need to come up with rules and regulations to deal with themenace. And there is need to promote positivity as far as using social media is concerned.
We are currently in a position of revising the national ICT policy and we will table this before the cabinet to come up with measures to deal with the issue. We are against those who hoodwink and undermine the country’s leadership through spreading falsehoods on social media platforms,” he said.-AMH