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Digital Innovation Study

Reshaping the debate

When traditional media failed to meet his expectations, Nigel Mugamu started his own way of hearing the concerns of ordinary people. He set up 263Chat in Zimbabwe as a way to develop discussions on topical issues.

Nigel Mugamu felt the media in Zimbabwe was failing to fully represent the ordinary lives and worries of the population. When he found he was not the only person whose interests and needs were not being met, he decided to act. He set up 263Chat: an online discussion forum to bring Zimbabweans together to share their opinions and experiences on a variety of topical issues.

263Chat has since grown into a media organization that promotes dialogue about Zimbabwe beyond mainstream media by using platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube since 2012. Its aim is to widen public discussion and create informed citizens by strengthening the public sphere.

How it all began

It is sometimes from a distance that things become clearest. When Mugamu was living as a Zimbabwean expatriate in Scotland, he found the problems that worried his friends back home were absent in his country’s media. “I thought, that is not the Zimbabwe that I know,” he remembers. “I would think, why are we consistently talking about political individuals as opposed to the issues that are taking place in the people’s lives? And this is what inspired me to use Twitter.”

In Mugamu’s opinion, the mainstream media was extremely polarized and political. He wanted to create a way to discuss issues that were pertinent to the everyday lives of the population. The idea for 263Chat was born – 263 being the international telephone code for Zimbabwe.

In the beginning, Mugamu specifically chose Twitter over other social media platforms such as Facebook because it limits the user to 140 characters, which ensures brevity. “You need to get to the point - this is what I believe,” he says.

There was another reason he initially rejected Facebook as a viable platform: anonymity was crucial, he felt, for the discussions that he wanted to have. People tend to use Facebook for interactions with their real friends. They might be hesitant to share in open and frank discussions about topics such as homosexuality, religion or political parties, he feared. Twitter provides people with an avenue to express how they feel about certain issues without fear of repercussions.

Moderating the message

263Chat began as a weekly Twitter discussion group for Zimbabweans, both in the country and in the diaspora, on one topic with the goal of enabling people to connect and to facilitate dialogue about the country. It quickly garnered interest. Today it has more than 59,000 Twitter followers.

However, with such a rapid uptake of participants and people involved in discussions, there was also a strong need for moderation. “Some people got nasty, claiming we were a Zanu-PF [the ruling party in Zimbabwe] project or accusing us of playing with Western imperialists who are using us,” Mugamu reminisces. “They were obviously trolls.” There was also the issue that people went off topic or ranted about something. Mugamu had to intervene to bring them back on course. After a while, people within the group started doing this themselves. "They would say, we are here, we are taking time out of our busy schedules to engage in this discussion and if you have nothing positive to say, then bugger off,” he explains.

A growing community

Mugamu moved back to Zimbabwe and expanded 263Chat to other platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. He also realized that many of his followers were people from the diaspora. In Zimbabwe, Internet access is expensive and Twitter wasn’t popular. 263Chat expanded its activities into the field of education, signing contracts with UNICEF and foreign embassies to implement community empowerment work.

Avoiding the establishment

As a result, 263Chat has evolved from being an online discussion forum to being a media producer and publisher. “We want people to be informed citizens which is why we are also now producing content,” says Mugamu. ”Because we don’t have a print press or a radio show and we are not on TV, we still have to use the Internet to convey our message.”

263Chat is now employing a photographer. They film events and try to create five-minute stories to meet people’s digital attention spans.

Their social media platforms and discussions proved a valuable source of information. It is here that they carry out on the ground research. From this they are able to identify knowledge gaps within society. They then write relevant articles or create video clips on these topics and issues in order to create a common understanding and informed debate.

Between 60 and 70 percent of the Zimbabwean population live in rural areas and do not have access to the Internet. Mugamu is now trying to find alternative ways to reach people through SMS as most Zimbaweans have access to mobile phones. He has a strong desire to ensure participation and inclusion to extend the remit of 263Chat.

In their endeavor to reach the majority, 263Chat has also had to make some difficult choices in order to stay true to its original mission. “We have purposefully not approached radio stations to get a show because we know that the stations are government affiliated,” says Mugamu. “I don’t know whether they would allow us to be really 263Chat. I can’t allow the 263Chat that exists on social media to be watered down for TV or radio. So I am careful how we do that when finding new ways to reach other audiences.”

Instead Mugamu is considering taking events out to rural areas or partnering with groups already working in rural areas in order to get out 263Chat’s message.

The attitude of traditional media

Working with well-known and reputable organizations and embassies has also increased the value given to 263Chat within Zimbabwe's media community. According to Mugamu, over time the mainstream media has begun to take them more seriously and to respect the work they do.

“Initially there was criticism but I think mainstream media are now paying more attention to what we say,” he says. Nevertheless, 263Chat still has some vocal critics. Mugamu takes it as a sign that his initiative is doing valuable work.

“We talk about things like human rights and obviously the state media don’t want to talk about this topic. So they try to discredit us.”

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