In information environments in which state media or the government are the main perpetrators of disinformation, and in which the active propagation of disinformation is accompanied by censorship, civil society has been absolutely critical in developing trusted networks and environments through which information can be shared. While “word of mouth” and other creative information distribution activities have always been present in closed societies, those channels have taken on greater formality and scale as digital technologies, and particularly encrypted group chat applications, have become widely accessible.
In Zimbabwe, where state media dominates the media space, digital media groups such as 263 Chat, established in 2012, capitalized on the increased use of digital platforms in the country to amplify the voices of citizens, increase their access, and encourage a dialogue among them. The group understood early on that with WhatsApp use representing almost half of all internet traffic in Zimbabwe they can utilize it to package news information in a more digestible way that addresses the spread of disinformation in the country. As a result, 263 Chat distributes their e-paper for free to more than 35,000 subscribers on WhatsApp. The founder of 263 Chat, Nigel Mugamu, has more than 100 thousand followers on Twitter, and 263 Chat's Twitter account has close to half a million followers, an impressive number for a platform now widely used in Zimbabwe.
A number of similar initiatives exist in Venezuela, a country in which the public information space is almost entirely dominated by government propaganda and censorship. A number of civil society groups and independent activists have created WhatsApp channels, sometimes consisting of several hundred members, through which verified, reliable, and trusted information is transmitted. Those channels have played an interesting role during the COVID-19 pandemic. While they were originally created to address specific issues of concern to given civil society groups, these networks have since been used as distribution channels for accurate health information, including statistics about the virus’ spread, and public service announcement advice about how to avoid contracting the virus.