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Numbers don’t lie, but they need to be proven

In political communication or propaganda, there is a principle called bandwagoning. Bandwagoning exploits the human being’s affinity for belonging. In simple terms, it says most people want to go where others are or be part of the winning team.

This is why in Zimbabwean politics, crowds matter. Whenever the ruling party ZANU PF has an event, buses will be deployed to ensure that the optics remain decent even when the local contingent refuses to honour the invitation. In opposition circles, they do not have access to state resources, so their methods of moving supporters around involve volunteer lorries by party faithful, seeking the same effect. I digress.

The point is that whenever there is a rally in Zimbabwe, people from any serious political party will circulate images depicting the attendance. In some cases, they give numerical estimates of the people who would have attended, bringing us to the point of contention.

ZANU PF recently held a rally in Zaka, Masvingo Province, claiming that 124 000 people had attended the rally. The figure, carried in The Herald, generated vicious debate. Some were saying the numbers were possible, while others were adamant the propaganda machine at corner George Silundika and Sam Nujoma Streets had gone beyond the confines of logic.

For context, 54 000 people live in Bindura, meaning that people who attended the event would fill up the city two-fold and leave some ‘change’. CCC, on the other hand, has thrown its estimates; even Douglas Mwonzora and the MDC-Alliance have mentioned numbers that appear hard to accept without question. This situation allows content creators to stand between the people and lying politicians.

Many content creators in other jurisdictions, with far more stable political spaces than ours, are already deploying drones to capture crowd images. Here in Zimbabwe, progressive media houses and communication departments are embracing the use of technology.

Drone technology permeated social spaces in Zimbabwe; even a child’s birthday party can have drone footage.

We will touch on the compliance aspect later. However, those drones can be put to more use as far as crowd numbers are concerned. There is software that fact-checkers worldwide are using to verify suspicious claims. A similar approach is due in Zimbabwe, where a full-blown information war is ensuing among political parties.

The digital space connects with the rural, so a significant event in Kwekwe or Epworth may shake the national political space. Digital tools have one role, to compress the space and time needed to access events in another part of the country. This is why mobile penetration remains a very political discussion area.

Possible tools

There is a software called which can be used in the execution of these tasks. According to an article by Volarious, a drone systems company, this technology can go beyond just content creation.

“Drones offer the possibility of instantly zooming in on any area of interest and getting vital information about what is happening on the ground. Police forces less staffed at large gatherings can use drones as crowd management devices 24/7 without much risk and hassle,” the article read.

There are drones like DJI M30T, which give one 16 times optical zoom and 200x digital zoom, almost equivalent to an 8-kilometre view.

“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) can observe, analyse, and predict events that might undoubtedly happen on the ground. Computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) allow us to see things that a trained eye may overlook. Facial recognition, assessing a subject's moods and motives, thermal imaging during night-time, and movement patterns in a crowd (and those that don't conform to the general pattern in the crowd) are only some of the few things that a UAV could do to strengthen law enforcement,” the company states. There is a software called CVDIA which gives numbers of people detected in real-time.

Numbers are contentious

Technology will bring impeachable evidence, which everyone will be forced to align with. There will be pushback by those who attend events physically. Standing on the ground and trying to count people by pointing to their foreheads is not the most scientific method of ascertaining numbers.

So event organisers will always assume there are more people than there are. Quite often, two cadres stand beside each other, sharing a cigarette and making estimates. They are not used to seeing crowds, so their understanding of a crowd that can legitimately make a thousand people is flawed. These are fertile grounds for differences in opinion.

To avoid retribution, drone operators must comply with the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe. They also need to be registered with the Zimbabwe Media Commission. Compliance should not be seen as an obstacle because the work is being done without malice and as part of the media’s constitutionally protected role. Technology moves in content creation and storytelling.

Back then, the best journalists could jot down the Teeline alphabet the fastest. However, voice recorders are relegated very low on the attributes a good journalist should be.

Quoting has become better as transcriptions offer better accuracy. Similarly, drones can ease number estimates, and content creators must lead the process.