Last month, something that I have been waiting to see for years finally happened. Russia managed to broadcast in Ukrainian social media a clip of President Volodymyr Zelensky telling Ukrainians to surrender to the Russians; that the war was ending. I first saw the story on WION’s YouTube Channel — a freshly minted critical online news outlet from India, which is trying to establish its presence.
So I watched WION’s (rather good and accessible) piece about how Russia created this deepfake video of Zelensky instructing Ukrainians to down their arms and spread it to Ukraine and beyond. Of course it didn’t work because deepfake still has an uncanny valley problem. Ukrainians immediately and instinctively knew that this “Zelensky” was strange.
Also, what Fake Zelensky was saying was completely unbelievable. Within hours Ukraine had pinned down this disinformation attack and dealt with it.
In Ukraine, disinformation and misinformation are probably easily dealt with because there is a high level of trust in the government during this time of war, and it looks like the education levels are also pretty high for the general population.
In Tanzania, dare I say in the whole of the East African Community including our new member state the Democratic Republic of Congo, I doubt this is the case. Even in countries where basic education levels are credibly decent, trust in government is generally low.
We have been living in the post-factual world since the 1970s and 1980s, we should be well-equipped to deal with it by now.
There are many ways to do this: the world-weary “don’t trust your government or leadership entirely, ever” modus operandi, the “well, it’s someone’s fault and that person is The West” model and then there is “Deus Vult” or “God Wills It,” my least favourite because in Tanzania it also allows for the supernatural to be accepted by the implication that there are counterpart “Forces of Evil.” This removes personal accountability, and I don’t like that.
According to the situation, we mix and we match our approaches to reality and we live to doubt another day. Recently, I have been pondering if these three models suffice us anymore?
Check it: the Russian invasion of Ukraine has pumped up the price of oil around the world. Here in Tanzania, where the cost of living has been steadily rising over the past few years, thanks to inflation caused by so many factors, there is a huge backlash against President Samia Suluhu over a couple of economic grievances: the Tsh100 tax ($0.04)) on fuel and the serious challenges being faced by increasing numbers of us whose basket of goods has grown out of touch with our incomes.
The price of petrol at the pump has gone up by roughly Tsh300 (Tsh0.13), in the same week that the President walked back our recent Middle Income Country status to align our expectations more closely with our economic reality.
I am glad she chose truth in that sense but, unfortunately, the reason Samia gave for this “downgrade” was Deus Vult.
When that happens, those of us who happily understand and comply with “give unto Caesar” while upholding the separation of Church and State get severe panic attacks among other reactions.
Oh, just me? Okay, then.
I heard President Samia. I even understood this is no time to open debate about how or why we achieved Middle Income Status in the first place and why we are losing it now.
I disagree because if ever we needed some transparency and economic literacy it would be now, but I get it. If we’re going to get post-factual and even non-factual every time we take umbrage at her pronouncements, she is well within her rights to choose her words astutely.
While we nitpick the Deus Vult explanation, the President will be moving along with the business of getting things done. But how we have chosen to nitpick the issue revealed to me that too many of us have absolutely no idea what economy is, let alone how a modern globally linked one works.
The confidence with which we blamed our head of state personally for the situation also indicated that many of us are living in a republic acting as though we are the subjects of an omnipotent monarch. But we still want to be cynical about things?
This is unsettling to me. Ignorance, Deus Vult, gullibility, frustration and cynicism do not make for a good combination.
It might sound like this is pushing us towards a revolution that so many of us are calling for, but the chaos of revolutions in such an environment is in and of itself a rich environment for bad faith actors to use the Dark Arts of media like deepfakes, misinformation or disinformation to derail Tanzania’s slow progress as a state.
I am exaggerating, but it is not an unfounded concern. Can you imagine if someone dropped a deepfake of our head of state saying what they know many people want to hear?
Anyway, thanks to Russia for using this technology in the war and forcing the acceptance that we are deep within a brave new world.
Remember when we used to say that “seeing is believing?” Well, this reality requires an entirely different set of tools of communication and therefore perception and governance.
Stay smart, fact-check.
Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]