Somebody asked me the other day if I had a Twitter account. I have never fancied myself as a serious fan of Twitter. In fact, I am quite cautious about social media. I have a Facebook account but never drop in there that much.
I prefer LinkedIn, as it is much more professional and the commentary in posts is guarded and cautiously self-curated. If you want to be employed in future, you better behave on LinkedIn!
I am sure there are ways in which Twitter is useful, including the speed at which information flows, the ability to share posts and to get a daily register of what is bugging people in their private or public lives. But I think the negatives of Twitter outweigh its positives.
Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media are credited for facilitating the Arab Spring and the Colour revolutions. They are seen as tools of democracy and a vanguard against authoritarianism. There was great euphoria that social media would be a positive force for change. That, unfortunately, has been reversed now, and social media platforms have become an antidemocracy tool.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates how personal data can be used to filter information and shape confirmation bias if you want voters to be herded in a particular direction. The craft of propaganda has always been with us but, with social media, it has been given new powers. Given the instantaneous messaging facilitated by social media, it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Our instinctive side is too Pavlovian to signals, so we react first and think later.
South Africa is not immune to the weaponisation of social media.
The art of slick slogans – such as White Monopoly Capital – still hangs like a spectre over South Africa’s racialised politics, despite the demise of Bell Pottinger. Interestingly, the founder of Bell Pottinger, Lord Pottinger, was key to building FW de Klerk’s postapartheid image. The public relations industry does not care for values – the only value that seems to matter to some practitioners in that industry is the value of money. Their job is to turn the indecent into the virtuous and the virtuous into the indecent.
There are several reasons why I have not joined Twitter. The main thing is the limited number of characters one can type, which limits the extent of the argument one can advance. In a world characterised by hypersensitivity and prejudice, little things can become big things and sometimes big things are turned into little things, as Helen Zille quickly found out when she tweated about Singapore, which she wanted to showcase as a model of the postcolonial legacy.
The fracas that followed Zille’s tweets is a great case study. How can you discuss the complex history of Singapore on Twitter? For one, Singapore was never colonised. It is a Chinese enclave that was hived off greater Malaysia, which was colonised, after racial conflict. Second, Singapore’s democratic credentials are tarnished, if one takes into account the 1963 crackdown and the rise of Lee Kwan Yew’s People’s Action Party.
Zille’s comments would have been better tackled if she were off Twitter. I think she should be afforded a townhall occasion to justify her point of view, with a worthy talent to rebut her. Then the audience could also share their perspectives and interrogate both speakers. Unfortunately, the colonial and anticolonial Twitter wars have made us all more bereft of not only history but also that thing we have sacrificed the most: the art of debate and the lift to public culture and tolerance it gives.
Twitter and other forms of social media are instruments of derision and division. The instinctive reigns over the reflective. This has gained some traction in our era of identity politics, neonationalism and the shifting landscape of global geopolitics.
Twitter is weaponised by groups that seek to gain control over political narratives and processes by shifting the compass of emotion. Every wound that can be deepened will be subject to the mercilessness of Twitter populism. There is no decorum and there need not be one – we are in Nietzsche’s world of nihilism. No value is of any value and all new values must come from the collapse or demolition of the old. The goal here has nothing to do with building a good society but rather the acquisition of power.
In behavioural science, it is well known that a small group can shift the opinions of the majority – and this can be for good or bad. It all depends on what those opinions are and what type of reality emerges as a result. Too much faith should not be put in the idea that the wisdom of the crowd is always wisdom. Twitter creates the illusion of a majority because a small group can shape the dominant narrative as, quite often, Twitter feeds generate stories that become the story of the day for other media platforms.
There are foundational issues that dissuade me from joining the Twitterati: it fragments and distracts people and thoughts. It is not a great medium for long-run social and historical intelligence. Its very nature is to break a long-held enlightenment accord to fill public life with deep reasoning.
The existential crisis we experience between the virtual and the real affects the mind and movement of diverse physical beings interacting with each other on a daily basis. Social media is placing individual existence in disarray. In virtual reality, we become our dark selves and, in real life, we must mediate social interaction in ways that allow us to go on with our daily lives.