What does Donald Trump, Black Monday, Black Lives Matter, Bell Pottinger and the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square have in common? Social media changed the face of their campaigns.
Some fast facts you might find interesting:
- Facebook and Google account for about 40% of America’s digital content consumption;
- Social media is a mechanism for capturing, manipulating and consuming attention unlike any other; it has changed the game of politics forever. The power of fake news, clever hacking and campaigning is an immense force to recon with;
- The new concept of the attention economy is key – information and online posts are capturing the attention and many hours of our people. It’s almost addictive in its consumption trends;
- Interface designers, app makers and social media companies employ thousands of experts to design tools that keep people coming back. Adult Americans who use Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp spend around 20 hours a month on these three services. Overall, Americans touch their smartphones around 2 600 times a day.
Another aspect that we see in our daily interactions is the increasing use of fake news to shape discourse and to create a new norm for information consumers. In the 2016 American election, fake news surpassed the use of mainstream media and solid journalistic acumen. In a sense, many journalists are competing with fake news campaigns. Bringing this closer to home: On 30 October (now known as Black Monday) I had firsthand experience of how the media, civil society and lobbying groups experienced this day, and how social media played a big role in shaping the conversations.
It all began with a video made by Chris Loubser for his deceased friend, Joubert Conradie. Conradie was murdered on a farm in the Western Cape. Chris asked that we commemorate all victims of farm violence by wearing black on that particular Monday – and so the campaign began. There were no specific organisers and the movement developed organically across South Africa. When the events on Monday unfolded, it was portrayed as a racial initiative where the rest of South Africa was excluded from the narrative. But instead of condemning crime and violence, some Twitter activists, journalists and politicians chose to cry “racism“ and “white supremacy“ rather than “murder.“
The original intention of Black Monday was pure, but messages about it soon developed into fake news items surrounding old apartheid flags, counter measures to the so-called “coffin case“ and cultural supremacy. Government’s response was clearly a reflection on the wave of fake news that hit the media platforms – arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa released a statement where he not only condemned the old flag, but also the burning of the new one, which simply did not occur. Communications minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane told Jacaranda FM that government respected the freedom of expression and the right to protest, but that it should be done in a responsible way.
“There are images of people burning our flag and people having old flags, including people hurling insults,” she said. And most concerning, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told the SABC: “The burning of the flag is what incensed me more than anything else. My view is that here you have people who are inciting racial divisions. Here are a people who have no clue of what a war can do in a country.” I had to manage the media in many interviews that should have focused on the crime problem at hand to ensure that no greater divisions were created among South Africans on racial lines. My experience here was that fake news overtook the news stand and we had to manage the fake news in ways we did not anticipate.
What I found interesting is the EFF’s response to Black Monday and how certain segments of society reacted to Mr Malema’s statement – and almost before our eyes we see how social media can create deep divisions in societies. It can fuel the tinderbox and polarise societies and create an environment poised for physical conflict. This is the reality of our times and we must manage the messaging and momentum of these initiatives. We must be calculated and smart in the way we use our social media tools – to mobilise and to unite rather than create divisions and aggression. The other issue that we all always need to consider is whether we’re being played – and we need to look beyond the emotional responses. We need to ensure that we have a strategy that would benefit our farmers and all South Africans in the long run.
Read more in our December Agri Magazine