Opinionista Thandiwe Matthews 4 December 2014

The war of words in the trenches of social media

Words have incalculable power – but in the age of social media, they are weapons which many of us are seemingly untrained to use. Rather than shying away from battle, we should be harnessing the power of language to engage more effectively.

In the past few weeks there has been a war of words between Chester Missing and Steve Hofmeyr. Unsurprisingly, it has taken place on social media – the new frontier of contestations related to freedom of expression. The war of words between the puppet and the ‘Hof’ have made me reflect on an important piece written by Marelise van der Merwe a few months ago expressing her concern and frustration over South Africans’ inability to discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict without resorting to bigotry and trolling, particularly on social media.

While I do not necessarily agree with her views on the conflict itself, or the role that our government ought to play in it, she rightly points out that any expression of Islamophobia or anti-Semitism has no place in South Africa’s democracy and effectively amounts to hate speech.

Her concern is well-placed. Over the past months since the most recent outbreak of this ongoing conflict erupted, social media bullying has caused division and polarisation. The vitriol has raised questions of whether our rainbow nation reconciliation project may be under threat. What Van der Merwe does not address, however, is the extent to which social media abuse stifles debate. Governments have long known the power of language in shaping national discourse to generate popular support for oppressive policies.

Recently, Al Jazeera published a report which examined a manual in use by the Israeli government in order to guide state officials responding to public questions on its approach to Palestine. “The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary” includes topics such as “A Glossary of Words that Work”, “How to Talk about Palestinian Self-Government and Prosperity”, and “Gaza: Israel’s Right to Self-Defense and Defensible Borders”. The Israeli state has clearly recognised that shaping discourse in this manner will be an important way of determining the parameters of public debate through media and other sources.

Academic Stuart Hall reminds us that as with signs and images, language is also a form of representation that gives meaning to culture. Through language, meaning is constructed through the development of codes understood between those of a common culture, which influences the way in which we view the world.

I have seen the words “racist” and “anti-Semite” being spewed continuously on social media simply because someone chose to express sympathy and support toward the people of Palestine or Gaza specifically. Celebrities who have expressed similar views have been forced to remove posts on social media platforms because of the verbal abuse they have to endure as a result. The term “anti- Semite” refers to someone who “expresses hostility to or prejudice against Jews”. And yet, even when these statements make no reference to Jewish people nor any political reference to the state of Israel, but merely express empathy toward the people of Gaza, they are reduced to bigotry. This simply emphasises Hall’s point: language operates in powerful ways to generate fear and silence those with alternative views. It is easy for those who cry foul to manipulate language. They understand that naming a person “anti-Semite” – even when this is not true – is effectively to use a code that everyone understands.

South Africans are familiar with the importance of freedom of expression. We actively condemn our government because we abhor the mere suggestion of a Secrecy Bill. We understand that freedom of expression forms the bedrock of the healthy development of any liberal democracy. We watch closely the developments taking place at our public broadcaster because we understand the reach it has in shaping the views of the majority of our citizens.

And yet, in our most personal spaces we often fail to embody the essence of that right and deny others the ability to exercise it on their own terms and in the manner that our Constitution guarantees. We assume that we have transcended our Apartheid past; that we now live in a post-racial, post-prejudice society and that as such, we should not discuss issues that may make us uncomfortable. Too many of us do not seem to realise that this approach essentially silences healthy debate and stifles the growth of our fledgling democracy.

In part, this is facilitated by the fact that many of these entanglements arise on social media. Bullies assume that in the safety of cyberspace they can express views that they ordinarily would not do in person. People who in face-to-face conversations may appear to be tolerant proponents of peace and reconciliation unexpectedly reveal their prejudices when they get online. Thier views spread in minutes and seconds, and the consequence is increasingly abusive and violent rhetoric. Often, they suggest that they have a ‘right’ to speak. Where their language is not hate speech, they certainly do. However, the tenor of their interventions can often have the effect of curbing the rights of others.

I have often been told not to express strong views on social media; that it creates division and will lead to isolation without really resulting in much substantive difference. I disagree. Social media is an important platform for the sharing of views – especially strong ones. It provides important ways for citizens to exercise voice and reclaim their rights, which both State and non-State actors often try to deny them. I insist on engaging precisely because I often share a minority view. Refusing to be shut down allows me to stand up to bullies. I know only too well that in the same manner that words are used to silence and generate fear, they can also be used to change opinions and create postive change. The power of words can begin revolutions when some of us refuse to be silent. DM


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