Defend Truth


#activism and #outrage, in 140 characters


Mike Abel is a leading marketing and advertising practitioner. He is Founder & Chief Executive of M&Saatchi Abel and M&C Saatchi Group of companies operating in SA. He is former CEO of M&C Saatchi Group, Australia and before that, co-led the Ogilvy South Africa Group as COO and Group Managing Director, Cape Town. Mike has been awarded Advertising Leader by the Financial Mail and Finweek and his company was named Best Agency in SA in 2015. His company is home to The Street Store, the open-source, pop-up clothing store for the homeless which has become a global movement. He is a speaker and writer.

Beyond Trump, be it Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Jeremy Corbyn or closer to home, Helen Zille, social media is playing one of the largest roles in driving sentiment.

The online world of opinions is a fascinating place. For the first time ever, our generation is able to communicate with a global, national and local audience, directly from our “phones”, instantaneously.

On a planet not short of issues, each day brings a fresh opportunity to either vent or to give life to new opportunities to solve problems. In many ways, Twitter and the like can be used to harness the collective brainpower and will of billions of minds, to bring the most astonishing solutions to bear. Not that we often see this.

I frequently see social media commentary lamenting the #outrage as being the excuse not to do something. The notion that now you’ve let off steam, as an armchair activist, you’re not going to actually do anything further. A digital huffiness, if you will, as the modern day, ineffective panacea to a problem.

So, in this piece we’ll explore if that is indeed accurate.

Many of us get our high-level news feed through a tweet and then decide if it warrants reading further, by clicking the link. For a lot of the younger generation who prefer not to read, these 140 characters are often the full article itself and that alone can stir huge emotions, be they fact or fiction.

There is often far too little scrutiny, and that is why the Zupta-appointed Bell Pottinger and their local ilk (the #fakenews “journos” hired to seed and germinate these toxic grains) find traction within an undiscerning, dispossessed and angry audience. And in truth, who can blame them, this unsuspecting audience that is, for accepting “news” at face value. The dark arts of driving a sinister propaganda, on social media, is a relatively new thing.

I’m convinced this Bell Pottinger engagement, if proven to be what we suspect it is, is potentially a legitimate crime against humanity. To take on a project in South Africa, with our terribly fractured and hurtful past, and deliberately create, sow and drive racial division through cleverly constructed yet fallacious arguments, is staggering. I have little doubt this assignment, undertaken for the Zumas and Guptas, will ultimately be their undoing. It’ll be to Bell Pottinger what Enron was to Arthur Anderson (the latter having been far less of a crime against humanity). Let’s see…

Psychologists will tell you that opening up and sharing is very important in dealing with stress and anxiety. “A problem shared is a problem halved” as my wife, Sara, says. So, there is little doubt that just venting is in itself useful.

You feel you are giving words to frustration and others, friends, particularly on platforms like Facebook, will validate these concerns and through a forum-like discussion you’ll possibly be able to deal with it and let go, for the next day or two. I think this is mostly healthy.

But with easy access to sharing your opinions comes easy access to reading them and opening yourself up to massive exposure. Especially when your (political) foes are also trying to further their agenda.

A silly typo in a tweet from Donald Trump like “covfefe” goes on to become a global feeding frenzy within minutes. Even he foolishly retweets it as the intended word. Now there is enough to comment on, against or possibly for, Trump without “covfefe” being the media event it was. But people love a metaphoric loose thread hanging off a jersey, which they can then pull on and unravel until the person, at least in their eyes, stands bare.

How much of a role have millions of ordinary, everyday cellphone commentators played in framing perception around the current elections and surrounding issues?

Beyond Trump, be it Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Jeremy Corbyn or closer to home, Helen Zille, social media is playing one of the largest roles in driving sentiment. And that is what it is – sentiment.

One of the earliest truisms I have learnt in the advertising industry is “perception is reality” – and it is. Maybe history will shake out a different truth down the line, but for now, public sentiment will establish the perceptual one.

When I originally read Helen Zille’s tweet around colonialism, without any public commentary to shift my view, I was significantly taken aback. I have never considered progress in Africa, or elsewhere, as a benefit of colonialism. There were no benefits to colonialism, other than to the country perpetrating the invasion, theft and related human atrocities. For the locals, it was about being exploited, and it wreaked havoc and devastation on their lives.

Let’s be clear, it was a factor of simple progress happening in the world that was brought to countries being subjugated by colonialism, to make the colonists’ lives easier, rather than any attempt particularly to enhance the lives of those being suppressed, while stripping them of their resources, dignity, and assets. To confuse the two, as an intelligent, educated person with front row seats to this country’s past and present, is very sad in my view. To try to defend it thereafter is ill-considered. One must be able to put yourself into the shoes of another, and to see the pain through their eyes.

And indeed, if Helen were black, as some assert, it may not have attracted equal outrage, but that is a moot point, for we don’t know – but the comment itself would still be equally inaccurate and insensitive.

Given her history, I am absolutely certain that Helen Zille is not a racist – but I am equally sure her tweet caused deep hurt – and although clearly not intended, given the unforeseen fallout, it did point to a limited understanding by some of colonialism versus progress in our country.

I’m delighted that she has now apologised unreservedly for her comment. It’s dealing with these harsh realities and mistakes that opens a very necessary dialogue and a need for understanding.

Many still won’t forgive her, and will continue to fuel the fire, but that is part and parcel of political life, I guess – and to intentionally use this situation, to drive their own agenda. All parties do this. But, as the saying goes, “to err is human, to forgive, divine”.

It is also an obvious yet very important point that certain stories and even jokes can only be told by someone of the same identity.

Tell a Jewish joke if you aren’t a Jew and you could immediately be considered an anti-Semite. One often hears black people calling one another by derogatory terms which appear seemingly fine between them, but let a white person say it, and they’ll be called a racist. And they probably would be one too.

But because it is said between each other, it’s potentially liberating, as it gives people power over an ugly word, but on their own terms. Used by an outsider, it’s simply the blunt, hurtful insult, with no sugar-coating.

So, on to Theresa May (May or May Not, DisMay) or whichever choice terms are now being used on social media to describe her recent fiasco.

#MayDay : From the hallowed halls of 10 Downing Street, the election outcome from polling looked like a landslide victory. But what Theresa and her advisers failed to realise is that today, sentiment can turn on a tickey. Being seemingly ignorant to this, she called a flash election to cement her leadership. But, as the outcome has now shown, she had little understanding of the hopes and fears of the younger voters, their ability to turn out in numbers, and how Corbyn may appeal more to them at the polls than May and her Brexit message.

At the same time a relatively obscure and unknown Frenchman aged 39 managed to capture the imagination of a country and within just 12 months, powered his way to the presidency.

Social media played a huge role in driving both awareness and consideration of Macron. He offered the country hope and possibility, which they chose over fear mongering. What is more remarkable is that this followed unprecedented years of terrorist onslaughts in France.

Whether Macron was the right choice, or will deliver on his promises, is largely irrelevant in the actual decision-making process. On the day, he was the right man, and he succeeded as a result.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s email scandal was used very effectively and tactically to resurrect distrust for her as a candidate. It wasn’t about facts, or her track record, or suitability for the job. In the end, it came down to likeability and plain trust, which even though she won the popular vote wasn’t sufficient to win her the presidency.

It’s sadly quite an indictment of Hillary; having been FLOTUS twice and Secretary of State, the Americans chose an exceedingly brash property magnate, hotelier and reality TV star over such a well-known career politician. And especially after he made those bizarre, disparaging comments about women and minority groups.

Whether Americans liked Trump or not (the markets sure do), they trusted him more – and Corbyn also, like him or not, came across as authentic and real in comparison to May.

I’m convinced the #activists and the #outrage played a major role in driving final sentiment at the polls. Look at the local municipal election results last year in South Africa.

While many of the newspapers from the Independent to The New Age, and broadcasters from from SABC to ANN7, tried to drive a positive view, online publications, like the one you’re reading, gave South Africa the real story, which was shared and commented upon by millions of South Africans, resulting in unprecedented coalition governments unseating the ANC in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg.

With social media, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and while marches happen, forums and civic groups are created and #ZumaMustFall, #ZuptaMustFall, #StateCapture and #GuptaLeaks are the new order of the day, it’s inaccurate to think this is simply armchair #activism, because it is actually driving sentiment – and one thing you can be entirely sure of, it’ll play itself out at the polls. DM


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