Many people I admire quit long ago. Like Stephen Fry, the great comedian, actor and social commentator, who reportedly de-activated his Twitter account after being hounded for a joke he made while hosting the Bafta awards in 2016. Introducing the award-winning costume designer Jenny Beaven, he joked that only someone as famous for clothing design as she, could come to the Baftas dressed as a “Bag-lady”. Parts of Twitter went into a meltdown of mortification at what they interpreted as sexist, patriarchal, misogynistic, abusive, verbal violence!
To which Fry responded on behalf of those of us who do not have as much latitude as he has: “Will all you sanctimonious fuckers fuck the fuck off.”
Two days later he authored a blogpost announcing he was leaving Twitter because “too many people have peed in the pool.” It had become too warm and unpleasant.
“Let us grieve at what Twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know.”
In Britain, most newspapers and mainstream commentators agreed with Fry and slammed his stalkers (whose insults were actually mild by South African standards).
Here, at home, many analysts default to supporting the authoritarian timeline-trawlers, who search the net for any statement they can misrepresent to manufacture public outrage. And as our mainstream media ratchets things up, even sensible people start believing that the “right” to be shielded from an opposing (or offensive) opinion is as important as the right to free speech.
Isn’t that all the more reason to get off the platform?
For me it is all the more reason to stay.
Twitter exposes me to a world that would otherwise be entirely outside my realm of experience. And although it can be profoundly alienating, I must acknowledge that it is shaping (and being shaped by) the world-view of a new generation seldom exposed to complex analysis or nuanced debate. It is a world in which facts don’t matter, where history and the present are selectively interpreted to reinforce personal feelings and peer-group prejudices, and where trolls (digital gangs), hunt down anyone with an independent opinion.
It is a window into the world of millennials which weaves together contradictory qualities such as hyper-sensitivity to perceived offence, and total insensitivity towards the feelings of others. It is a worldview often framed by intolerance, victimhood and entitlement.
One of the most important skills for any politician is “trend-spotting”. And one of the most difficult trends to identify is an emerging Zeitgeist shift, the process by which the dominant ideals and values of a society give way to new ones, sometimes over an extended period of time, until they are distinctly different from the social norms that were previously taken for granted.
Social media show how this change happens: imperceptibly at first, then slowly, then suddenly.
The process is complex. How does one distinguish between a passing fad, and genuine signs of a Zeitgeist shift? This is all the more difficult on a platform where people often hide their identity.
Anonymity releases them from the constraints of laws, rules, social pressure and the conventions of simple decency. Wilful misrepresentation, insults, abuse, even death threats are standard Twitter fare. The question is: how much can be written off as anonymous bluster and braggadocio and how much is a genuine sign of changing times?
More disturbingly, how much of it reflects the emergence of “black ops” on “dark social”? This refers to the growing network of agenda-driven campaigns, that are not only anonymous, but untraceable.
“Black ops” have entered general public consciousness as a result of the Mueller indictments, detailing how un-attributable social media campaigns were deliberately harnessed by Russian agents to polarise public opinion in the run-up to the 2016 election in the United States. The indictments expose how a small tightknit cabal of just 13 people mobilised a network of foot soldiers to reframe the public debate in a country of 323-million people. Behind the façade of Twitter handles and Facebook profiles, this small group drove a digital divide-and-rule strategy, creating fictitious personalities, whose posts were designed to cleave open the fault-lines of American society, with the aim of getting Donald Trump elected President.
The prolific “Blacktivist” was one of them, urging black voters to boycott the polls or vote for the Green Party candidate in preference to “Killary”. “We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils,” Blacktivist opined. “Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.”
The Bell Pottinger “Bots” campaign last year, using the same methods, sought to drive racial polarisation in order to influence the ANC’s succession race. Through framing “white monopoly capital” as the root of all evil in South Africa, they tried to portray Cyril Ramaphosa as its agent and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, as its nemesis.
Fortunately, unlike America, this South African “black-ops” campaign failed. Unfortunately, unlike America, we cannot rely on our intelligence agencies to uncover the extent of the fraud involved. Indeed, in our country, the “captured” sections of our security agencies are more than likely to have taken part in the disinformation strategy (or at least helped to cover it up).
The Bell Pottinger campaign was not the first, nor will it be the last campaign targeted primarily at polarising South Africans around key social flashpoints. It is, however, the only one so far to be conclusively exposed. It taught us a simple lesson: An anonymous post is unlikely to be what it first seems. One needs to ask: Whose interest does it serve? What is the motive behind it?
Another, even more fundamental question arises: can manipulative agendas, hidden under a cloak of anonymity, be defended by claims to free speech?
There are times when anonymity is actually necessary for freedom and accountability – such as protection for whistle blowers, or the right to a secret ballot. But the concept of free speech as a “right” has evolved precisely so that people can say unpopular things and show the courage of their convictions, without repercussions. By definition this requires that they are prepared to speak in their own names.
People who do so, are accountable for what they say because people know who they are. Their facts and motives can be analysed and interrogated. Those who choose anonymity can perpetrate hate-speech and even fraud in the name of freedom, by pretending to be someone they are not, for an ulterior and evil purpose.
The question of anonymity, therefore, raises crucial questions for social media, and dramatically curtails its value as a platform for mass participation in open public debate, or advancing accountability. It creates a moral dilemma for these platforms that, unresolved, could ultimately lead to their demise.
There will come a tipping point where the abuse is so pervasive that it smothers the residual value, and the trolls and bots will be left shouting at each other. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I am often tempted to get off Twitter. But then I think about how valuable the platform could be for airing different opinions and advancing public debate. The potential advantages of such a platform in a democracy are too obvious to surrender without a fight.
Black-ops campaigns, which can have wide-spread impact, are by definition run by small tightly knit groups. They resonate most in divided societies where they intensify polarised attitudes. South Africa today is tailor-made for this kind of impact.
“Black ops” look for societal flash points and turn them into hardened, polarised positions. At sufficient scale, they can even become a Zeitgeist shift. The most obvious example in South Africa today is perceptions of non-racialism.
For as long as I can remember, non-racialism has been considered a positive value by thoughtful and intelligent people, an ideal for which to strive. It was my exposure to social media that first opened my eyes to the speed at which this appears to be changing. I am not referring to posts like Penny Sparrow’s. She was open about her identity and her motive, and as gratuitously insulting as her comments were, they were actually mild in comparison with the racial invective meted out every day against individuals on the basis of their racial identity. Yet somehow this is considered acceptable, even progressive, as long as the target is white.
Is this the result of a deliberate “dark social” campaign to polarise South Africans and scapegoat whites? Is there a deliberate agenda to undermine the founding principles of the constitution? Has it become pervasive enough to signal a Zeitgeist shift?
It is obviously important to answer these questions in a complex society like South Africa. And it is especially important for a political party committed to inclusion and non-racialism.
I have therefore read a great deal about this subject, and interviewed many people – enough to write a book. But here I’ll try to distil the origin of this phenomenon in a few paragraphs.
Its ideological roots can be traced to the current interpretation of “identity politics”, spawned in Humanities faculties at “Western” universities (particularly the United States), as an offshoot of Marxism. Identity politics take the concept of class struggle to the next level, analysing forms of oppression rooted in “culture and identity”. In essence, it assumes that people’s beliefs and interests are determined by their membership of groups to which they are assigned on the basis of attributes over which they have no control, such as their race, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. Identity politics asserts that marginalised minorities must free themselves from the shackles of majoritarian cultural and social norms – epitomised by the white, male, heterosexual. And because minorities share common experiences (and may even be multiply oppressed) they are bound together through intersectionality – the cultural equivalent of class solidarity.
This political philosophy has been seamlessly imported onto South African campuses despite the fact that racial majorities and minorities are reversed in our context. This is why the emphasis here is on eradicating the legacy of colonialism, through which a minority suppressed indigenous cultures. Everything about the colonial legacy represents evil. Concepts (such as meritocracy) are merely fig-leaves to protect white male heterosexual hegemony. Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, this line of argument ends with the eradication of the entire edifice of modern scientific discovery, our equivalent of Mao Tse Tung’s “Great Leap Forward”.
The important thing to understand is that these ideas don’t remain on campuses. Especially in South Africa, where approximately 50% of students graduate from Humanities faculties, to become “thought leaders” in the media, civil society, even Members of Parliament. Gradually, we find, as one observer put it: “we are all living on campus now”. And the infiltration of these ideas into society’s discourse is one of the biggest drivers of Zeitgeist-shift.
Identitarianism, being an academic field of study, comes with its own opaque lexicon. As it filters into general parlance, the veneer of sophistication peels away, exposing the primal racist impulse. Society’s problems can be summarised in one word: whiteness, a portmanteau word, covering a range of hegemonic attributes. But translated into Twitter it means simply: “Whites are the problem in South Africa”.
This was once marginal discourse. Now it is mainstream. I would not be at all surprised to find that at its centre, this discourse was defined and propagated by the equivalent of the small inner circle that shaped the polarised debate in the run-up to the American election.
Last year, the State of the Nation Address gave the official stamp of approval to this divisive worldview when, after enumerating South Africa’s problems, President Jacob Zuma attributed them all to “white monopoly capital”, which he promised to tackle head-on.
It was a master-class in dividing and polarising people to advance a political objective.
This year was entirely different:
Given the context of the times, the sentence that resonated most with me in Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address, would have been quite unremarkable a decade ago.
“We should reaffirm our belief that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.
“For though we are a diverse people, we are one nation.
“There are 57-million of us, each with different histories, languages, cultures, experiences, views and interests.
“Yet we are bound together by a common destiny.”
After what we have come through during the past year those words seemed almost as revolutionary as they would have been at the height of apartheid.
The greatest irony of all, is that identity politics has its roots in precisely the same political philosophy as that on which the edifice of apartheid was constructed: Afrikaners, a small minority on the African continent, believed their cultural identity was threatened by majority rule; so Verwoerd developed a plan to balkanise the country so that, in theory at least, each ethnic group would one day govern itself.
The opposite vision for South Africa was of an inclusive, open, opportunity-driven society, in which each individual is free to determine their own identity, and be evaluated on their personal attributes, not the demographic accident of birth. It was a vision supported by the vast majority and ultimately embedded in our country’s constitution through sufficient consensus.
One of the few groups who rejected this vision was the fragmented remains of the far-right wing. They held on to their identitarian approach, and decamped to the desert enclave of Orania, where they aim to build a free society to govern themselves. They are undermining no-one else’s rights as they pursue their identitarian dream.
However, back in the rest of South Africa, their philosophy has now moved into the mainstream, via a different group of proponents, posing as progressive, and challenging the founding values of our constitution. They primarily use social media to amplify their voice.
This represents, for me, the frontline of a battle that must be fought. It’s not a battle that can be waged in discreet “letters to the editor” or sedate armchair debates, which rarely engage the thought leaders and trend setters of the new generation.
Social media is their platform of choice to disburse and consume ideas, unmediated. It is the place to be for a broad reach, followed by rapid dissemination. Therein lies both its power and its danger.
In my next column, I will apply this analysis to a specific recent example of a profoundly disturbing social media engagement, and discuss what it reveals about South Africa.
We ignore this trend at our peril. The question we have to address is: how do we defend our constitution, and enable all voices to be heard, for what they really are, rather than what they pretend to be? Abandoning the platforms on which this debate is raging won’t help us do so. DM
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