Last week’s judgment in the Gauteng High Court in favour of Thandeka Gqubule and Anton Harber, and against Mbuyiseni Mdlozi and the EFF, is an important win for democracy.
Around the world, the rise of social media has enabled dishonesty to be weaponised in new and dangerous ways. The mainstream media, always imperfect, has often compromised its credibility in the rush to search for ‘clicks’ on social media. The result has been the rise of anti-democratic, and sometimes even fascist forms of politics driven by Facebook, WhatsApp and, above all, by Twitter.
Social media has changed the public sphere as radically as the invention of the printing press did in Medieval Europe. As is always the case with rapid change, it will take some time for our institutions and laws to catch up to the new reality.
In 2016 the shock election of Donald Trump was often described as “the Facebook election”. Two years later the election of the even more rightwing Jair Bolsonaro as the president of Brazil was often referred to as the “WhatsApp election”. Whatsapp has also been central to the rise of fascist politics in India.
In South Africa, we had our own brush with social-media-driven political disaster with the Bell Pottinger-driven campaign in support of Jacob Zuma, the Gupta brothers and their authoritarian kleptocracy. Some of the remnants of the propaganda infrastructure developed by Bell Pottinger, such as Andile Mngxitama’s Black Opinion, remain at the fringes of the public sphere. But the one political party that has, in the manner of authoritarian populists across the globe, successfully weaponised social media is the EFF.
The party uses the standard techniques of authoritarian populists – including deflection and slander – to build its online support. For the EFF Twitter is key, and it has become the dominant political organisation in that space.
Twitter is a particularly malignant form of social media. In The Twittering Machine, his brilliant book on the subject, Richard Seymour provides a deeply worrying analysis of “the networked fascism of the 21st century”.
Around the world, approaches to politics rooted in 20th-century conceptions of the public sphere will not be adequate as we navigate a perilous future. Of course, in South Africa it remains true that most people are not on social media. But while many people still get their news from TV, radio and newspapers, these older forms of media are often shaped by what happens on social media and especially by what happens on Twitter.
A vocal minority on Twitter has the capacity to punch far above its numerical weight and to make a significant impact on the wider public sphere. We have seen this as recently as last week where a concerted campaign driven by the white right-wing, and accompanied by gross forms of anti-Semitism, saw the principled and progressive digital editor of The Citizen suspended from his job. In an extraordinary lapse of judgment, The Citizen described a group of right-wing trolls, some of whom post grossly racist material, as “the public”’ and rapidly caved into a straight-up attempt to remove a progressive from an important position in the public sphere.
The EFF-driven attack on leading journalists Thandeka Gqubule and Anton Harber in 2018 came from a different quarter, but was just as scurrilous. It has its origins in an atrocious lack of editorial judgment by the thankfully short-lived South African franchise of the Huffington Post, a publication with an international reputation for dubious editorial decisions.
The EFF seized on the Huffington Post’s recklessness and accused Thandeka Gqubule and Anton Harber of having been apartheid agents. Those of us who, unlike Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, are old enough to remember the 1980s recall how we used to wait for The Weekly Mail to come out on Friday. It was a world-class newspaper, a brave newspaper, a newspaper edited with integrity and courage, and a newspaper that was emphatically anti-apartheid. It was, very much “our” newspaper.
Harber was its editor and Gqubule one of its best writers. They have both earned their standing in our society, and it’s no exaggeration to describe their contribution in the 1980s as heroic.
Ndlozi’s crude attempt to trash the reputation of the genuinely good and great was scurrilous. But for the Twitter mob that flocks around the EFF, history and truth were irrelevant. This is the road to demagoguery, authoritarianism, and even, possibly, fascism.
The court decision against the EFF and Ndlozi doesn’t resolve the threat posed to the public sphere by social media in one fell swoop. But it does mean there is now less impunity. Of course, not everyone has the resources required to seek relief through the courts, and we must remember that aside from the rare occasions when poor or working-class people get pro bono legal support, the possibility of appealing to the courts for relief is largely the preserve of elites.
We need a deeper change in the norms and values governing our public sphere. A protagonist in the public sphere should not be exposed as a liar on one day, then be taken seriously and their utterances given uncritical ventilation the next day. Once a person or organisation is known to be dishonest, everything that they say should be treated with circumspection.
The media needs to stop treating Twitter as if it were the public sphere, rather than a space in which a vociferous minority participates. Of course, it is easier to use Twitter to produce media content in understaffed, underfunded and juniorised newsrooms, but it is a very dangerous road to travel.
We also need a fuller accounting of the widespread complicity with the Bell Pottinger fiasco. A number of journalists, and academics too, who were directly implicated in public dishonesty have never been called to account in any way. Some continue to hold positions of real influence in our society without having had to undergo any sort of process of reflection on their contribution to the poisoning of our public sphere.
Social media is not going to go away. The companies that own it are the largest and most powerful in the world and, at the moment, there is a slim chance of them being put under public ownership or being properly regulated.
For the foreseeable future, we’ll have to live with the Twitter mob and the trolls. But taking a conscious decision to value truth and integrity, and to reject opportunism and dishonesty will help to steel us for the road ahead. We need to draw a clear line between those who lie for short-term gain and those who engage in debates with integrity and honesty. DM