First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
I found a piece of happiness in the most unlikely of places.
Normally the place of vitriol, twars (Twitter wars, for the uninitiated) and echo-chamber arguments, social media is not the place where one expects to find peace – a bit of solace, if you like.
The social media streets are mean. Poke your head out to offer an opinion – on anything from vaccines to the state of the country to your preferred pair of sweatpants (the ones you have been living in during these lockdown times) – and prepare to get it chopped off even before you’ve closed your browser or scrolled to the next status update.
Out there, you have to be on constant lookout for the Karens, Beckys, or Chads waiting to school you in their most “I want to speak to your manager” voice.
And if perchance you manage to escape the onslaught of the race-baiting, Chappies-bubble-gum-wrapper-fact-wielding and poorly argued venom from that trio, there are the peddlers of disinformation and misinformation, who are their own kind of evil. To understand just how disinformation and misinformation works, do yourself a favour and head over to www.dailymaverick.co.za, and read the sterling work of our colleagues at Africa Check and the DFRLab.
Herman Wasserman, professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town who has researched “fake news” in South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, told Africa Check that what surprised him during his research was just “how many social media users shared false information despite suspecting that it was unverified or made up”. Classic disinformation. It’s why we are constantly advised not to believe everything you read on the internet.
Journalists are warned to be wary not to drink the Kool-Aid of self-importance that social media creates. The editor-in-chief of these pages, Branko Brkic, is wont to say: “Careers are not made on social media, only destroyed.”
Yet there are pockets of happiness where trolls, WhatsApp-schooled virologists and conspiracy theorists fear to tread.
And, most surprisingly, these places of bliss, encouragement, learning and engagement can be found on the very platforms that breed cesspools of hate.
One such place is the Facebook page of Livingseeds Veggie Gardeners. Livingseeds “grows the widest selection of heirloom vegetable seeds in South Africa, for South African gardeners”. The company’s “About” page states simply: “If you want to grow food to feed your family, we are your people”. You would be forgiven for thinking that by visiting this page you would be constantly bombarded with sales pitches. Far from it. Here you will find novice gardeners just beginning to scratch the patch of dirt around their homes or in pots communing with experienced horticulturists eager to share their knowledge.
If you want to know what’s ailing your peppers or tomatoes or what to plant on the Highveld in February, among any other manner of gardening questions, then head on over.
It’s a feast for the eyes too – photographs of perfectly and not so perfectly formed fruits and vegetables are shared with gay abandon and safe in the knowledge that any comment that is made is going to be helpful. Meanness is not welcome on these streets.
It’s not the only place. Another pocket of happiness is the South African St Helenian Heritage Association Facebook group. Here family genealogists can share tips, ask for help, share photographs, family trees and frustrations at the lack of information and documentation available on migrants from the island to South Africa.
Into hiking and exploring the outdoors? There’s the Mzantsi Hiking Divas who organise a weekly hike with people from all walks of life united by a common love of escaping urban spaces. It doesn’t matter if you carry extra weight or you are svelte, you are welcome; there will be a hike that you will feel comfortable to undertake. The pictures shared of the hikes will make any armchair hiker haul out their takkies.
And while it’s unlikely that these pages and groups are always only cordial, the respect and understanding that members show each other is worth emulating elsewhere on the web.
At its base, it’s solutions-driven social media. If only the pockets could outnumber the echo chambers of hate, false information and destruction. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.