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Zille’s Twitter tangle: Social media has weakened power of elites to set agenda and that’s not a bad thing


Pierre de Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he is head of the Department of Public Law. He writes a blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

Social media, especially Twitter, provides a platform for millions of South Africans to make their often shrill and angry voices heard. This partial democratisation of the so-called marketplace of ideas has had a significant impact on the public discourse, and has sparked a libertarian and liberal backlash against ‘Twitter mobs’ and ‘cancel culture’, which – so it is claimed – poses a fundamental threat to our democracy. But can one really argue that a platform that amplifies the voices of the marginalised and weakens the power of elites, endangers democracy? 


Early last year, DA leader Helen Zille announced that she was closing her public Twitter account, arguing that Twitter “has degenerated into a platform for irrationality and mob-lynching”, describing the platform as an evil forum that could find no effective way of filtering out fake accounts and dealing with hate speech. 

Elsewhere she complained that Twitter makes it easy to smear someone; the aim being to silence and marginalise people – “as has happened to so many people worldwide through ‘outrage’ and ‘cancel’ culture”. Zille also claimed that the backlash to some of her more incendiary tweets was part of an “orchestrated campaign” involving the EFF and/or armies of bots and fake accounts. 

Zille has since reopened her public Twitter account, where she rails against “woke” media commentators and “Twitter mobs”, “cancel culture” and “identity politics”, and “critical race theory”, among other things. 

Zille’s complaints about Twitter will look familiar to most progressive critics of free speech fundamentalism, who have long argued that none of the assumptions underlying liberal and libertarian views of free speech hold true. These assumptions include a belief in the metaphor of a “free marketplace of ideas”; that “bad” speech should generally not be feared because superior ideologies and ideas will ultimately prevail over inferior ones within the free speech market, because it is assumed that “truth” will ultimately prevail over falsehood in this metaphorical market; and – following US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis’ 1927 opinion in Whitney v Californiathat the remedy for “bad” speech is therefore almost always more speech, not more regulation.

In a 2017 article in the South African Journal on Human Rights, I argued that none of these assumptions necessarily hold true – even though access to the internet and social media now provide (inevitably unequal) access to this “market” to a far larger number of people holding a far broader range of views. 

Before the advent of talk radio, the internet, blogs, social media and Twitter, the so-called free marketplace of ideas was not even close to free, as it advantaged social, business and political elites who exercised significant control over the kinds of ideas, ideologies and factual claims that most citizens were likely to be exposed to. 

Moreover, most citizens in liberal democracies only had a limited ability to share their own ideas with the wider public, and to influence public debate. Citizens always had the power to whisper their views to the powerful by casting their vote in elections, attending political events and engaging in social activism or protest action, but lacked the kind of power to “speak back to power” that Twitter seems to provide. 

In short, before the advent of talk radio, the internet, blogs and social media, the right to freedom of expression promised more than it could ever deliver. (This gap between what is promised by a specific right and what it delivers, poses a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of any human rights system.) 

Despite its limitations, the protection of the right to freedom of expression has always played a pivotal role in liberal democracies by limiting the ability of the state to curtail the expression of unpopular or even reviled views. It protected the political opponents of an incumbent government from being silenced and created the space in which marginal voices could be heard on the margins (but seldom if ever in the mainstream).

For example, during the 1969 Stonewall riots (sparked by police raids on the Stonewall Inn bar in New York), the main New York papers “wrote a smattering of stories in which they quoted exclusively police sources and offered little context. The story was framed as an instance of lawless youth run amok – an almost unprovoked riot”. Local television stations failed to report on the riots at all. The alternative Village Voice reported more extensively on the riots in a slightly more sympathetic tone (although it remained anti-gay and declined to publish same-sex personal adverts – the equivalent, in today’s world, of banning Grindr). 

It was possible to report on the Stonewall uprising because the right to freedom of expression prohibited the state from passing legislation to ban reporting on protest action or on the “promotion of homosexuality”. 

But these reports had no discernible impact on public attitudes towards same-sex love, and it was therefore not surprising when the mainstream media in the US either ignored or downplayed the Aids crisis that devastated the gay community in the US in the 1980s. 

A fundamental change in attitudes only occurred in the early 2000s, as the growing visibility of gay people in popular culture began to trigger a major shift in attitudes. This also happens to be when the internet became widely accessible in the US. 

Several academic studies have since concluded that there is a strong link between increasing mass support for LGBTQ rights, and factors (such as access to the internet) that encourage and allow minorities to express their viewpoints to others. Access to the internet has also facilitated political mobilisation by marginalised groups, making it difficult for the mainstream media to ignore their concerns.

For example, Jiaping Zhang and others (in an article published in Technology in Society in 2020), argued that there was a significant positive relationship between internet use and Chinese people’s “homosexuality tolerance”. 

Similarly, in a 2017 article (published in Comparative Political Studies), Phillip Ayoub and Jeremiah Garretson found that positive changes in global attitudes about homosexuality “have been encouraged in part by communications climates that allow for the free transmission of minority viewpoints”, and that internet access may be an important factor in creating such a communications climate. 

These studies alert us to some of the benefits of social media, particularly Twitter.  

Because anyone with access to a smartphone, data and the Twitter app can now join the conversation (and the all-out brawls), it helps to amplify the voices of marginalised and economically disempowered individuals and groups (but sadly also the voices of charlatans, bullies and conspiracy theorists) to speak up and speak out. 

Moreover, on Twitter numbers count, which means the more followers one has, and the more people share and promote your views, the greater its likely impact. And as Zille has discovered over the years, Twitter can be brutal to individuals whose ideas and statements are despised by large numbers of Twitter users. 

An example: In recent weeks, critics of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize called for his resignation (a form of cancelling) for his role in the Digital Vibes scandal. What Mkhize’s defenders might call a “Twitter mob” has further fuelled this campaign on social media. Many people who would be first to complain about “Twitter mobs” getting someone “cancelled” for their racism, sexual harassment or transphobia, will be supporting the calls for Mkhize’s resignation, and may well be part of the so-called Twitter mob fuelling this, because they really think Mkhize did something wrong and that he should face the consequences.

This is because the application allows opponents of the status quo to speak back to power in their numbers, which often leads to a reframing of an issue and to the delegitimisation of mainstream ideas and views about the world. 

In other words, Twitter has weakened the power of elites to set the agenda on political, social and economic issues, or to dominate conversations about issues such as race, sexuality, gender and economic and social justice.

It is, therefore, not surprising that libertarian and liberal elites warn against the dangers posed by “Twitter mobs” and “cancel culture”. 

There seems to be great anxiety about a loss of power caused by the partial democratisation of speech facilitated by Twitter. Twitter, so the thinking seems to go, allows too many of the “wrong” people with the “wrong” kinds of ideas (“Twitter mobs”) to influence or even dominate the public debate. This, in turn, leads to the “wrong” people with the “wrong” ideas acquiring too much power to influence decisions on who should and should not be held accountable for their actions (“cancelled”) and what the criteria for such decisions should be.

Now, it cannot be disputed that – despite its benefits – Twitter can be extremely toxic; that some Twitter users engage in bad faith; that racism, sexism, homophobia and bullying are rife on the platform; and that consideration for the basic humanity of others is often absent. 

It also provides a platform for the spread of conspiracy theories, bigotry and fake news. I therefore believe that better and smarter regulation of platforms like Twitter is needed to try and deal with these problems. 

But such regulation would seldom have anything to do with the so-called dangers of “Twitter mobs” and “cancel culture”, terms used by some liberal and libertarian political actors to try to disempower and delegitimise those with whom they disagree. 

It is a tactic to avoid having to engage substantively with the ideas and political postures of those you disagree with. It tries to hide the fact that the disagreement is almost always about who should be cancelled and on what grounds this is permissible, and about who should have the power to influence such decisions.

No one is in fact opposed to individuals being “cancelled”, and I suspect most people do not object in principle to large numbers of Twitter users playing a role in such a decision. But everyone is opposed to somebody being cancelled for what they believe to be the wrong reasons, especially when the decision is influenced by vitriolic interventions by large numbers of Twitter users. 

An example: In recent weeks, critics of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize called for his resignation (a form of cancelling) for his role in the Digital Vibes scandal. What Mkhize’s defenders might call a “Twitter mob” has further fuelled this campaign on social media. Many people who would be first to complain about “Twitter mobs” getting someone “cancelled” for their racism, sexual harassment or transphobia, will be supporting the calls for Mkhize’s resignation, and may well be part of the so-called Twitter mob fuelling this, because they really think Mkhize did something wrong and that he should face the consequences.

When a call goes out for somebody to resign, to be fired from their job or to be disinvited from an event because of something they said or did, liberal and libertarian opponents of such a call would do well to make substantive counterarguments (given the widespread belief in those circles that bad speech should be countered by more speech, not regulation) in the hope that they would be able to convince enough people that the call is daft. 

Such attempts may be futile, either because their arguments are bad or because their arguments are unpopular on Twitter (or because of both), but it would be more principled than moaning that Twitter is too democratic and that it gives too much power to their non-elite opponents.

Having said this, I must concede that the arguments about who should face consequences for their actions, who should have the power to influence such decisions and how to prevent cover-ups or irrational witch-hunts in such matters does not have a perfect answer. 

But as this is essentially an argument about whether self-interested elites or the public should have a bigger say in deciding such matters, and as the elite model has led to many disastrous failures to hold wrongdoers to account – including the long-time protection of sexual abusers and harassers – I believe, on balance, it is not entirely a bad thing that a wider range of people have been given a voice by applications like Twitter. 

I leave the discussion on the kind of regulation that might minimise the potential harm of such platforms for another day. DM


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All Comments 8

  • Excellent article Prof., and so true your comments. Sadly, social media like twitter can be really dangerous as well, and are abused by many. People tend to believe in what they read, one of the most important reasons why Donald Trump managed to take a firm grip of US voters. If you read the main article of DM today of Brian Shivambu’s secret admission, it is also clear why a political party like the EFF liklewise managed to take a firm grip of many voters, resulting in severe threat’s to credible journalists like Pauli van Wyk. It is so easy to spread false news using social media, and in a country like South Africa where exposure to credible mainstream media like DM is limited, it plays in the hands of those abusing it

  • Great article, Prof. I do think that ‘how’ one expresses ideas (online) is a different issue to ‘what’ one expresses. Unfortunately, a poor way of expressing an opinion often deflects from the latter. Thank you.

  • I agree with the essence of this article in how SM can unfairly destroy lives. However one point missed was that FB, Twitter and WhatApp are all controlled by Mark Zukerberg and can just as effectively muzzle views that they believe are anti establishment, an example being the anti vaxers some of whom have had their SM accounts blocked.

    • Anti-vaxxers are inherently harmful to society as a whole though. To put them under the banner of “anti-establishment” is very generous of you.

  • “But can one really argue that a platform that amplifies the voices of the marginalised and weakens the power of elites, endangers democracy?”

    In the past I have attempted to use social media platforms to reach out to the most extreme left- and right-leaning individuals in order to discuss/debate their ideas. I have only had one meaningful engagement, and it was with a woman who supported the EFF for the only reason that everything else around her had failed her, and while the EFF had done nothing for her, it gave her hope of a better life.

    But getting back to your quote.

    I would disagree with your statement above as a whole though. These platforms work when everyone is educated, and all are on a reasonably level intellectual playing field. The sad reality is that there are people who are smart, and people who are not so smart, as well as those who are easily manipulated, and those who are not (sadly intelligence doesn’t always mean that you can’t be manipulated). Platforms like twitter encourage the distribution of outrage/fake news more than they do the sharing of worthwhile discussion, which is why I closed my Twitter account a year ago and haven’t looked back.

    Occasionally I peek in (Twitter is where I keep up to date on the power situation), and I have no regrets with leaving the platform. It’s a waste of time for the majority of people.

    • Sorry, to put a more concluding statement on it:

      These platforms can weaken the power of the elites while at the same time endangering democracy due to the vast amounts of misinformation and manipulation that occur on these platforms.

  • The old saying about “give somebody enough rope…” will soon be replaced by “give somebody a twitter account….”

    The actually stupid ones with an inflated sense of their intellect just can’t help themselves. Live and in person, without a prepared speech or a press spokesperson to act as filter, heeeeere’s Donald/elon/helen/etc

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