Defend Truth


Village people — if only social media was more like my friendly local coffee shop


Dr Matthew Blackman is a journalist and the co-author with Nick Dall of ‘Legends: People Who Changed South Africa for the Better’ and ‘Rogues Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in South Africa’ (both Penguin Random House). He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia and lives with two dogs of nameless breed.

Is the internet killing us both as citizens of the world and South Africans? Does it help spread the rumour, gossip and hatred that divides us? If so, then perhaps it’s time to put down our phones and begin talking to each other.

Just what has the internet done for us? It seems true that the rise of populism and the reaction towards it from the left has some of its origins in the algorithms of social media companies. But the problem is not simply social media companies and their algorithms.

Writing in 2001 (long before Facebook was even a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye and Elon Musk was trying to work out how to grow plants on Mars) the philosopher Bernard Williams made an interesting prediction in his book Truth and Truthfulness.

Williams claimed that the internet did have the potential to be a source of reliable information. However, he added the caveat that it would only be helpful to the people who wanted to know the truth — and to those who have the critical and educational skills to know what they are looking for.

By far the most obvious future for the internet, he suggested, was its ability to create what he called “villages” (what we have come to call “echo chambers”). In 2001 he predicted that it would promote “meeting places” for people with marginal and ill-informed views to find each other and to talk only among themselves. The messages people would exchange would “bear a variety of claims, fancies, and suspicions, entertaining, superstitious, scandalous, or malign”.

Williams observed that the chances that these messages would contain any truth were low “and the probability that the system itself will help anyone to pick out the true ones is even lower”. At the same time, the nature of these conversations would make the situation worse than in a village. In a village, at least, “you might encounter and perhaps be forced to listen to some people who had different opinions and obsessions”. Williams claimed that the internet had all the potential of sending the world back into a pre-Modern, pre-democratic state. He suggested that the search for truth would be downgraded, and democratic dialogue would struggle to prevail.

At least some of this has come to pass. But there is one man who is trying to turn this around, the US congressman Ro Khanna. Khanna actually represents Silicon Valley so at least there is some hope that he might have some sway. He believes that the social media companies must realise that they have obligations to democracy. That the algorithms they produce must be set not only to produce profits but to aid the distribution of truthful content.

But will this turn things around? The very pages that this Opinionista appears on are an attempt to bring a range of opinions by thoughtful people to a general public. But any glance at the Facebook comments attached to these pieces shows the culture wars are oblivious to thought. On Facebook it seems perfectly okay not to read the article but to simply launch in and start the mudslinging, calling writers such as yours truly a range of names from “racist” to “wokist snowflake”. (Can a cisgender male of 46 be a snowflake?)  

In the 1960s, theorist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas put forward the idea of “the public sphere”, or the place where people could gather to discuss their common good as well as deliberate over their differences. Many people saw the potential of the internet as precisely producing a digital public sphere. Clearly, this has not happened.

But what is interesting, to me at least, is that this form of public sphere seems to exist, not on the internet, but at my local coffee shop. There, people talk to each other politely. And this despite the fact that a range of opinions regularly gets expressed there. There are anti-vaxxers, covid sceptics, passionate defenders of the DA. There are also DA sceptics, believers in the efficacy of vaccines and fellow suffering Man United supporters (who it should be said have deeply divergent views on the Man U malaise). There is also a friendly staff who know all the locals by their first names, and who never in my sight have had to suffer at the hands of an abusive customer. It seems to me, one of those uncommon places in South Africa where people see each other as fellow citizens.

The digital public sphere is completely unlike my coffee shop. Once again Ro Khanna has something to say on this. As he says, just how we participate on the internet is completely at odds with how we interact in the real world. In the real world, we (hopefully) wait our turn to speak, are respectful and courteous, and rarely call each other names without getting to know each other first. And yet, Khanna points out, these social practices are simply thrown out the window when we go online.  

Khanna believes that there needs to be a “cultivation of what it means to be a good online citizen” on the internet. He also believes education around the internet will help. As he points out, “Finland did an amazing job with digital literacy and they found… [people as a result] were able to separate falsehood from truth.”

But the problems in South Africa are far more systemic. Not only is our education system at all levels substandard, we live, as a result of our history, in various states of isolation and segregation. Not only do we hardly ever meet each other in multi-racial and multi-generational public spheres (real or digital), the question of creating these spheres is never even discussed.

What is even more concerning is the greater use of the internet on smartphones is almost certainly adding to the spread of false information, gossip, and racial hatred.

It seems to me that we need to put our phones down and begin to talk to each other, the consequences will otherwise almost certainly be dire. DM


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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Something I find fascinating is how easy it has become to predict somebody’s view on a topic based on his view on something that should rationally be entirely unrelated. If John is anti-vaccination I can safely bet that John is also anti-renewables, pro gun, pro trump, anti-gay, etc. Basically John sees conspiracies everywhere. That said, the same tends to apply in reverse : anti fossil fuel tends to bring in anti trump, anti gun, pro vaccine, etc as a packaged deal.

  • Dave Reynell says:

    An excellent article, thank you. I beg to differ on one small point. There are centres of educational excellence in South Africa, but our universities are battling to hold the line.

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