Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Against my better judgment, I have been dipping into Twitter feeds over the past week. I should have known better.

While Twitter is not the platform to frequent if you’re hoping to engage in reasoned debate — given the character limit and speed of interactions, where speaking (or tweeting) before thinking is almost essential — I have still been dismayed by how little thinking people do before speaking, or at least think critically.

On Twitter, the distinction between fact and fiction or opinion is blurry. It’s also not always clear whether people know how to tell the difference. Or perhaps they simply don’t care for facts.

This was on display last week as former president Jacob Zuma took to the witness stand in the state capture commission of inquiry.

Despite an overwhelming body of evidence implicating Zuma in widespread corruption and state looting, in the eyes of his tweeting followers he has done no wrong. Instead, they celebrate the fact that he has stolen their future, to paraphrase the words of Nigerian playwright and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka.

To them, the entirety of the state capture narrative is a fable dreamed up by “white monopoly capital” and propagated by paid journalists. Instead of scrutinising the facts as best they can, they attack the journalists who are doing exactly that.

This includes journalists who have done tremendous work to investigate and expose corruption so that the very same people who attack them might one day have a better country to live in.

These journalists are labelled as the enemy of black people, part of a “cabal” paid by white monopoly capital. It’s mind-boggling and exasperating for someone who is passionate about truth.

Thankfully, Twitter is not representative of the country’s entire population, having as it does an estimated 8.3-million users, according to the most recent SA Social Media Landscape report. And that’s saying nothing of the bots that might actually be behind some of these fact-less rants.

But it is still representative of some of the population, and that is distressing. It suggests an education system that is inadequately equipping young South Africans with critical thinking skills, or at least failing to impress upon them why it is so important to use them.

The scary thing about Twitter is that even those who do have the capacity, and even the desire, to think critically, forget to do so when they get sucked into fights on the internet.

Many journalists who I greatly admire are prone to becoming, as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo puts it, “knee-jerk outrage-bots reflexively set off by this or that hash-tagged cause”, instead of “curious, intellectually honest chroniclers of human affairs”.

That may sound a bit soppy, but the point is that Twitter can turn us all into something or someone we should not be proud of.

It can also be used, albeit less often, to spread messages of hope, gratitude and celebration.

As if in a deft demonstration of the agony and ecstasy of social media, within the space of a few days Twitter transformed from the divisive tool it often is into a rallying force for South Africans across the racial divide as people united in their shared love for our beloved Johnny Clegg.

Miraculously, daggers were downed as heartfelt tributes for the music icon and anti-apartheid activist filled the Twitter feeds that moments before had made for a depressing read.

In an ironic twist, the memories and tributes shared via Twitter, limited characters and all, allowed me to appreciate more deeply who Clegg was and the legacy he leaves behind.

Clegg embodied the SA that so many of us long for: a country in which diversity is celebrated, where people extend kindness and grace to one another. It’s a SA that I know exists and have experienced countless times before, even if it can be difficult to find on Twitter. It was good to be reminded of that.

• Ziady writes from Cambridge