Julius Malema. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Julius Malema. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

This week, I couldn’t make up my mind whether to write about tampons or about the EFF. Then I realised that they’re basically the same thing. I don’t mean that the EFF is, literally, like a tampon, or even like a used tampon. I can see why the crass and superficially minded might be tempted to push that analogy, given that the party’s politicians are bright red and come with strings attached. Sadly, the EFF is nowhere near as useful as a tampon.

No, what I wanted to write was about how the manufactured male rage at the prospect of state-funded tampons for women applies equally to the EFF’s faux rage about Twitter not allowing political advertising.

Let’s begin with the tampon resistance heroes, and then move on to the Gucci revolutionaries.

There was outrage — outrage, I tell you! — among the alt-right-lite sector of SA Twitter a couple of weeks ago at the news that Scotland is about to become the first country to end period poverty by providing tampons and pads free to women of all ages.

"Why must men pay for women’s tampons!" screeched one of the luminaries of what I believe we are now referring to as "the Twitler Youth" — oblivious to the fact that he doesn’t actually live in Scotland.

Other people were worried that women would take advantage and start using free tampons for frivolous ends, like building small cat palaces or playing pin the tampon on the donkey. Someone on Twitter invented Tampon Jenga, initially as a sarcastic dig at the men complaining about the free sanitary products, but then as a potentially serious proposition.

In the spirit of objective analysis, I did a search on alternative uses for tampons, and there are a few. According to one website, you can use them as pest deterrents — "hang tampons from tomato stakes to scare away deer and other pests from your garden" — and hair curlers — "use both tampons and rolled up sanitary pads for hair curlers".

I don’t see there being a massive demand for this, though.

Possibly my favourite tweet was this: "The Bible gives guidelines as to whom [sic] must be helped. It says old widows that is [sic] leading good lives and are too old to work. No work no tampon. God hates freeloaders."

"No Work, No Tampon!" I can see that embroidered on a comforter by the UK’s Katie Hopkins.

This tweet was also pretty funny, especially the giveaway "etc": "I want free razors if women are now getting tampons etc free."

As you would expect, the male outrage was predicated on how unfair it all is. "As usual, men are being prejudiced against because of their gender! Reverse sexism! Why is there no Men’s Day! It’s so unfair!"

I’m genuinely baffled at how we’ve kept patriarchy going so long, given the whiney milquetoasts that are its most vocal defenders. Just lucky, I guess.

But if you cut through the standard, overwhelming misogyny-for-misogyny’s-sake, the objection seems to be that men aren’t being given the same treatment as women. Yes, you heard it here first: men are being discriminated against just because they don’t bleed.

Which brings me to those fine, upstanding red folk, the EFF. As a side note, let’s talk about just how accurate the EFF’s name is. It’s very economic about choosing the freedoms for which it fights. No wasted energy on media freedom, for example. It’s all about the freedoms that keep the party in clover and out of court. Today’s EFF hero can be tomorrow’s EFF villain, depending, I assume, on which way the patronage is flowing.

I was recently on a panel at an Independent Electoral Commission conference called "Safeguarding electoral integrity in the digital age: strategies for combating digital disinformation", sharing the stage with representatives from Twitter and Facebook.

During the audience interaction session, an EFF member (or "fighter", as I believe they like to call each other when they’re playfully wrestling in the gravy trough), leapt at the opportunity to speak to the manager.

He asked Emmanuel Lubanzadio, Twitter’s head of public policy for Sub-Saharan Africa, how Twitter could justify banning political advertising and yet The Media is allowed free rein to tell whatever lies it wants. Unfair!

Lubanzadio’s reasoned response was that Twitter has found (and this is going to surprise you) that political party consultants were increasingly posting misleading content to constituents. And Twitter believes political reach should not be something people can purchase.

That last bit is a slap in the face to SA political parties’ business plans, of course. You can’t buy political reach? What’s the point of democracy then?

My answer was a little less diplomatic. Media is in the business of telling truth, and of speaking truth to power. Political parties are in the business of manipulating the truth, and of trying to take power. The idea that there is any equivalence between the media, governed by a code of editorial ethics, and political parties that can tell barefaced lies on social media without caring about any external verification mechanism, is ludicrous.

Equally asinine is the assumption that a ban on political advertising is muzzling political parties.

It’s worth quoting Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in more detail. "A political message earns reach when people decide to follow an account or retweet. Paying for reach removes that decision, forcing highly optimised and targeted political messages on people," he tweeted.

"We believe this decision should not be compromised by money. While internet advertising is incredibly powerful and very effective for commercial advertisers, that power brings significant risks to politics, where it can be used to influence votes to affect the lives of millions.

"Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimisation of messaging and microtargeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes. All at increasing velocity, sophistication, and overwhelming scale."

Politicians can still blather on to their followers — they just can’t microtarget their niche fanatics with fake news and misinformation.

This isn’t the case with Facebook, of course, which doesn’t give a damn about anything but revenue and keeping out of US President Donald Trump’s firing line. That company’s solution is — spin alert — to give people "control" by allowing them to see all the ads it runs in an ad library, and to choose to see fewer ads if they want.

As with those angry, aggrieved men railing against the Great Tampon Injustice of 2020, the EFF is wilfully posing a false dichotomy to feed the outrage machine that keeps people from looking too closely at its bank accounts. It’s choosing not to understand the difference between Twitter not accepting political advertising, and being allowed the same access to Twitter as media houses and any citizen generally. This false equivalence allows the party to drive a narrative of misinformation about how The Media is telling lies about it, and how the system is set up to prejudice it.

It’s the same pushback as men complaining about free tampons and pads for women: designed to make it appear as if the concern is fairness and equality, when it’s really just about protecting corrupt and/or unjust systems.

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