Social media analysis
Covid-19 pandemic brings trolls out of their holes
The Covid-19 pandemic is allowing a time for introspection, and for appreciating how interdependent our world is. Sadly, it’s also bringing the trolls out of their holes ...
Regular readers of this column will know that its subject matter is the words and actions of publicly exposed people, whether that means they’re exposed by virtue of the jobs they hold — politicians, business people or religious leaders, for example — or by dint of them foisting their opinions on us via social media platforms.
Its arena is the social, political and cultural landscape in which we find ourselves inextricably mired, and its aim is a simple one: to highlight some of its absurdities in a mildly amusing way, and to suggest some alternative ways to think about our world.
In this time of Covid-19, where we’re all locked down in the various and widely varying definitions of what we call home, some of the world’s columnists (yes, of course I’ve read them all) are turning to a more inward path.
It’s hard not to be sympathetic to this. Who among us has not felt the urge to Instagram our wily reworking of a lasagne recipe, using repurposed boerewors leftovers instead of mince, and Melrose cheese spread instead of a mozzarella topping? And it would be a coldhearted soul who could sneer at the thousands of social videos showing precisely how bad the world’s children really are at drawing horsies.
Even hard-bitten newspaper editors are showing a hitherto unexpected soft side. The Guardian’s former editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, more famous for taking a hard line with the US and UK governments over Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, wrote a lovely column ending with the words: "There will be much stress and sorrow in the months ahead. But a kind of better future feels quite tangible. Love, humanity and combination may yet win."
News24’s editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson, who can more usually be found engaging in nasty battles with corrupt business people and politicians, wrote a column titled, "Ngiyabonga SA, Well Done for Locking Down!" (His column also includes the slightly less cheery lines, "locally, SA’s economy is being decimated with every passing day ... Thousands, if not millions, of people will lose their jobs. People will lose their homes, cars and go hungry." So it’s not unambiguously a laugh a minute.)
But as tempting as this turning inward is, it’s my unhappy task to trawl through the detritus of communication that is social media, and bear witness to the less salubrious responses to our government’s coronavirus strategy.
Notice I say "our" government. One of the first signs of a South African who thrives on being the naysayer and pessimist is that he or she will refer to either "the" government, "the ANC" government, or the more direct and antagonistic "your" government.
I’m not implying that I don’t share some of the pessimism. In fact, like most of us, I share quite a lot of it, and readers of this column can, I hope, bear witness to my ability to yell at clouds with the best of them. (This is a reference to the classic Simpsons meme of old man Simpson shaking his fist at a cloud, by the way. As an interesting aside: it’s very difficult to write columns for a print publication in a world where our lexicon has been so changed by the internet. Who would have ever thought I’d be reduced to writing out a meme?)
But the fact that we’re all pretty much trained by painful experience (or at least I hope we are) to mistrust authority figures, and especially politicians, shouldn’t mean we abdicate our responsibility to be part of the messy solution, rather than triumphant praise singers for the problems.
If there’s one good thing that will come out of the straitened circumstances of lockdowns, it’s that people are rediscovering that they’re part of an interdependent society.
Most of us can balance these things. We can be part of trying to make sure the broader project of saving lives, the economy and our ideas of ourselves as a people succeeds. But we can also be hypervigilant about the actions of our government and civil servants, and especially those technocratic wannabes like police minister Bheki Cele and transport minister Fikile Mbalula, who believe now is their time to pull in their potbellies and shine.
In the column referenced above, Rusbridger, a media man whom I admire very much, writes that "French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the power we have been re-experiencing over the past few weeks: ‘In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.’"
Unfortunately, there are those among us who actively work against this mechanism. I’m not talking about honest critics; I’m talking about those who want to destroy dialogue simply for their own petty ends.
I like to keep an eye on a few of these choice edge-idiots. They range from the mumbling contrarians of the alt-right-lite and the knee-jerk revolutionaries of the WMCRET (white monopoly clichés of radical economic transformation) faction, to your basic clever dude sitting in front of his or her gaming console and taking advantage of the pandemic death rate to score points in their limited dating pool.
As annoying as these types are, I find them valuable to my work. They function as a sort of cretin in a datamine, giving early warning of the dumbest takes on important issues.
For those of you who don’t remember, the canary in a coalmine of yore (a word I’ve always wanted to use) would be carried underground in a small cage by miners. If the air became poisonous, the canary would keel over dead, serving as a warning. Technology rendered them obsolete in 1986, so it gives me a certain ironic satisfaction that modern technology has brought these cheerful yellow birds back, even if only as an extraordinarily strained analogy.
If you’re a regular paddler in the murky streams of social media, you’ll have your own favourite cretin in a datamine. My favourites are the alt-white and the alt-right, who like saying things like "the lockdown is worse than apartheid", or that (and I probably shouldn’t actually quote this one, as it’s potentially just a sockpuppet) "black privelage [sic] means thousands of black ppl can move around and shop while lone white cyclists get full force of the law. Black privilege is real."
Oh, and tweets calling for the World Health Organisation to be disbanded, or claiming that deploying troops is the certain death knell for our constitutional freedoms.
It’s not that we shouldn’t be alarmed at a misuse of force by the SA Police Service and SA National Defence Force. There are real concerns, and there are very real examples against which we absolutely have to fight back.
But we can’t let the cretins in the datamine hijack these concerns, with the aim of driving us apart and destroying the very necessary collaborative power we need to solve the large societal problems.
The checks and balances of a gritty, messy democracy are always evolving. We need to monitor and nurture that evolution — not toss the entire enterprise on the pyre to stroke a few egos and plump up a few bank balances.