Wed. Aug 21st, 2019

Leave the echo chamber: Twitter is not the place for abstract discussions

TwitterCan we please go back to doing good work, instead of attacking people on Twitter?

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The recent unfolding of Helen Zille’s comments surrounding black and white privilege are emblematic of the fact that social media, Twitter in the case, is not the place for abstract and intelligent discourse.

It all started with a viral video by an American poet, Kyla J Lacey about white privilege. Zille left an inflammatory and admittedly tone-deaf response to the clip, asking “why is she saying this stuff in English?”.

This set off a chain of events that resulted in the former Western Cape premier tweeting about black privilege, then being reprimanded and asked to apologise and retract her statement by former public protector Thuli Madonsela.

There have since been many comments thereafter from Zille and Madonsela, spectators and celebrities such as Hlomla Dandala. The purpose of this piece is not to discuss the merits of this debate, but to argue that Twitter is not the appropriate platform to have such an important discussion.

The issue of racial privilege is not straightforward

The issue of racial privilege is not straightforward. It is intellectually vexed, abstract, contested and lacks coherence beyond the realm of critical theory, which is plagued by the same problems, on a grander scale.

It is a very difficult and vague concept to unpack, which is why it should not be discussed on a medium such as Twitter. 

This is not to say that it should not be engaged and that these abstractions are not important. No. Rather, what I am saying is that in the context of South Africa, these issues have to be engaged with on a conducive platform. It is imperative – we cannot move on as a society if this does not occur. In South Africa, income inequality and poverty are heavily demarcated on racial lines.

In fact, according to Statistics South Africa, 64% of the population living in poverty are black. Moreover, the white population still have ownership of the majority of wealth flowing in the country.

Meanwhile, policies such as Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BB-BEE), which were introduced to mitigate this gap and its related legacies of Apartheid, have only exacerbated instances of intra-racial income inequality.

This means that there is a greater gap between the black elite and the poorest within the black group, in addition to the stark difference in income levels between whites and blacks overall. It is a massive problem that needs to be addressed. Adding poorly defined and highly contested woke buzzwords to this, especially on Twitter, does not help confront the problem.

If we are going to have these discussions, we do so on a platform that is conducive to in-depth discussion and exchange of ideas and opinions. A  place where it is acceptable to have disagreements, especially when dealing with such obscure and inflammatory terms. A place where, those who are affected can have input, the fact that the majority of people who are affected by these abstractions are not even on Twitter.

They need to be handled with care and nuance on a platform that facilitates robust debate between opposing sides. This cannot happen within the very narrow confines of Twitter. 

It is an echo chamber that does not allow conversations to materialise; a place where it is easy to get absorbed in bubbles where one can lose sight of what matters and what is real.

This is exacerbated by the call-out culture and the phenomenon of cancelling, both of which are pervasive within the social media stratum. Calling-out is the act of public-shaming a person for their transgressions on social media platforms, while cancelling is a cultural boycott.

It is an expression of taking back one’s agency by choosing to avoid, not give money to, or to stop engaging with an individual by blocking them. The increased likelihood of being called-out or cancelled on the platform, and being misconstrued or one being carried away, undermines any form of healthy debate.

It stifles debate and ostracises people; there is no room for nuance or context on Twitter, which is a very troubling mentality to have in a grey world.

This is further exacerbated by the proliferation of bots that try and sow discord between participants, and the 240 character limit; there is simply no way of getting anything of substance across on Twitter before you get attacked by a bandwagon. 

Advantages and limitations of Twitter

Nevertheless, it is important to note that there are many advantages to micro-blogging or tweeting.

It a democratising tool that brings together a diverse range of people with different opinions and from different experiences; it transcends geographical distance and the use of hashtags enables users to easily find and participate in topical discussions; enables the easy share of information and can be a place where movements like #metoo are spearheaded. However, it has serious limitations, including the culture of calling-out and cancelling individuals.

Having said that, it is a disgrace and an affront to voters to handle such poignant issues in such a reckless and superficial manner. Moreover, it distracts voters, from pressing issues such as the state of unemployment, basic education, access to social grants, social inequality and access to basic education. It offends and unwittingly undermines the project of racial reconciliation and non-racialism.

Can we please go back to doing good work, instead of attacking people on Twitter?

In South Africa, where racial dynamics are fragile and where there are so many other problems that need urgent attention, having these sorts of discussions on Twitter is not helpful.

At times like this, I always think it is better to disengage from the Twitterverse, reconnect with voters on the ground and try to confront immediate and pressing issues, such as the Makhanda water crisis in the Eastern Cape, which is nowhere to be seen on local news platforms, instead of screaming in an echo-chamber that is accessed by the relatively privileged.

If we are going to have these discussions – and we must – it is better to do so in a non-superficial arena that does not thrive on hype and hyperbole. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TheSouthAfrica.com.

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