How not to be a 140-char­ac­ter twit when us­ing so­cial me­dia

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JASON MAST

DON­ALD Trump owes his pres­i­dency in part to his pen­chant for send­ing firebrand and mean- spir­ited tweets. He­len Zille’s ram­pant tweet­ing may have ended her ca­reer.

A decade af­ter Twit­ter’s launch, the fast- paced plat­form of hot-takes has fully en­meshed it­self in the global po­lit­i­cal land­scape, cre­at­ing an un­prece­dent­edly direct bridge be­tween politicians and con­stituents. It’s a ter­rain thick with land­mines for jostling can­di­dates and en­trenched lead­ers alike, but one that an­a­lysts say could prove ad­van­ta­geous for the young and ris­ing – the op­po­si­tion – come 2019.

“We’ve al­ready seen it play an in­creas­ingly large role”, said Wil­liam Bird, di­rec­tor of Me­dia Mon­i­tors Africa. “Any­one who doesn’t see that is go­ing to be left be­hind.”

Zille’s tweets sup­port­ing as­pects of colo­nial­ism’s legacy, for which the DA re­cently sus­pended her, fol­lows a long his­tory of po­lit­i­cal twit­ter con­tro­ver­sies in the US and Europe.

Demo­cratic con­gress­man An­thony Weiner was forced to re­sign af­ter tweet­ing a lewd photo of him­self to a 21-yearold woman who fol­lowed him, a per­verse par­ody of the “in­ter­ac­tiv­ity” Twit­ter promised to cre­ate be­tween politicians and con­stituents. In 2014 in the UK, a Labour MP re­signed af­ter a tweet some called “snob­bish”.

South Africa has been mostly spared such con­tro­ver­sies sim­ply be­cause not enough peo­ple had ac­cess to Twit­ter and Face­book to make them as po­lit­i­cally im­por­tant as they are in the West. About 40% of South Africans have ac­cess to Twit­ter, Bird said. By 2019, it should be more than half.

Bird said the emerg­ing plat­form pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for a gen­er­ally non-com­mu­nica­tive gov­ern­ment to be more open with its con­stituents. Twit­ter al­lowed politicians to up­date peo­ple in real time and, more than press re­leases, speeches, and other forms of speech that are tightly con­trolled by aides and the party, they gave vot­ers an “undi­luted” view of the of­fi­cial.

“These peo­ple are us­ing Twit­ter in the same ways you and I do; their per­son­al­i­ties are trans­posed in their Twit­ter ac­counts,” said Ebrahim Fakir, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and man­ager of gov­er­nance in­sti­tu­tions and pro­cesses at the Elec­toral In­sti­tute for the Sus­tain­abil­ity of Democ­racy in Africa.

But as the Zille case shows, with­out gate­keep­ers, it can be easy for some­thing to slip out.

“The prob­lem with Trump and Zille is they be­lieve the rub­bish they tweet,” he said.

Like Trump, the ANC recog­nised Twit­ter’s promi­nence and po­ten­tial in the 2016 lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions. As re­cent court fil­ings al­lege, the party planned to pay a PR firm to run a covert paid cam­paign, re­cruit­ing “in­flu­encers” on Twit­ter to dis­credit op­po­si­tion par­ties. (The plan fell apart when the ANC failed to pay, the firm al­leges).

Bird ex­pects sim­i­lar mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns to plague the 2019 elec­tions. Such cam­paigns dis­rupted last year’s US elec­tions, as fake news spread on Twit­ter, pur­port­ing sto­ries as out­ra­geous as the Demo­cratic Party run­ning a sex-traf­fick­ing ring out of a Wash­ing­ton, DC pizza shop. Thou­sands of Rus­sian “bots” helped spread these sto­ries and Trump’s tweets by lik­ing and retweet­ing them while mas­querad­ing as Con­ser­va­tives.

Bird is con­fi­dent such cam­paigns de­ployed in South Africa wouldn’t do as much dam­age as some­times feared.

“While pro­foundly dan­ger- ous, they are easy to counter”, Bird said. As much as you can spread a lie, you can spread an al­ter­na­tive”.

Re­veal­ingly, the sec­ond most pop­u­lar hash­tag over the past six months, ac­cord­ing to the web­site New­stools, is the DA’s #Change19. The most pop­u­lar is # ANCAtWork, a hash­tag pro­moted by the ANC but of­ten used by other par­ties iron­i­cally in tweets about the ANC’s short­com­ings.

And the three most fol­lowed ac­counts, in or­der, are EFF leader Julius Malema, Zille and DA leader Mmusi Maimane. A charis­matic speaker, Malema brings his move­ment- style com­mu­ni­ca­tion to Twit­ter, Bird said. It’s a strat­egy that could pay off in 2019, as long as he plays it smarter than some of his fel­low politicians.

“Don’t drunk tweet. Think be­fore you tweet.”

One of Don­ald Trump’s tweets, which had the world talk­ing.

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