“Don’t drunk tweet. Think before you tweet.”
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.
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Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner was forced to resign after tweeting a lewd photo of himself to a 21-year-old 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 dangerous, 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.