Riots: an inflection point for digital media and a wakeup call for digital literacy and empowerment

The unrest that rocked South Africa in July this year will no doubt prove to be a watershed in ways that political scientists and economists will still analyse decades from now. It also marks a significant inflection point for digital media in South Africa, in much the same as the London riots of 2011, which were coordinated largely on BlackBerry Messenger, did for the UK.

To recap, as news streamed in about looting and rioting across large swathes of Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal, it rapidly became apparent that much of the unrest was instigated and coordinated via messaging platforms such as WhatsApp. Many prominent figures in South Africa’s political life cheered on the carnage from their Twitter and Instagram accounts; others on purpose or unknowingly fanned the flames by spreading false news.

Just like the police – who struggled to keep ahead of the movements of the looters as they went on the rampage across two provinces – professional media was caught flatfooted by the flood of misinformation and disinformation. The uncertainty, anxiety and panic that spread across social media, along with the way that digital tools allow the instigators to organise, played a key role in one of the most violent uprisings in South Africa since 1994.

The ramifications are manifold. Mark Twain’s famous quote – “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots” resonates more than ever. While professional journalists are trying to verify the facts before filing their reports, a deliberate falsehood created to stoke panic or anger can spread like wildfire across social media.

The spectre of regulation?

Incidents like the January 6 insurrection in Washington and the unrest in South Africa will no doubt prompt governments and regulators worldwide to think about how they can use laws and regulations to prevent social media channels from being used to organise violent uprisings, manipulate voters, or seed panic and fear. Debates about the effects of vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation add more grist to the mill.

To forestall tougher regulation, the social platforms will inevitably start to moderate content more aggressively, impose stricter terms of use on their users and watch more carefully for countries or organisations seeking to influence other countries’ politics. Witness how Twitter banned former US president Donald Trump from its platform amid concerns about Trump and his followers using social media to spread disinformation.

The social platforms have been working hard to prevent illegal and blatantly harmful content, despite still arguing that they are not publishers. They seem to be recognising that as content distributors they will need to find ways to convince regulators they are serious about preventing bad actors from inciting violence or manipulating citizens.

The danger here is that heavy-handed moderation and censorship could stifle the free flow of information in ways that benefit oppressive governments or disadvantage well-intentioned citizens. It’s worth bearing in mind that social media enables citizen journalists to document events on the ground in countries without a free press. Social media also allows people to report community level news that won’t make the mainstream press.

Social media is mainstream media

From the perspective of a marketer, the events of July highlight just how deeply social media is woven into the fabric of South African’s lives. No longer is digital a supplementary channel – it is the first place most people go for news and information. Yet, with social media usage increasing by 14% between January 2020 and 2021, on the back of strong annual growth in the four or five years before, it remains a new channel.

As much as the platforms need to take responsibility for the content they distribute, they will always struggle to verify the truthfulness or assess the potential harm of each of the hundreds of thousands of posts their users generate every minute of the day. Thus, we need to see combatting harmful or false content as a shared responsibility for platforms and their users.

That implies that brands, too, have a responsibility to use social media wisely, and play a part in educating people about the importance of fact-checking and how to spot fake news. Indeed, brands themselves should be ready to be victims of misinformation campaigns and show their customers how to verify content about their business. And they should educate their social teams about how to fact-check the content they share, whether generated in-house or reshared from another account.

South Africa is a young social media community, because barriers such as high cost of data and access to computers held back Internet adoption. But now in a mobile world with much easier access to free Wi-Fi and cheaper mobile data, people from every walk of life are embracing social media and its power as a tool for personal connection and social change.

In much the same way as digital platforms were used to mobilise looters and rioters, they also enabled communities to organise their response to the chaos, whether that meant coordinating community policing, arranging clean-ups, or rallying donations to help those left homeless or unemployed by the violence. There is a fine line to walk in balancing social media’s potential use for good and bad.