We live in a damaged country. This thought occurred to me each time I looked at social media focused on the Huffington Post Troll/Fake Column incident. It is an issue that has an incredibly divided response and not along the usual lines, of those for or against media or media freedom. I want to look at two things. The issue of the incident, and then how people have reacted. Dealing with the incident. Everyone stuffs up, it's part of life. The Huffington Post South Africa stuffed up, on some fundamental issues.
Leaving aside the content of the original piece written by Marius Roodt for the moment (for an analysis on the Hate speech issue read Justine Limpitlaw Piece here) there are some interesting elements. For one thing the stuff up was caused by a deliberate effort by a fool to try and prove how poor our quality of journalism is, or how poor the controls are. Surprise! The fool managed to fulfil his self-fulfilling prophecy. Doing so is a bit like saying South Africa is a crap country, and looking for evidence to prove it. The poverty, inequality, crime, corruption, gender based violence, unemployment, poor health, malnourishment, violence, racism, homophobia, the down turn in the economy, high road deaths, it's all there. And so too are declining standards of journalism.
We know all these things, the question we have to ask is, is showing an instance of crime or poverty or poor journalism proof that all journalism is poor? Then, perhaps, we need to ask how does that help? Does it deepen our understanding of the issue? Does it expose structural issues? Does it present possible solutions? I don't believe it does any of those things. What is has done, is great damage to the Huffington Post in particular and our media more broadly, as it feeds those who seek to portray our media as having no checks, nor credibility. As our media sector comes under more pressure this was an error our sector can ill afford.
Of course it's easy to say the error should never have happened, that fundamental and basic checks were not carried out, but as a rule we tend to be a more reactive society. It took miners being killed in Marikana for the decline and weaknesses in the SAPS public order policing to be revealed. It took over 100 of our most vulnerable members of society to lose their lives in the Life Esidimeni tragedy before the general state and condition of our mental health services were put under serious scrutiny. Perhaps this was the boil of our media waiting to be lanced, and Marius Roodt, served as both the boil and the lance. We can only hope that the Huffington Post incident will also have a positive impact on our journalism.
To be clear, I am not saying that being reactive justifies the error, we know that for years many SAPS officers, civil society bodies, mental health groups and government officials had been trying in their own ways to raise the issues before there was a disaster. So too in the media sector, many editors, journalists, civil society bodies have been raising issues of decline in quality and real threats, and still it happened. (MMA exists to help promote and build quality media, if you want to know what issues there are with our media have a look at any of the over 300 monitoring projects we have done.) What the incident shows is that our systems and services are far from perfect. The point for me is that when things go horribly wrong, it doesn't help to say they went wrong or are wrong. What we need to do is build better systems, and ensure those responsible for the wrong are held accountable.
In fairness to the Huffington Post they have taken swift action, they had an immediate review of their processes, they self referred the piece to the Press Council and the editor has now resigned (a sad but probably necessary step). We then had a ruling from the Press Council. (People who say the system doesn't work are simply smoking their socks) We had all this in just over a week. But it isn't enough. We need to interrogate the issues raised in the numerous pieces written about the incident, from editorial practice and power and influence of seeking traffic over editorial value, to understanding hate speech, defining it, what it is, what it isn't what it might be, to looking at resourcing of media houses.
While we may be of the view that Verashni wasn't targeted for being a women, we do know that women in the public eye are subjected to the most extraordinary abuse.
We need to interrogate head-on the issues of our historic legacy, the power of white men, racism and sexism, we need to interrogate how we deal with fake news, malicious attempts aimed at deceiving and misinforming media and how we can help media to do a better job. And still this is not enough -- because in addition to interrogating all these interlinked issues we also need to come up with ideas and strategies to address each of them and then - we need to implement them. If we can do all those things we may well build the kind of media our democracy and constitutional promise our nation expects.
As MMA we are working to try and achieve these goals - and we need your support to do so. There is an additional set of issues though. IF we look at the social media responses to the issues, they tend to be polarised but they also tend to exemplify the concept of schadenfreude, or the feeling of happiness at someone else's downfall. Tweets of a vicious nature abound. Insults are leveled and heaped on those who seek to defend Verashni Pillay or the Huffington Post, but also those who attack them. Having been in contact with many people directly and indirectly involved I know that in addition to the public tweets, many of those involved have also received really awful spiteful, and hateful direct messages. While we may be of the view that Verashni wasn't targeted for being a women, we do know that women in the public eye are subjected to the most extraordinary abuse.
There are clearly both racial and gender dynamics to the social media comments. It is also no small irony that the original "attack" was on white men, that some have felt emboldened to and also sufficiently threatened to have to reassert their masculinity and whiteness in the most crass and arrogant of ways. I'm sure someone somewhere is studying the link of mob and or crowd behaviour and social media use, for we seem to get far too many instances where otherwise normal and sane people become rude and abusive, the moment you let them loose on social media. It might be that we are a traumatised and damaged nation - that allows us to behave in this manner. As if the moment any pain is exposed it allows an outpouring of more pain, but as far as I can see it doesn't really help anyone. Certainly nobody seems to voice feeling better having dumped on Verashni, or the Huffington Post.
Instead from all sides I get the sense of people deriving pleasure of kicking someone when they are down. In a recent piece in the Daily Maverick Sisonke Msimang eloquently and beautifully wrote about us as a nation struggling to find the language we need to forge a new way forward. Msimang writes about us all having apartheid as something we all lived through, and it has defined us as a nation, whether as victims or perpetrators. She adds, "And yet, the paradox of course is that though we are a nation tied together by the horror of apartheid -- even those who were not alive then are tied into the project by virtue of their race -- we are tied together like enemies trapped in one house."
These differences sadly are often exploited by those with their own agendas. Referring to Zuma, Msimang adds: "He reminds us that South Africans are black and white and queer and Indian and coloured and white and now we are also Kenyan and Nigerian and Congolese and Zimbabwean and Somali South Africans and all of us stand on this soil burning with the burden of freedom. And what a magnificent burden it is. We stand with diversity etched in our bones and written in our blood. We stand and refuse to be trapped by the narratives of the past and the fragilities of the present. We talk and we call in to radio shows and we march and we gather in spaces people in power seldom pay attention to and we disrupt because we know we cannot rely on our leaders for the moment.
We used to trust them but the ones who were worthy of our trust are dead. And this is not a tragedy because we are beginning to understand how to come unstuck from this situation without coming undone. Like our mothers who came before us, many of us New South Africans have learned that in this country we are making, we have to have eyes in the back of our heads. We are learning to scan the wreckage of our history and mine it for gold, to look for the connections between us, even as we walk with our eyes firmly fixed on the horizon. We are moving ever more sure-footed, towards making a South Africa in which we all belong."
While Msimang is making a nuanced argument about multi-cultural is and identity, I am hoping that strands of her lovely logic can be applied to how we choose to respond to the Huffington Post Incident. We can either get stuck and allow traditional approaches that don't build on what we can have in common i.e. A vested interest in a better quality media or we can seek to allow a different set of discussions to take place, that seek to build and not just destroy. This is not to suggest that our historical and current apartheid realities are glossed over, far from it, we must deal with them head-on as I have suggested. Rather we need we need to keep on, "learning to scan the wreckage of our history and mine it for gold, to look for the connections between us."