Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Victor Dlamini

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Facebook’ Category

The Menace of the Digital Age

My latest column for The Daily Maverick

One minute you would have been forgiven for thinking that Christmas had come early this year, for all around it seemed as if South Africa was in the grip of the silly season. On Facebook and elsewhere in the electronic world, it was raining insults, of the sort that proves that, in our quest for equity in diversity, we’re overachievers – at least, in the equitable distribution of those who regularly take leave of their minds.

Why else would people take the time and trouble to trade faceless insults on the Internet? Even more astonishing was the fanning of the flames, the speed with which moronic statements were spreading, like a digital super virus. What we were witnessing was nothing less than the menace of the digital age: the web’s power to draw forth, almost unlimitedly, our basest instincts.

But then, quickly, the digital was made flesh, after the death of a right wing demagogue, whose killing was indirectly blamed on reckless rhetoric that had been spewed by a rising young populist, then repeated ad infinitum by his zealous followers.

The action moved from the relative safety and privacy of the keyboard to the dusty streets of Ventersdorp, the former stronghold of the far right, where grizzly members of the once feared AWB emerged from their long slumber to trade insults with their once quiet and fearful township neighbours.

It is of course impossible to state with any certainty that there’s a link, no matter how tenuous, between the filthy words that were exchanged in the anonymous safety of the digital domain and the dangerous confrontations on the dusty streets of a fallen right wing haven. But there’s no doubt that what is first uttered online can quickly morph into a cause, however right- or wrong-headed, in the real world.

Herein lies the menace of demagogues in the digital age: their contagious message catches on faster than an arsonist’s fire. Just as marketers are salivating at the prospect of reaching consumers with digital tools, so demagogues are looking to convert audiences into digital disciples.

The largely faceless comments on Facebook (pun intended) and elsewhere touch raw nerves, but can mainly be dismissed as mere digital sound and fury, generated by those who have inherited way too much bandwidth and too little brain power. But then the spewings spill over into the real world. South Africa is not alone in seeing decent and civilized debate pushed aside by the rambunctious push of popular but ill-considered uprisings. In the US the likes of Glen Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin are a dangerous conservative cocktail that threatens to drive a wedge permanently into the country’s divisions.

The lure of the digital age lies in participation, and often people will forward something on without as much as glancing through it. The logic seems to be, “if my trusted or not so trusted mates passed it on to me, I can’t be a spoilsport and not do the same”. This is the poison pill in our brimming-over digital cups: the medium is a force multiplier for spreading even the most unsavoury messages in this thoughtless way.


» read article