The minister of state security, David Mahlobo, is apparently advocating for the regulation of social media, which would replace the free space for expression with bureaucratic surveillance.
This alarming scenario reflects a tension between privacy and security around the world, not just in South Africa. But there’s more.
Mahlobo’s proposal is part of the ruling ANC’s broad strategy to control the media, if its policies on media from Sunday’s briefing session — in preparation for the party’s June policy conference — are anything to go by.
It wants to step up its inquiry into a media appeals tribunal, which it first mooted in Polokwane in 2007, before the conference.
The ANC also wants a media charter to transform the “hostile media”.
The mainstream media is “out of sync” with the rest of country, the ANC has claimed in most of its policy statements on communications. The assumption is the ANC is in sync with the country. This is a regular mistake the ruling party makes as it conflates the country, its people and the party.
Now social media is out of sync with the ruling party. The default position is to regulate it and use “fake news” as the excuse.
The reality is no one knows what to do about fake news. But to regulate the internet and social media would be overreach and inconsistent with the noise and robust contestations that characterise a democracy.
Facebook and Twitter, the two most used social media in South Africa, allow free expression (albeit only for those who have internet access). They are also mediums that allow expression to those who do not have access to mainstream media.
Of course social media is open to abuse in the age of “fake news” — disinformation, propaganda, lies, rumour — which has been around forever, but now is a full-scale industry. Take ANN7, for instance, which watches everything mainstream media does and then says and does the opposite — it’s a bit like trying to turn diamonds into pistachio nuts.
The state security minister’s “reasoning” about social media is part of the ANC’s general trajectory — a desire to control news and self-expression so it can win better majorities during elections.
It works in tandem with other controlling proposals: the Protection of State Information Bill (better known as the secrecy Bill), the media appeals tribunal, the Film and Publications Act and the Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Amendment Bill.
Aspects of all of the above are unconstitutional and this is the most likely reason that, in the main, they have not completely fulfilled the government’s desire.
So that’s politics and legalities. In practical terms, social media is too large a space to regulate. WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook posts and tweets go off faster than the rate government can keep up with constitutional rulings against it. The odd random racist will get caught and it won’t stop someone else from mouthing off disgusting views.
What is the value of leaving social media as is? What do people talk about or share on their various social media platforms? A lot of narcissist nonsense for much of the time, granted, such as pics of sublime holidays to show how happy they are, pics of kissing their partners in romantic locations, showing off their bodies’ rippling muscles and six packs and odd poses with puckered lips.
But there is more: it’s an outlet for activism, a diversity of voices, a space to rage about corruption in the public and private sector, and a lack of humanity.
Social media is used to rail against public officials who don’t do their jobs but increase their salaries, the state of hospitals, the poor delivery of textbooks and rising unemployment. We see arguments between people and groups that hold different views, such as black and white feminists about questions of what’s universal and what’s particular.
Social media is also used as info-sharing: a talk happening at a university, for example, and which area does not have water and electricity and when it will come on again. Even in China and Zimbabwe, two countries that regulate media, including social media, people find a way to share information. So the government would be wasting its time.
On the light side, through social media you can flirt with someone and you can overuse emoticons if you like, especially the laughing till you are crying one — which is very popular in South Africa for some reason. It can be fun — and serious as we try to balance security and privacy in a world of violence, racism, sexism, poverty, climate change, inhumanity.
All of this has value. It’s so clear that this space should not be regulated.
But it’s also clear only those who feel threatened and insecure would want to regulate it.
Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.