/ 25 April 2017

Be warned: ‘Tweetspeak’ from our politicians is reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia

In South Africa
Facebook is hoping that videos made by users themselves are what will keep people watching. (Reuters)


George Orwell (1903-1950), author of Animal Farm and outspoken critic of fascism and communism, coined the term newspeak.

Newspeak, as distinct from oldspeak, is the language of self-styled progressive activists who gain power and become authoritarian.

In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, citizens who did not conform to political orthodoxy were arrested by “thought police”, tortured to make them confess, then put on trial for “thought crimes”.

Orwell showed how the reductive language of newspeak leads to doublethink. This is a form of self-deception, driven initially by a healthy if unrealisable idealism, then sustained by systemic hypocrisy.

Doublethink is widespread in South Africa. A politician, for example, may publicly demonise capitalism and the West, yet drive a German car, drink Scotch whisky and use kitchen appliances, banking facilities, a medical aid scheme, a pension fund, legal and accounting regulations, Microsoft Windows and a smartphone.

In South Africa, as around the world, politics increasingly takes place on the different screens of electronic media. Orwell, a democratic socialist and fervent believer in free and reasoned public debate, might have called aspects of such discourse tweetspeak.

He would have criticised the profusion of glib ads, simplistic slogans and hate speech posted on the web, and been amazed at the rapid global proliferation of online communities and media devices.

Thirty-five years after the first mobile phone went on sale, the number purchased now exceeds the global population of seven-odd billion.

Just 30 years after its inception, the world wide web has more than a billion sites. The three most popular are Google, YouTube and Facebook, according to California-based company Alexa, which provides commercial web traffic data and analytics.

PewResearch showed in a recent survey that more than 50% of people in South Africa have cellphones. An additional 30% have smartphones. Seven million use Twitter, according to local technology research firm World Wide Worx. Thirteen million use Facebook. WhatsApp is the most popular text messaging and phone service.

Empirical research struggles to keep up with the impact of such inventions. Most of us are probably only dimly aware of their technical and financial architecture.

Their development is characterised by convergence. Over the past two decades, computer software and hardware companies have amalgamated with news, leisure and telecommunications corporates to form supranational businesses such as Time-Warner, Sony, Microsoft and Google.

Orwell, a critic of British imperialism, would be wary of such global institutions, especially tax dodgers such as Google. He would, however, be delighted to learn that the world wide web provides a vast resource of knowledge to an expanding number of people, many of whom live in despotic countries.

But researchers such as Kevin Hill and John Hughes show that, although the web is used frequently for information and politics, such usage is comparatively small. It is dwarfed by the massive data flows that result from the web’s commercial activity, and interpersonal communication and entertainment use.

Orwell would also have been disappointed by the negative effects of electronic media on the politics of democracy: the influence of spin doctors, the reduction of complex policy statements to soundbites and tweets, and the deferential reliance of political parties on corporate funders to pay for their campaigns.

Social network sites ameliorate but do not dissolve these influences. Research confirms that people use Facebook primarily to foster and expand interpersonal relationships, to keep up to date with news and to participate in different online communities. Their cyberworld is real but different from the world of family, work and civic life.

Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language, championed the plain speech of ordinary, “decent” people over the restricted codes of jargon and ideology. This keeps alive what we would call today the language of critical realism.

His novels explore the effects of poverty and ideology. They show how social contexts influence the content and expression of our conversations with others.

Think of the complex and different dimensions of language that emerge when we speak to people with whom we are in a sustainable relationship: spouse, children, employer, employee, people of different colour, creed or class, or friends known since school.

Real-time, face-to-face discourse with others requires tact, empathy and courtesy, known as imbeko in isiXhosa and inhlonipho in isiZulu.

Orwell would be alarmed at how easily such social virtues can be discarded online. We can, if we wish, become an anonymous and invisible cyberperson who posts messages in cybertime.

Psychologist John Suler calls the effect “disinhibition”. Some people become more expressive and sociable as a result. Others use the disguise to become cybersnipers and cybersneaks, attacking immigrants, ethnic groups or unpopular children.

Populist politics includes a wide range of social movements that contest elites. Social network sites are used by anti-government groups in China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Podemos party in Spain, as well as neo-fascists in Europe, extremist faith organisations and the antiliberal zealots found on the Breitbart website based in the United States.

Does the use of social media exaggerate the frustration and anger fuelling the civil society protests, student revolt and xenophobic rampages in South Africa? If so, what can be done?

Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, like other social network sites, have conditions of use that exclude hate speech. These are for the most part ignored in contexts of social and political conflict.

In June last year, the European Union justice commissioner said “social media companies need to live up to their important role and take up their share of responsibility when it comes to phenomena like online radicalisation, illegal hate speech or fake news”.

The effective self-regulation she asks for is expensive. Hundreds of skilled employees already monitor a huge range of sites. They identify subtle and not so subtle posts that contravene conditions of use, and delete them within hours to prevent their viral replication.

Should government and civil society organisations in South Africa ask media companies operating in this turbulent context to increase their self-regulation?

There is considerable anecdotal evidence that extremist students in the #FeesMustFall movement spread hate speech using smartphones and Facebook. This type of online verbal violence, according to research into cyberbullying at schools, silences more sensitive voices and is assisted by the anonymity of social media.

The abbreviated form of a tweet reduces the complexity of interpersonal discourse and social reality to a cartoon. United States President Donald Trump’s tweets are an example. They speak directly to gut feelings of fear and frustration. When these are unmediated by a culture of reading, people are easily persuaded to vote for slogans instead of complex policy statements.

The use of Facebook enabled former US president Barack Obama to build a huge supporter and funding base. Twitter suits brash, sloganeering politicians such as Trump and Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema.

The regulation of social media, such as that of networked stockmarket volatility, is extremely complex. It relates directly to experience-based, personal decisions about values and, as significantly, to emotions felt by many that can burst the natural constraints of reason and interpersonal courtesy and create a stampede.

Orwell would treat the so-called free speech Bill before Parliament with great caution, not least because recent research by William Gumede shows that a number of countries in Africa have, like China, clamped down on social media. Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), who coined the misleading aphorisms “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, analysed the effect of reading and writing, the printing press, radio and television on the way people thought and lived. The medium of communication remains only part of the message, and the interconnected global village he foresaw has become a sprawling, quarrelsome, heterogenous megacity.

McLuhan’s work remains valuable, however, in that he draws our attention to the effect of the form as well as the content of media. The addiction of the so-called millennial generation to smartphones, for example, has led to that generation’s behaviour being characterised as more socially isolated, narcissistic and ageist than other generations.

When using Twitter, WhatsApp and similar modes of communication, we increase our connectivity remarkably. Their abbreviated form and content, however, drastically reduces the complexity of our human feelings and sociopolitical hybridity.

In Animal Farm, Orwell depicts the grotesque horror of a society in which reason has been downgraded and replaced by totalitarian slogans.

Tweetspeak may be useful, but it can never replace the imbeko and inhlonipho, the patient reading, thinking, writing and reasoned interpersonal discourse that is required to sustain a constitutional democracy, particularly one struggling to cope with huge material differences and toxic historical legacies.

Chris Zithulele Mann worked in rural development before joining the Institute for the Study of English in Africa at Rhodes University, where he is professor emeritus of poetry. His forthcoming book is The Road to Emmaus.