The BIG Twitter Lie

It has become common practice that journalists and commentators now look to Twitter to gauge the mood and thoughts of South Africans on pressing issues. Quite often we hear that the nation is outraged about something and the source just happens to be a hashtag on twitter. Who is on this Twitter thing?

To prefix my views on this, one should step back and try to understand that South Africa has a serious problem with identity. We often forget that we are a third world country with first world aspirations. We try to live up to those first world ideals even without the resources to match. 

I have addressed the issue of Twitter misconception and false perception of influence in my article, Celebrity Twitter Numbers Do Not Guarantee Influence. In that article I specifically point out how some celebrities in SA are considered and have practically been anointed big stars solely based on their social media pull even though their TV and product sales numbers are not impressive. 

According to the latest World Wide Worx and Fuseware’s South African Social Media Landscape 2016 study, a quarter of all South Africans (13 million people) now use Facebook with 10 million accessing the platform via cellphones. 

The study further says that Instagram doubled its user base from 1.1 million in 2014 to 2.68 million in 2015.

Twitter has seen a growth from 2.5 million in 2012 and now sits on 7.4 million users. Impressive numbers when compared to platforms such as the practically non-existent WeChat even with its numerous celebrity endorsements. However, 7 million users in a country with a population of 53 million is a pebble in a sand dune. 

Bare in mind that just because Twitter has 7 million registered users it doesn't mean all those people are active. A study done 2 years ago saw that for the most part only 40% of the registered Twitter users are active on the site on a regular bases. The site also has a huge number of spam followers and fake accounts. 

With these numbers, why have we as South Africans given Twitter such reverence? We crown our stars based on Twitter. We gauge public mood based on Twitter. We run businesses based on Twitter. Everyone wants to trend on Twitter and everyone seemingly believes that means influence. 

The biggest lie is that Twitter is reflective of the national conversation. How is it that we have allowed this blatant lie to fester and control the narrative. How has a small - yes very small number - of individuals managed to convince the whole nation that they represent the voice of the people?

Journalists troll Twitter for stories. A trending topic on Twitter can easily become a headline story in a magazine or news program on tv.  

The answer is simple... KEEPING UP WITH THE JONES Syndrome! Because Twitter has a lot of influence in the west, especially America, we want to push the facade that we are on par with them. If Twitter has influence there, it must have the same influence here. It is that third world with first world aspiration issue we have. 

Unfortunately, this lie is hurting our country. Celebrities know that they can not get endorsement because the so-called stars, that are lauded on Twitter but can't sell anything because they do not actually have any influence, have killed any confidence brands have in black celebrities to endorse products. 

The perception that hashtags have any bearing in the change of policies is also equally detrimental to our future democracy. Activism in Africa is still about actually getting up and doing something. Hashtags are great for creating awareness but change eventually is effected by active activism. It is the protests and your vote that force change not Twitter. The Arab spring ideals of Twitter do not apply in Mzansi. 

Twitter does not speak for the majority or even a fraction of any core demographic of our society. The platform is just like a cool club where few people congregate to bully and try and outshine each other. 

Journalists should stop saying the country is outraged, when the source of that outrage is only Twitter. People have to learn that just because a topic is mentioned over 60 000 times on Twitter it doesn't mean 60 000 people were engaged in that topic. Just because someone has 900 000 followers it doesn't mean he/she has 900 000 fans who will buy the product or watch that show. 

Facebook is still a very powerful medium for dialogue, regardless of what the 'clique' is trying to convince you. As a brand you are more likely to get your money's return by engaging with consumers on Facebook than you would on Twitter. 

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