(Column for the Daily Dispatch first published 1 September 2015 on print)
Power dynamics on social networks are like shifting sands. In a single moment, a well known personality can lose their power to an unknown Wits University student and former Hudson Park High School learner, over a few comments on Twitter.
Our interactions on these platforms teach us about the beast called freedom of speech and the power of equality. Now, the power does not lie on the politician who speaks in parliament, a radio personality who uses her platform to pour water on the student’s struggle; nor does the power lie on a university body that has enjoyed power for decades.
Before the days of social networks, Unathi Msengana may have enjoyed another unmemorable full day’s work. But instead, she left vulgar private messages on 19 year old Palomina Jama’s twitter account in response to her “Unathibelike” hashtag comment on Twitter. Private messages became public and Unathi was suspended from her Metro FM radio show, where she had originally made comments that triggered the creation of #Unathibelike. Msengana’s comments on her radiow show were seen to be in support of Stellenbosch University’s contentious language policy which was discussed on a short documentary called Luister.
Luister, the short documentary about Stellenbosch University students’ experiences of racism and exclusion; would have unlikely come to Unathi’s attention without social media. The university’s management may have also still been carrying on with their business as usual, and they would not have been summoned to parliament last week, to answer to the allegations of racism made on the documentary.
This year, university students from around the country have successfully used social networks to protest, mostly about transformation issues. They have successfully outsmarted their superiors by exploiting their universities’ desperation to preserve their reputation. This strategy will probably see to it that these student campaigns succeed. If these universities do not satisfy these transformation movements, they have a nightmare on their hands. It may prove impossible to control students on their social network platforms.
It may have taken forever for Luister to be aired on television, but through social networks, it means that it is accessible anytime to anyone, and this accessibility is the power factor.
This is where freedom of speech and equality are tested. The often powerless against authorities or against famous personalities have power at their fingertips. Power on social networks often tends to end up as cyberbullying. This is why Jama must be commended. She had the power to humiliate Unathi further after her suspension, instead the teenager showed humility and maturity. She regretted what happened to “sis Unathi” even though Unathi had called her some vile names.
On social networks there is a measure of equality of power and voice regardless of the number of followers one has on Twitter. Jama has about 2K Twitter followers while Msengana has almost 500K Twitter followers. The University authorities may have easily squashed the student’s voices but their documentary which was posted on social platforms made their voices accessible and almost impossible to ignore. It stirred students as far as Wits.
University students are among the privileged young people in the country. Many young South Africans are still living under digital apartheid with no access to free wifi or adequate internet access, if at all. Who knows what lies beyond the digital wall when the millions of often jobless out-of-school-youth find their power and voice in the digital world? Freedom of speech may need new rules. It comes with power as the university students are experiencing but it also comes at a price as Unathi has experienced.
Social networking has been argued to have played a key role to the Arab Spring. Behind the digital wall lie new kinds of leaders for a new era, as we are seeing among the student movements. The internet is proving to be the meaning of “power to the people.”