According to Richard Mulholland, author and speaker, South Africa’s current polarized political environment is due in large part to the divisive nature of social media, compounded by its politicians.
“We live in a world where we’ve been sold our ideals in a buy-one-get-the-rest-free package and it divides us,” Mulholland shared.
“Our opinions have been monopolized and this has divided us on seemingly odd, incongruous issues.”
Mulholland shared an anecdote about the hypocrisy of social media views and questioned their logic.
“Why is that when you have this group of people who are vehemently anti-abortion? They’re fist in the air complaining about it – we know why, because it kills kids – but they have no problem with teens buying AR-15s.
“How can it be logical that your perspective on issues like climate change – whatever it is – directly correlates with your views on the Black Lives Matter movement? It’s not logical.”
Social media has also caused users to worry about how they are perceived by others and whether they fit with public opinion, Mulholland says, rather than what the crux of the matter is.
“At least it’s not logical when you think your political views are your own, but it’s perfectly logical when you understand that your political views are less about how you see the world and more about how you want to be seen in her.
“Once you accept that group identity, you’re more prone to just getting their ideas, and there’s a problem with that. Psychologists call this motivated thinking, and while there are arguments, it’s far from reasonable.”
The role of politics
Political parties focus on differences between voters to get cheap votes that further divide individuals, Mulholland said.
“The things that matter to us are being hijacked as differentiators by political hopefuls looking for a snappy campaign slogan. And thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever.
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“Social media makes it absolutely easy … the job of the media is to divide and conquer,” he said, adding, “Our anger has been monetized.”
The media industry is also to blame, which uses the division maintained by politicians to improve its bottom line, according to Mulholland.
“Providing metered news is at the bottom of an extremely long list of priorities for [the media].”
“We’re not as polarized as the world thinks we are. The world of social media makes us seem like we have very different problems. But when you step into the real world – at a picnic or a braai – you realize that we actually all share common values.
“Only when you find a common place with people can you pursue an argument.”
The US carries popular views of the world on social media. These views are being adopted by the South African media and social media users without critical scrutiny or grading of South Africa’s political landscape.
“Most South Africans I see online are very happy to import their values and beliefs wholesale from the United States. I often see that more people care about what’s happening in the United States than what’s happening in our country, and I think that’s wrong,” Mulholland said.
“Our values have been weaponized and used against us every day. We will be armed and sent into this age-old struggle for power with these stats as cannon fodder.”
Citizens’ lack of political nuance and knowledge allows the divide between political groups to be exacerbated by politicians.
“When it comes to their politics, it turns out that the average person isn’t that smart, and that makes it really easy for the smart conversationalist to go out there and control the narrative.
“Few things are more powerful – in the war for human attention – than astute rhetoric delivered by an experienced interlocutor.”
However, according to Mulholland, there is an opportunity for citizens to make a difference by being aware of and turning away from the enforced division by the powers that be, turning instead to what binds us together.
“Our opinions have been monopolized, our anger has been monetized and our values have been weaponized,” he said. “We’re in a dark room, but we don’t have to stay there. It turns out we can flip the switch… but we have to take control of the narrative.
“To hell with the legacy-filled political ideals that force you to play a manipulative game with us to make the changes you want to make.
“It has to start with us, and we can only do that if we start replacing our daily dose of Doom scrolling with other, algorithmically agnostic, forms of information. Things like history and philosophy books would be a good place to start.
“It’s time we reclaimed our opinions from the algorithms that use them against us. It is time we reclaim our values from those in power who are using them to divide us, and most importantly, it is time we reclaim our anger because it could be far better directed elsewhere.” DM