Modern politics: #ProudlyBroughtByTwitter
The #ProudlyBroughtBy trends on Twitter caused a sensation in national political discourse.
JOHANNESBURG - Thousands of South African Twitter users have joined in a wave of political criticism, satire and grandstanding in response to the Democratic Alliance (DA)'s anti-e-tolling billboard campaign which launched last week.
The opposition party anonymously erected a number of billboards on Gauteng roads with the text, "E-tolls. Proudly brought to you by the ANC."
Within a few days, the DA's Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane announced that they were indeed behind the campaign.
A war of words then commenced.
According to digital research company Fuseware, which describes the trend as "possibly the hottest hashtag that has hit South Africa in recent political history", the overwhelming response on Twitter began on Monday with ANC media liaison Khusela Sangoni-Khawe, beginning with:
2 new universities #ProudlyBroughtByANC
- Khusela Sangoni (@KhuselaK) October 7, 2013
The tweet set off a massive snowball effect with more than 25,000 people getting involved since then and the hashtag is still trending throughout the country.
ProudlyBroughtByANC was initially used to promote the ruling party, such as these examples from ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu's series on Monday:
#ProudlyBroughtByANC Freedom for all South Africans
- Jackson Mthembu (@JacksonMthembu_) October 7, 2013
Building and giving for free over 3milliom RDP houses to deserving South Africans #ProudlyBroughtByANC
- Jackson Mthembu (@JacksonMthembu_) October 7, 2013
But critics and satirists soon joined the fray.
#ProudlyBroughtByANC R200m state-of-the-art mudhuts in Nkandla
- Sentletse (@Sentletse) October 7, 2013
Endless cartoon material. #ProudlyBroughtByANC
- Jerm (@mynameisjerm) October 7, 2013
- Carmen Kean (@keancarmi) October 7, 2013
Absurdity then set in, with users blaming the ANC for issues of all kinds.
Dropping your ice cream on the pavement #ProudlyBroughtByANC.
- Jonathan Witt (@Jonathan_Witt) October 7, 2013
And the DA was not left untouched in the growing battle.
"Open air toilets for the poor! #ProudlyBroughtByDA . lets push this TT
- SOL Phenduka (@solphenduka) October 8, 2013
Saving black rhinos before saving black people #ProudlyBroughtByDA
- Z£¥πiB (@zeynib) October 8, 2013
BREAKING IT DOWN
Fuseware's Managing Director Mike Wronski discussed the trends with Talk Radio 702's Jenny Crwys-Williams and Andy Rice on Wednesday afternoon, describing how a simple tweet can spark a storm.
"It forms a fascinating case study on the ground with what's actually happening and it shows the power that the people have when it comes to social media and how empowered they can really be when they rally around a community like a hashtag," he says, adding, "Everybody's trying to own this hashtag."
Wronski says the hashtag is something of a "public relations nightmare" for the ruling party as many of the conversations have been highly negative.
"This campaign started out as something very innocuous, very positive and very small. It was a concerted effort by the ANC just to spread some positive light about themselves and what they're doing but, unfortunately, it got into the hands of the community and it spread like wildfire from that."
He details the manner in which this hashtag became a major trend, saying after Sangonyi's tweet at 12.50 on Monday afternoon, "more and more people from the ANC started joining the fray."
However, this still didn't earn it much exposure. It was when the "fanatics" joined in - "people with not many followers but those who tweeted over a hundred times with this exact hashtag" - that traction started to build. "Then the heavyweights come in," he says.
"That one tweet from Jackson Mthembu, who's got quite a bit of clout online now, started going into the mainstream. Just a couple of hours later, the celebrities came on board. You had people with hundreds of thousands of followers starting this within a few hours and by that time, it's completely mainstream."
WHAT IT MEANS FOR POLITICS
In terms of the political consequences of this national conversation, Wronski says modern technology has begun empowering people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to have a voice in society.
"Technology is the great integrator, everybody's put on the same page so by this time next year, many people would be empowered with smartphones and access to the internet.
"They have this free and democratic access to the world's information, which includes all the information on Twitter, so they're free to make their own minds up and push that content to the world. It becomes a very powerful mechanism for unveiling the truth," he says.
For major companies, important individuals or political parties and government, the truth is much harder to hide, he says. "If you're not delivering value, you'll be outed."
Next year's elections will likely be the first where Twitter will play a significant role.
But Wronski warns that trends and conversations taking place on Twitter do not necessarily reflect South African society as a whole.
The DA has largely benefitted from the trend, it seems, with far more negative tweets about the ANC than about the DA, despite the ruling party's effort to fight back with #ProudlyBroughtByDA.
However, this likely reflects the demographic make-up of Twitter users in the country rather than a changing national mood.
Wronski asks, "Is the DA going to get more votes because of this? I'm not so sure."
Fuseware's data shows that twice as many tweets were made from Johannesburg than from Cape Town while three quarters of these were from male contributors.
Little is known about the exact racial and socio-economic indicators.