Dear South African politicians: Please think before you tweet

Twitter is well known as an effective tool in political campaigns.

Research indicates that “politically interested individuals and groups can no longer ignore the opportunities presented by Twitter to engage in political discourse and to influence the outcome of campaigns and legislation”.

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US politicians Donald Trump and Barack Obama both used Twitter as a marketing tool in the election campaigns that resulted in their presidencies. But using the platform thoughtlessly can also be damaging.

South Africa has more than 7.7-million Twitter users. In a country where racial and political sensitivities continue to run high, posting faux pas is bound to land you in hot water.

Consider how careless tweeting backfired for four of South Africa’s best-known politicians.

Colonially controversial Zille

Top of the list must be Western Cape Premier and former leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Helen Zille.

She has been charged by her own party, and reported to the Human Rights Commission, for content she has posted.

Her brazen tweets on, as she puts it, the “legacy of colonialism”, had local and international media in a flurry.

Following a trip to Singapore in March last year, Zille was keen to share her views on what she discovered abroad:

Zille went on to say the following:

Her remarks caused an uproar, particularly on “Black Twitter” — a term coined to describe users focused on issues of interest to black communities. Some users even called for action from DA party leader, Mmusi Maimane.

Zille apologised a few hours later.

In April 2017, the DA officially charged Zille for bringing the party into disrepute.

Nonetheless, a year later, the politician made the same mistake.

In response to a tweet by a user who said that black people had been collecting water all their lives and had always been living through “Day Zero”, she tweeted the following:

Talk about putting your foot in it, again.

In fact, Zille’s Twitter offences go way back.

In March 2012, Zille caused a stir when she referred to Eastern Cape pupils attending Western Cape schools as “refugees”. She posted the following tweet in reference to a protest in Grabouw about overcrowding at a local school:

Her tweet sparked an uproar on the social network and beyond, with many calling her out for using a pejorative and deeply loaded term. South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, slammed it as racist. Zille was also reported to the Human Rights Commission by a youth activist.

Today, Zille’s still defending her Twitter comments. Public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, recently ruled that Zille should be held accountable by 23 July for breaching the Code of Ethics for Members of the Executive and the Constitution for her colonialism tweets. Zille is currently taking legal action against Mkhwebane’s ruling.

On Gupta grafts and (alleged) holidays in Dubai

Former South African Police Minister, Fikile Mbalula, is notorious for sparking Twitter controversy.

Mbalula has faced on-going accusations of dodgy connections to the wealthy Gupta family, which has been linked to widespread corruption in South Africa.

Twitter was abuzz after Mbalula sent a greeting from what appeared to be the United Arab Emirates:

A Trendsmap analysis published by eNCA showed a surge in tweets mentioning Mbalula after the incident. In the space of 24 hours, @MbalulaFikile was mentioned in 4100 Tweets, 2500 retweets and 1500 replies, eNCA reports.

The tweet was deleted and Mbalula’s location settings were altered soon after the original message was posted.

This action only incriminated him further. Mbalula’s previous family trip to Dubai was claimed to have been sponsored by the Guptas.

Mbalula is no stranger to Twitter controversy
In August 2017, Twitter criticised Mbalula for being too soft in response to allegations that former South African Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mduduzi Manana, had allegedly assaulted a woman.

A month later, Mbalula called a man a “dog” after he allegedly hit his wife with a spanner.

“This dog was arrested he is appearing in court as we speaking #knowToabuse this dog must rot in jail….”, he tweeted on September 18. He subsequently deleted the tweet.

Twitter users accused Mbalula of “selective morality” regarding cases of violence against women.

In March, Mbalula resigned as an ANC member of parliament during a cabinet reshuffle by South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Rumours were rife that he’d been demoted due to his links to the Guptas. One might ask, “how much did his Twitter blunders compromise his credibility?”

Much ado about Mmusi Maimane
Next on the thoughtless tweeting list is DA leader, Mmusi Maimane. His #AskMmusi Twitter Town Hall backfired in 2015, with users taunting the politician with ridiculous questions.

Mmusi’s most controversial Twitter moment, though, happened when he praised apartheid-era judge, Ramon Leon.

On 24 April, after breakfast with former DA party leader, Tony Leon, Mmusi posted the following tweet:

Soon, Twitter was abuzz with comments criticising Maimane for his support of Ramon Leon.

One user called Maimane a “disgust to black people”.

Others responded with sarcasm, posting photos like this one below:

Arguably, Maimane’s Twitter post dealt a blow to both his reputation and that of his party.

Juju’s social media savvy

Despite his often-controversial antics, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leader, Julius Malema, appeared to understand how polarised statements can be misconstrued by Twitter users and the media, especially when you have only 280 characters per post to make your point.

The politician steered away from inflammatory statements, but still managed to make an impression.

Ballsy Julius grabbed by the balls
In February last year, the EFF leader tweeted a picture of himself being squeezed by the balls in Parliament, just ahead of the State of The Nation Address.

Just over an hour after Malema had posted the tweet, the official South African Government Twitter account, @GovernmentZA, posted this retweet of the picture.

Could you blame them?

Realising its slip-up, @GovernmentZA recanted the comment and apologised two hours later:

Without being really controversial or divisive, the tweet garnered 967 comments, 4000 retweets and 3300 likes.

And so, it seemed that Malema was managing to refrain from courting controversy on Twitter.
But then shortly before publication of this piece…

Julius posted a video of American religious leader and black nationalist, Louis Farrakhan calling on black people to fight injustice by using violence against white people. He posted the video and said: “Amen.”

The media, along with large numbers of South African social media users, picked up on his tweet quickly.

Malema now too joins the list of South African politicians who should have thought before they tweeted. Although, some may argue that he did in fact do so and that his tweet was instead a strategic diversion from other recent negative press involving allegations made against him by investigative journalist Jacques Pauw.

Think first, tweet later

As illustrated by Zille, Mbalula, Maimane and Malema, careless tweeting can have significant, negative consequences. These can even extend to a country as a whole, fanning existing tensions and widening gaps that we should instead be focused on bridging.

Careless Twitter bloopers and PR mistakes are also unnecessary. A little forethought and sensitivity go a long way.

Failing common sense, how about asking a fellow party member or friend for a second opinion on your tweet?

Tweeting without a filter is well and good if you have only a few followers, made up largely of family and friends. But once you have hundreds or thousands of followers – as many politicians do – you become a brand.

Today, countless brands engage the services of digital agencies or in-house departments to manage their social media profiles and communication. They understand the importance of reputation management.

Maybe it’s time South African politicians did too — for their sakes and ours.

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