WHEN some people decide that their world is the world, reality is sure to suffer. Which is why claims that social media are the pulse of the nation should make us wary. The passing of broadcaster Vuyo Mbuli triggered new debate on social media: distressed family members complained that people announced his death on new media even before the family arrived at the hospital. A radio station reacted by hosting a debate on the uses and abuses of social media.
Like most discussions on the topic, this one assumed that the new media are a popular democratic weapon. Familiar phrases were bandied about — social media "empower the ordinary person" and allow the average citizen into the public debate. Not only are they meant to have overthrown dictators in the Arab world, they are also said to ensure that most citizens can find the voice democracy is, in theory, meant to offer everyone. More than a few reporters use social media to learn what the public is thinking — they are often treated as serious sources of information on the public mood and mind.
That all this is fantasy can be illustrated by some numbers. The highest estimate of Twitter usage in South Africa is just more than 5-million people. The figure is open to serious question as most other sources estimate usage at less than 3-million. But, even if the highest estimate is accurate, only about 10% of the population uses this medium. A similar number — 5.4-million — use Facebook. As most people use both, it is possible that only about 11% or 12% use these media.
Of course, the population figures include children too young to use social media and so it would be fair to bump up percentage usage to reflect that. Some people also obviously use only one of the two media. But even if we were to be very generous and double the figure, at most, one in five citizens uses social media — the "voice of the people" is not the voice of at least four in five of us.
So social media here do not include most people in the debate — they connect the connected, the top one-fifth or less who are already part of the conversation. And so they do not tell us what South Africans think — they tell us the thoughts of a small section of the population who would have other ways to make themselves heard if new media were never invented. Using these media as a measure of public opinion simply reinforces the central weakness of the national debate — that it includes only a relatively small minority and excludes most citizens. It also misleads people — part of the constant claims that former African National Congress Youth League president Julius Malema was immensely popular was based on assuming social media expressed the view of the people. This is not the only example of a misreading of public opinion based on the assumption that social media users are everyone.
Figures also place in perspective the oft-made claim that the "Arab Spring" was a product of social media. The same source that claims that Twitter usage here is almost double the figure everyone else gives, claims there are 1.2-million users in Egypt – 1.5% of the population — and 62,000 in Tunisia, or 0.5%. Either their authoritarian governments were defeated by a tiny minority or something else was afoot.
Social media did not change the Middle East — years of organising by opposition and civil society groups did. At most, social media helped parts of the opposition communicate with each other.
Extravagant claims about the reach and power of social media are an obstacle to democracy’s growth, here and in many other places, because they substitute a spurious quick fix for the difficult task of building societies where everyone who wants to be heard has a voice.
New technology may help people communicate better and this may make resistance to dictatorship easier to organise. This is true of cellphones, which helped democracy activists in the Philippines to communicate with their supporters. As cellphone coverage here is extensive, our political parties and social movements probably have not made enough use of this medium. But technology has not replaced political reality, which makes it essential for people wanting to resist or remove tyrants to organise thoroughly and patiently.
Similarly, social media have not abolished the need for our democracy to face its central challenge — how to ensure that the rights enjoyed by some are extended to all. We are still a society in which most people have a vote but not a voice and in which the majority are talked about but do not speak. Social media have not ended the problem — they have made it worse by creating the illusion that the connected are the entire nation.
One day, social media may reach many more people and so may no longer be the preserve of the few. But the day will never come when new media can substitute for the task of achieving and building democracy.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.