At the weekend, my neighbourhood’s WhatsApp group started buzzing like a hive of angry wasps on PCP.
The phrase #NationalShutdown had started trending on Twitter and a couple of worried souls had started digging into it. What they had learned, understandably, started to set neck-hairs on end.
The hashtag wasn’t just linked to your usual angry keyboard warriors or conspiracy theorists. It was being used by reputable news services who reported that the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJoints) had elevated the national state of affairs to high alert following threats of a national shutdown.
Given what South Africa had recently experienced from the riots and looting that had occurred earlier this month, anyone monitoring social media could be understandably concerned.
#NationalShutdown starts to trend
#NationalShutdown had been trending on Twitter for the better part of Sunday. Just popping in to the social media platform’s search engine brought up a plethora of tweets, missives and articles from news sites that caused more than a little worry.
However, at the time of this writing (4 pm on the day the #NationalShutdown was supposed to be in full swing), nothing significant has happened. Toss the phrase #NationalShutdown into Google, Twitter, Facebook or any other platform you happen to get your news from, and you’ll see that all is quiet at the minute. Or at least, if it isn’t, it hasn’t broken the barrier of mainstream news reporting.
Where did this hashtag come from?
It would be interesting to find out which account this hashtag originated from. It’s gone viral. It has spread panic across social media and crashed into the national news cycle. Who started this?
The powers that be tell us that we have nothing to worry about… to a point. The missives coming out of the authorities tell us that all hands are to the pump. There may be some planned malfeasance to be worried about but everything is under control.
If you’re getting your news from Twitter – as so many people are – you are probably wondering how much you should believe.
Twitter isn’t a news source
Social media has supplanted traditional news sources. The likes of Twitter, Facebook – and to a degree LinkedIn, Instagram and even chat channels like WhatsApp – have become the storefront for news. Instead of buying a paper or watching or listening to a news bulletin, we have gravitated towards these platforms because they’re just so much more convenient and immediate. And free.
Well, you get what you pay for.
There’s just one problem. For the most part, they don’t fact-check. They can’t. They don’t have enough staff. They just point us towards what’s trending because that’s what makes them money – whether it’s true or not.
Take Facebook, for example. In 2018, the social media giant entered into a partnership with Africa Check in order to fact-check misinformation on its platform. Has anyone seen any evidence that this has helped? If you have, we’d ask what planet you live on.
Social media is not a news source. It’s a link factory based around the imperative of making money.
The likes of Twitter, Facebook – and the aforementioned bedfellows – will point interested parties in the direction of anything that is garnering eyeballs. And yet, so many of us depend on these platforms to give us the straight dope on what is going on in our environments.
Which brings us back to #NationalShutdown, a hashtag that went viral at the weekend that promised all manner of national disruption this week. Something a lot of South Africans, given what has happened recently, would be rightly worried about.
And nothing has happened… yet.
Maybe the worst is yet to come. But maybe it isn’t. What is absolutely vital is that the social media platform that this hashtag emanated from has a responsibility to inform users about where it came from, who first posted it and whether or not we all should be worried.
But that won’t happen. It should, but it won’t. That’s too much responsibility to take on when you’re a social media behemoth.