Twitter has the power of life and death over whether an issue gets attention at all

With some 361 million active users, 62% of whom are American, and only 5% of users generating 75% of its activity, Twitter is not exactly a fair representation of the world’s opinion. Regardless of its lopsided user base, Twitter unfairly dominates global conversation, but it hardly seems like an adequate platform to handle difficult, complex historical issues.

Twitter has the power of life and death over whether an issue gets attention at all. It was only when Twitter deigned to notice Kony (#Kony2012) that suddenly Americans knew who that monster is, even though African organisations had been doing important work to undo the damage he’s done for years. When Twitter’s little blue bird alighted on the issue of the mass kidnapping of girls by Boko Haram (#BringBackOurGirls), suddenly the world found out about this collective of sadists, even though they had been terrorising Nigeria for months before.

Somehow, it’s like Africa doesn’t matter until Twitter notices.

These days, it seems that we live and express our lives and emotions through hashtags, and that is a terrible way for any conversation about anything to start and end.

Alright, perhaps that’s unfair – but it does seem that Twitter only pays attention when terrible things happen in Africa. The Ebola crisis of 2015 gave Twitter ample fodder, for example. Even though only three countries (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia) suffered from the Ebola outbreak, the American public, taking its cues from Twitter, assumed that all 30.22 million km2 of Africa was ravaged from coast to coast.

It conjured up assumptions that from Egypt to South Africa, from Ghana to Ethiopia, there were Ebola sufferers lying six deep in the streets, waiting for CNN to mercifully capture their best side before they expired, waiting for the so-called First World to help. If anyone used Twitter as a lens, that was the dominant story. Never mind that the outbreaks were well-contained, and that these countries – who rank at the bottom when it comes to education, healthcare and literacy – still came out of the Ebola crisis somewhat intact. Americans freaked out when they had two quick cases. The doctors who toiled, the families who helped – the African narrative doesn’t even feature, except on maybe Black African Twitter.

Of course, the nameless millions in Africa still don’t hold the weight of the famous dead of Twitter. The #BlackLivesMatter movement started in July 2013 with the jury acquittal of George Zimmerman after his shooting of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin. Trayvon was not the first, and he will not be the last, but he was an important spark. It really is abysmal that someone has to die for these things to matter, but while Zimmerman might not have thought that Trayvon’s life mattered, it turns out that it truly did.

The movement gained momentum with the killing of several more unarmed black Americans: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray. It is now being considered a new civil rights movement, with an organisation and website to boot: Blacklivesmatter.com.

It is horrific that police brutality is so unchecked in the US that even when cops are caught outright on camera killing unarmed black men (especially Eric Garner, who inspired #ICantBreathe because he was suffocated by several cops), they still don’t get prison time. The frustration and anger behind the Black Lives Matter movement is not new, but it is finally coming to a head. These young men are the visible faces of the thousands of black men in America who face undue persecution. The fact that the American prison population is 39.4% black men, when they only make up 13% of the total population, points to a legal system that regularly and apparently without any checks incarcerates black men at a ridiculously disproportionate rate. But the white cops who kill these men are acquitted every time. The discrepancy should make people angry. A hashtag isn’t the best start for that anger – but if it helps, then use it.

But here’s the uncomfortable question we need to ask: do black lives only matter when they make it to Twitter? Especially only American lives?

We circle back to the very American nature of Twitter. It is dominated by American celebrity and media powerhouses, and disseminated by American news. Even on South African news, hashtags on Twitter are reported as though they’re actual news, rather than the shorthand they are. (Seriously, how is anything to do with One Direction considered important news?) Considering the very valid reasons that the Black Lives Matter campaign started, why didn’t the same thing happen in South Africa? Sure, some South Africans mentioned it and retweeted, but there didn’t seem to be the same interest. It was something that happened in America. In South Africa, it just didn’t seem as important. Perhaps because, here, police brutality is somewhat different. Not all hashtags and ideas translate elsewhere. Or maybe it’s because America’s issues are nothing new to black South Africans.


I can’t help but wonder if the death of Hector Pieterson would have sparked something like #BlackLivesMatter, if Twitter had been around then. Steve Biko’s philosophy of Black Consciousness already emphasised the importance of black lives, long before Trayvon Martin. In his essay titled ‘We Blacks’, Biko wrote:

'The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country. Not so long ago this used to be freely said in parliament, even about the educational system of the black people. It is still said even today, although in a much more sophisticated language. To a large extent the evil-doers have succeeded in producing at the output end of their machine a kind of black man who is man only in form. This is the extent to which the process of dehumanization has advanced.'

Not long after this was written, Biko was arrested, tortured, thrown naked and manacled into the back of a police van for a 1 100 km drive, and died shortly after arrival at Pretoria Prison. To South Africans, the story of white police brutality is not a new one.  

Perhaps Twitter has some uses, though. The ALS Bucket Challenge raised over US$103 million for ALS research in a single month (and US$220 million overall), and it turns out that a breakthrough may be on the horizon. Scientists at Johns Hopkins University are crediting the huge donations for a major breakthrough in ALS research because they were able to pursue high-risk, high-reward experiments. And perhaps it is unkind to blame Twitter for humanity’s incredibly short attention span. People only have so much time, and having a hashtag to sum things up and collate the conversation can perhaps capture some small amount of attention for a cause.

Twitter is, and isn’t, the problem. Twitter is not killing young black men, but it does have a disproportionate amount of power to say which lives matter. Twitter is a tool, and isn’t evil, but it can be used to smother or control conversations, and perhaps that is all we really need to bear in mind when it comes to the important conversations we need to have when it comes to life and death.

After all, a hashtag is a search query, not an answer.

FACT BOX

Twitter according To Twitter

  • 316 million monthly active users
  • 500 million tweets sent per day
  • 80% active users on mobile
  • 4 100 employees around the world
  • 35+ offices around the world
  • 77% accounts outside the US
  • 35+ languages supported
  • 50% employees are engineers

(According to about.twitter.com, June 2015)

SA Twitter stats

  • 6.6 million users (total population 53 million, so one in eight people)
  • 53% of users are aged 25–44 years
  • Blackberry the most widely used device

From World Wide Worx and Fuseware

Other Twitter stats

Sysomos Inc., one of the world’s leading social media analytics companies, conducted an extensive study to document Twitter’s growth and how people are using it. After analysing information disclosed on 11.5 million Twitter accounts, it discovered that:

  • 85.3% of all Twitter users post less than one update/day
  • 21% of users have never posted a tweet
  • 93.6% of users have less than 100 followers, while 92.4% follow less than 100 people
  • 5% of Twitter users account for 75% of all activity
  • New York has the most Twitter users, followed by Los Angeles, Toronto, San Francisco and Boston
  • There are more women (53%) on Twitter than men (47%)