The faked WhatsApp racism issue last week focused attention on the role of social media in spreading alarm … but also showed how passions can be inflamed when well-known figures jump into the fray without first testing the veracity of a story.
It is worrying that a senior provincial politician can go on to Twitter and fan the flames of hatred without pausing to check the facts. That is what Gauteng MEC for education Panyaza Lesufi did when the messages emerged, purporting to show an Indian employee of a major car dealership indulging in racist discussion with a friend.
However, Lesufi revealed his determination to pursue racism – even where none exists – with no regard to the consequences. He went on to Twitter to pass on to his more than 175,000 followers details of the alleged racist’s place of employment and his phone number. In addition, Lesufi gave the company an ultimatum to take action.
Spurred on by this, some of Lesufi’s followers promised everything from a boycott of the business to assaults on the alleged racist and his family. When the company announced it had completed a forensic investigation – which included examining the employee’s phone and putting him through a polygraph test, as well as laying formal criminal charges – Lesufi’s apology was anything but sincere.
It is beyond reckless for a senior politician to encourage this sort of public witch-hunt before the full facts have emerged. As an ambitious politician who has made it his mission to build his image by sound bites, press conferences and through social media, Lesufi should have been aware of the dangers of fake news.
In any other democracy, where a minister led a pack baying for the blood of an innocent, he would be fired or resign.
In South Africa? Don’t hold your breath.