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Adriaan Basson | Trial by social media – the tragic Lindsay Dentlinger story

The ANC staged a protest outside eNCA's office last week against racism following the outcry over journalist Lindsay Dentlinger's interviews.

The ANC staged a protest outside eNCA’s office last week against racism following the outcry over journalist Lindsay Dentlinger’s interviews.

The public flogging of eNCA journalist Lindsay Dentlinger on social media has removed the possibility to turn this into a learning moment, writes Adriaan Basson.

“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.” – Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

My thinking about the place, purpose and usefulness of social media has been deeply impacted by the work of journalist Jon Ronson, in particular his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

He makes the case that public flogging or flagellation, as it was practised since the Middle Ages until late in the nineteenth century, is now happening on Twitter and Facebook. These social media platforms – especially Twitter in the case of South Africa – have become the new market town where offenders are stripped naked and flogged until they bleed.

The imagery of public flogging came up for me last week as I saw a fellow journalist, eNCA’s Lindsay Dentlinger, being maligned, sworn at, denigrated and verbally crushed in the most vulgar ways on social media after being “caught out” by the Twitter police for alleged racist behaviour.

FACT CHECK | eNCA’s Lindsay Dentlinger: We analysed the video that caused racist outcry – and 24 other interviews

The impact of the outrage on social media about a 49-second montage, purporting to show Dentlinger only requiring black politicians to wear masks when she interviews them, wasn’t limited to the contours of Twitter.

Every foundation, political party and their friends jumped on the outrage bandwagon over something that at that point had not yet been subjected to the most basic fact-checking by eNCA or any other journalist or fact-checker. Dentlinger had to be flogged and humiliated.

“When you look at who’s trending on a given day, you can pretty much rest assured that somebody’s trending either because they’re the most awesome hero ever or they’re the worst monster ever,” Ronson told The Library in 2015. Any South African Twitter user who would disagree with this?

“In a weird way, I think these are two sides of the same coin. Because actual human beings are somewhere in the boring grey area between awesome and terrible. That grey area is where all the most interesting stuff happens, the most interesting nuances and so on, and nobody seems to be occupying that grey area anymore.”

Why did the Dentlinger montage explode in such a brutal way, leading respectable people to abandon the most basic of aspects of ascertaining facts, context and perspective?

The obvious answer is our racist past and present. South Africa has a long and tragic history of racial discrimination against black people and what people saw in that 49 seconds highlighted horrific experiences of the second-class treatment of black people by whites (at that point, the majority of commentators assumed Dentlinger was white). I cannot and will not fault any black person who felt aggrieved and pained after seeing racism in the video.

READ | Redi Tlhabi: Subliminal racism at the root of eNCA mask furore

I don’t know if Dentlinger is racist or has subliminal racist thoughts or racial prejudices which she isn’t aware of. I don’t believe anyone on Twitter does either. I have never met her, but colleagues who have known her for years say she is nothing like the Verwoerdian monster Twitter made her out to be last week.

They are gutted for her and don’t know how to defend their friend against this avalanche of hate.

Because, as Ronson stated above, there is no grey area anymore. Someone is either a hero or a monster.

There is no doubt that Twitter and Facebook have been forces for good for marginalised people and communities to air their views and blow the whistle on discrimination and abuse. The Arab Spring and #MeToo movement successfully used social media platforms to draw the world’s attention to wrongdoing and encourage survivors to speak out.

But the platforms can also be extremely destructive in the way they crush offenders – real or perceived – without even the possibility of an intelligent debate or learning moment, informed by facts and nuance.

I am sure Lindsay is not only a villain. I am convinced she has a fascinating story about growing up as a coloured child in a racist society and becoming a recognised face on prime-time TV. I know without a doubt that we will all benefit from hearing her story and the stories of those she injured, in an environment bereft of instant judgment and condemnation.

– Basson is editor-in-chief of News24. 

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