When the social networking behemoth Facebook finally made its mark in the world as a platform to express one’s thoughts and ideas without any editor with a red pen breathing down our necks, those of us who did not enjoy the privilege to write in magazines and newspapers celebrated the invention as a great stride for freedom of expression. No longer was it fashionable to write to editors of newspapers and magazines to beg for a slot as a columnist only to be turned down because you did not ‘fit the bill’. The arrival of Facebook and many social networks thereafter, particularly Twitter, allowed for genuine debate to flourish. If you had an opinion, all you needed to do was register an account and you could post that opinion. It was and still is that simple, at least so it appears.
Over the years the Internet has dethroned traditional media as the Mecca of ideas, thoughts and opinions. In its beauty and sophisticated algorithms, the Internet has given the ordinary man or woman in the streets a platform to voice their opinions that carry as much weight as that of a journalist sitting in a media room. Of course, this levelling of the social strata has not sat well with many media barons, editors and journalists. This group is unhappy with the fact that they have been caught with their pants down. They are exposed. Complacency tends to do that. It breeds arrogance, laziness and dictatorship. Anyone who seeks to enter the space to improve that particular space is seen as an enemy that needs to be eliminated. These media barons, editors and journalists are no different to taxi owners and drivers, a group they are quick to lambast as disrespectful, unruly and uncouth.
Granted, some great journalism has suffered due to the Internet. Jobs have been lost and families have been broken up. Even more sadly, people have lost lives because of the Internet. The point I am making is the Internet is not perfect. But this should not take away from the fact that the advent, growth and influence of the Internet has been a gift to humanity. Thus, when the likes of Facebook censor the very opinions that have seen it grow into an Internet powerhouse and money-printing machine, one begins to wonder: were we misled about the integrity of Facebook?
Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Elliot Zuckerberg is always at pains to assure us users of Facebook, addicts of his potent product, that his company will never sell out on the principles it was founded on; chief among those being freedom of speech. The Internet giant has been around since 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg and his mates from Harvard University launched the social networking startup in his dorm room. When Facebook was started, Zuckerberg was three months shy of celebrating his 20th birthday anniversary. At the age of 22, Zuckerberg had become the youngest billionaire in the world. In other words, the users who contribute multiple opinions on his platform, some of whom he silences at the push of a button if they don’t toe the line, had made him filthy rich. Today, at the age of 33, Mark Elliot Zuckerberg’s riches are valued at north of $70 billion, making the young Internet magnet one of the top richest men in the world. With this staggering wealth, little villages like Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland can only salivate when they gaze at the Facebook chief.
Over a week ago, on this platform we published an article titled ‘This world has no place for Africans. Perhaps in the next life…’ by Seitiso Ntlothebe. The article, as usual, was disseminated across various social media platforms, including Facebook. A few days later a complaint came through from our overlords at Facebook. The complaint said the article, which was published on the Facebook page of Lerabele, claimed that the piece had ‘some errors that violate our community standards’; thus, if the account is not verified the page will be permanently disabled. At the writing of this piece, the account is yet to be disabled and no steps have been taken to engage Facebook. However, Facebook has become notorious for blocking harmless radical black thought while hateful racist venom spewed by white supremacists is permitted to thrive on the platform.
Last year September, the Guardian published a story about Shaun King, American writer and activist, whose account was temporarily disabled because he had dared to publish a screenshot of an email where he was called a ‘nigger’. It would not surprise me if Facebook follows up on their threat to suspend the Lerabele account because I chose to write the racist term ‘nigger’ in full. Instead of investigating the context, they would rather apologise later. The irony about this bullying from Facebook, a company founded by white males, is that in his piece, Ntlothebe highlights this very treatment of Africans as nonentities in a world where everything white is noble and pure, and everything black is ugly and sinister.
In one passage of his article, Ntlothebe writes thus: ‘…when you are confronted by the news that Africans, in the year 2017, are once again being sold like goods over the counter, you begin to believe that maybe, just maybe, Africans have no place in this world.’ It is not enough that Africans are suffering, Facebook with its army of algorithms crushes them as soon as they try to give voice to their pain. By writing ‘Africans have no place in this world…’, Ntlothebe sought to give expression to our misery and suffering as a black race. His intention was to assert our humanness as Africans. In his bravery to write such a piece, for you and I are afraid to express our anguish because we do not want to be targeted, Ntlothebe assumed a role of a spokesperson for Africans. From the way Facebook reacted, it is clear that the Silicon Valley leviathan does not agree. By censoring Seitiso Ntlothebe’s article, Facebook is unequivocally saying: black lives do not matter.
As human beings, we have a tendency to suddenly suffer from amnesia once we assume a little power, a bit of money and granules of stardust. We forget that critical saying from Motsogapele, for her wisdom can never be doubted. She had cautioned in her native Setswana thus: ‘O se bone nong go rakalala godimo, go ya tlase ke ga yone.’ Just like that equally beautiful language from the eastern and western South Africa – Isixhosa – Setswana loathes translation. But I will put it this way: that Facebook currently occupies the number one spot as the top global social network, does not mean it cannot be toppled; especially when it begins to misbehave. History is littered with stories of emperors who thought they were ordained to lead forever, and therefore began to rule as tyrants, only to be deposed by the masses; reminding them that power mongers have no place in our society. It might take a while to bring Facebook down, but if it continues with its dictatorship, censoring black opinions willy-nilly, maybe the African masses should step aside and invest in their own social network. When the wise men at NewsCorp thought they knew better than the users of MySpace, the people packed their bags and relocated to another shelter, leaving the once promising social media startup to die a slow painful death. Facebook should guard against its arrogance, or it might just be its downfall. Pula!