Those who have always been cautious about believing what they read arguably possess a genuine edge in this era of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘post-truth politics’.
Our skills of discernment are being stretched to the limit amid a social-media explosion, which is rewriting the rules of engagement. The uncomfortable phenomena of fake news and paid-for Twitter trolling are increasingly competing with traditional forms of media in shaping the narratives that influence the way we think, speak and vote.
Aggressive narrative crafting is also not the preserve of skilled political practitioners in the developed world, notwithstanding the fact that the two most obvious examples of the power of the narrative remain the shock election of President Donald Trump and the surprise outcome of the UK referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union.
As Yale economics professor Robert Shiller wrote earlier this year: “The human brain has always been highly tuned towards narratives, whether factual or not, to justify ongoing actions, even such basic actions as spending and investing. Stories motivate and connect activities to deeply felt values and needs. Narratives ‘go viral’ and spread far, even worldwide, with economic impact.”
In the South African political environment, there are, at present, two dominant and competing narratives. Both have their supporters and detractors and, in some cases, paid-for advocates.
The first narrative breaks down as follows: those associated with President Jacob Zuma are captured by a corrupt family, which has no regard for the Constitution. They are willing to sacrifice the credibility of key institutions on the altar of personal enrichment and are prepared to use patronage politics, and worse, to retain or gain control of all levers of power.
The second storyline is that the economy remains in the hands of white minority capital, which is placing unfair obstacles in the way of the genuine transformation that is required to ensure that political liberation translates into economic emancipation. The opposition and even some members of the African National Congress, such as Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, are captured by these racist interests and cannot, therefore, be trusted.
These dominant political narratives also tend to spill over into secondary subnarratives, where the battle for control of the storyline is no less robust and, at times, rancorous.
Even in the prosaic world of electricity, sharply contrasting views on everything from technological advantages of renewable energy to system design are being canvassed. A mix comprising solar, wind and gas is held up by some as offering the least-cost way of transitioning away for the current coal-heavy mix. However, nuclear advocates question the sensibility of a mix that favours variable supply over baseload stability. Heated debates flare in short, often hard-to-follow, bursts. No quarter is asked or given and concessions are rare.
There have, however, been some interesting developments in the nature of the debate over the past few weeks, with far more in-depth exchanges taking place. One can only hope that this debate has not also succumbed to the phenomenon of paid-for advocacy, presented as independent, arm’s length opinion. If it is indeed genuine, though, it arguably reflects that there is little chance, with as technical a subject as electricity, of making a convincing case in 140 characters or less.