The hashtag, the media and a government on the run

Feesmustfall ()

Driven by #FeesMustFall, students around the country, drawn from all race groups and political persuasions, mobilised in their tens of thousands of thousands and forced the government to agree to a zero per cent increase in university fees in 2016.

The hashtag generated an astonishing 1.3m social media posts, mostly on Twitter, in just a few days, the South African arm of global media monitoring agency Mediatenor reported.

And, in what is thought to be a legal first, the hashtag was also cited as a respondent in a University of Cape Town court interdict against protesting students. 

University of Johannesburg Professor of Journalism and prominent freedom of speech activist Jane Duncan said while the interdict focused on preventing students from certain actions, including the hashtag covered free speech too. Anyone using the hashtag could effectively be guilty of a crime, and tweeters could be arrested for violating the interdict, she added.

Clearly neither students, the media nor users of social media were concerned that the interdict against the hashtag was enforceable and 1.3m tweets that included it would seem to indicate that it was ignored with a good dollop of relish – and contempt. 

Other hashtags, which showed some creativity, soon joined the #FeeMustFall in the fray. #BladeMustFall (referring to the country’s minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande), #ANCMustFall (aimed at the ruling party) and #NationalShutDown ((a call for students to shut down universities across South Africa) were quickly adopted to galvanise action, both online and off.

Yet the government went about with business-as-usual, initially failing to read the mood of the students. This was surprising considering many currently in government were members of the 1976 generation and took part in the Soweto uprising that saw students rise up against the apartheid government and change the socio political landscape forever.

But this time around there was one important difference with new round of student insurrection, the biggest since the birth of South Africa’s new democracy in 1994: the advent of social media and the exponential growth of smartphone users.

Besides acting as a campaigning and mobilisation tool for students, social media also became a rich source of content for the media when police reacted violently when students took their protests to the steps of Parliament in Cape Town and the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the country’s seat of government.

Where newsrooms, battling under the twin blows of staff cuts and juniorisation, might have been overwhelmed they instead found themselves with eyes and ears on the ground all over the country, and access to frontline eyewitness reportage from citizen reporters.

The protests, and comparisons to 1976, made headlines around the world. Tanya Khoury, managing director of ROi Africa, said most international coverage was generated by the US and Australia, followed by the United Kingdom and India. But in South Africa coverage of the protests even over-shadowed major news events like the release from jail of Oscar Pistorius on house arrest, the imminent battle between the Springboks and the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup and the fatal rush hour collapse of a temporary bridge on the M1 highway in Johannesburg.

Media Tenor research found that sentiment related to tuition fees “has been shaped by high levels of negativity, as media have actively reported on how the high fees can limit university access to the SA elite”.

“Overwhelmingly, (Higher Education Minister) Nzimande was the most covered protagonist in the media as reporting focused on the lack of action that had come out of the Department of Higher Education in dealing with the crisis”, it said.

Student leader Shaeera Kalla was one of the few to receive positive coverage after encouraging non-violence during the movements.

Jordan Griffiths, a researcher at Media Tenor, said “Interestingly, a number of student leaders at Wits were also able to ensure that they generated media visibility and have emerged at the front of the movement”. 

When the government finally capitulated in the face of the student demands, and announced the zero percent fees increase in 2016, social media was quick to respond with a new, jubilant #FeesHaveFallen hashtag.

There are important lessons for publishers everywhere in these tumultuous events on the southern tip of Africa.

One is that social media is your friend and there’s an army of reporters out there that, if monitored, mean you won’t miss much and will be a source of great tip-offs, insights and content.

But more than anything they proved the power of hashtags and how important they are as a call to action when building your own communities.

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