To propel South Africa towards a more cohesive future, a new social compact is needed. But as the world turns increasingly digital, what role does social media play in social cohesion?

Earlier this month, local beauty retailer Clicks came under fire for running a TRESemmé advert on their website that many found offensive. The hashtag #BlackHairMatters quickly gained traction – a revival of an earlier movement in 2016 following incidents at Pretoria Girls High. Zozibini Tunzi, the current Miss Universe, condemned the advert on Twitter, while the EFF used the same platform to call for mass protests against the store.

In today’s age, social media has a powerful role to play in nation building. In South Africa, Twitter in particular has been the go-to platform for citizens to voice opinions and grievances. Used largely as a virtual soap box, Twitter has been a place for people to share thoughts, call out injustices, celebrate triumphs and share experiences. Because it’s such an open platform, it’s been one of the most effective tools in holding brands, leaders and fellow South Africans to account.

Social media can be used as a force for good – a place to build communities, create a sense of cultural togetherness and let people connect in new ways. Black Twitter, #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and #ImStaying are all examples of equality campaigns, where social media has brought people together.

Black Twitter was first started in 2012, and today is home to a digital community of Black South Africans. The IOL describes it as: “The formidable and creative movement that leaves no person safe and no wit uncensored, while tackling matters of common interest or relatable content among the Black community.” A space for comedic reflection or serious debate, it’s become a significant part of South Africa’s online culture.

#ImStaying is a Facebook group started in 2019, which shot to viral fame after it encouraged people to share reasons why they love, and want to stay in, South Africa. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, while first originating overseas, found traction in South Africa, as people shared experiences of gender and race inequality. Rather than being ‘attack’ campaigns, these have sought to be educational, exposing blindspots in efforts to create solidarity.

These movements have all, to some degree, united people. They’ve created a sense of belonging or, in the case of #MeToo, built a safe place to expose crimes and raise voices long silenced.

But social media can also cause great damage. It can spur online ‘wars’ that divide and re-surface traumas of the past.

The sharing of fake news, misinformation and cyber-propaganda is one of the greatest threats posed by social media. Fake news has the potential to manipulate and divide, seeding and spreading false beliefs at scale. And Africa is particularly vulnerable. A Quartz story found that the African continent is among the most susceptible to believing fake news, with misinformation shared largely through WhatsApp. It’s one of the reasons Bell Pottinger’s PR campaign in favour of the Gupta family was so successful.

Harmful opinion shared on social media can also create widespread anger and social divide, as in the incidents of Penny Sparrow or Adam Catzavelos. And, for all the good done, #ImStaying and Black Twitter carry accusations of exclusion too. #ImStaying has been criticised for catering more to elite South Africans – the wealthy who can afford to emigrate. Black Twitter, while a community, has also been accused of excluding those not considered ‘black enough’ and criticising behaviour regarded as below par.

It’s clear that social media plays a significant role in shaping cultures and social cohesion. As the South African National Development Plan works to create greater levels of social cohesion by 2030, social media needs to form part of the equation. According to TalkWalker, 40% of South Africa’s population are active social media users. Out of a population of 57 million, that’s 22.89 million people. It’s a number and influence too big to ignore.

Indlulamithi’s latest barometer research found that young Black South Africans are most concerned with driving social cohesion – and hold much of the power to do it. Fortunately, these are also our digital natives, who hold influential voices online. It’s important to bring these young people into the conversation, helping to ensure that social media unites, and doesn’t divide.