What Is A “Reasonable” Twitter Reader – Do Judges Have a Clue?

By Pinky Khoabane

A WEEK or so ago Judge Dhaya Pillay listened to arguments by former President Jacob Zuma and former cabinet minister Derek Hannekom on a tweet made by the former that Hanekom was a “known enemy agent”. The tweet was made following revelations that Hanekom had connived with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in a motion of no confidence in Zuma. “I’m not surprised by (Julius Malema’s) revelations regarding Derek Hanekom. It is part of the plan I mentioned at the Zondo Commission. Derek Hanekom is a known enemy agent.”

Hannekom argues that Zuma meant that he was an apartheid-era spy and he’s suing him for R500,000. He also wants an apology and the court to instruct Zuma to remove the tweet and to never repeat that he’s an apartheid spy. Zuma is set to return to the Zondo Commission where he revealed that General Siphiwe Nyanda and former mineral resources minister Ngoako Ramatlhodi were spies. Nyanda has filed a lawsuit against Zuma for these claims. 

Zuma on the other hand, maintains that the remark was made in the context of Hanekom’s participation in the plan with opposition parties, to oust him. 

“The dispute between Mr Zuma and me is confined to the meaning of his statement. I say that it means I was an apartheid spy. Mr Zuma says it does not. The resolution of the dispute is therefore primarily an interpretative exercise that the court is well equipped to perform on the papers,” read Hannekom’s affidavit. 

Zuma maintains that his tweet “has nothing to do with whether he was an apartheid spy” but rather that Hanekom was an “enemy” having connived with the EFF in toppling the leadership of the ANC to which he paid allegiance. 

Hannekom is adamant in his affidavit that the “reasonable reader” would not interpret “enemy agent” one who colluded with the the opposition – the EFF – in this case – but rather one who sold-out comrades to the apartheid government. 

But what is a reasonable Twitter reader?

The legal dictionary explains a Reasonable Person thus: A phrase frequently used in tort and Criminal Law to denote a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and who serves as a comparative standard for determining liability”.

Those of us who spend time on that platform know that determining the reasonableness of a Twitter reader will be a difficult task, but a judge who probably has no idea what Twitter is all about will have to make this determination. She will probably base her determination of a “reasonable” reader on that of a newspaper or equivalent medium.

Twitter is literally a crazy environment. This is where the majority of readers, many of them hiding behind fake profiles, hardly take the time to comprehend a tweet before responding to it. And so, before even dealing with their interpretation of the tweet, the judge must allow for the fact that these are people who will say anything and everything because they hide under the cloak of anonymity. 

These are people who spew nasty and offensive posts because frankly, they cannot be held accountable. Nobody knows who they are and nobody can sue them. 

Last year, author Jackie Phamotse posted that she had heard a conversation about a “female TV mogul” pleading with another woman not to share videos of her drunk and her husband having sex with a “celebrity boy”.The comment set off a fire-storm on Twitter, where users began connecting the statement to businesswoman Basetsana Kumalo and her husband Romeo, prompting them to open up a civil harassment claim against Phamotse and a case of crimen injuria. 

Phamotse argued that she wasnt referring to the Khumalos and in fact, some media reports said she had admitted in her affidavit that the post was a fabricated story. It seems completely unbelievable that one could make up a story like this and post it for the consumption of others. But this is Twitter. The judge in this case ruled among others, that Phamotse should have corrected the readers when they started speculating on the identity of the couple. This is a person who has no idea how Twitter works. One often posts a comment and leaves it there. Despite what some believe, Twitter users do not spend their entire time on the platform. On their return, they find a host of comments to which at times, the account holder doesn’t respond. 

We are often tagged on long and nasty conversations on Twitter. The platform doesnt have an untagging function. Just the other day there were almost ten of us tagged to a post asking that we identify someone said to be “Ace” that had sold-out activist Solomon Mahlangu. Anyone who doesn’t understand the workings of Twitter could easily interpret everybody on that thread to have been part of the debate, when in truth, some of us were just passengers on what was clearly a smear campaign. 

In the matter of South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) Vs Julius Malema in the Equality Court held at the North Gauteng High Court, the leader of the EFF was accused of inciting violence against journalists by his public utterances and retweets. There are many Twitter users whose short bio clearly stipulates that “retweets are not endorsements”. People often retweet for various reasons including simply highlighting a matter. But as we have come to learn, retweeting without checking the facts of the tweet can also land you in hot water. 

Such is the madness of Twitter that a reader is quite capable of arguing with you about your personal life whereas they have never met you in real life. A simple post requesting contacts for a specific item for example, can elicit an entire debate on what you ought to be looking for instead and a lesson in a wide range of topics (related or unrelated) to the item sought. 

Twitter is the playground of narcissists. This is where the ego of the narcissist is stroked to no end. Unlike on Facebook where the relationship is mutual, where we “befriend” each other, Twitter allows for a one-way relationship. The one person can follow the other without the relationship being reciprocated. The narcissist feels extremely happy here where their lives can be followed without them having to do the same. They spend their time, like most celebrities, posting pictures and talking about themselves. And they have large following with piles of both compliments and hateful comments. 

Some Twitter users are attention seekers whose aim is to attract attention from the people whom they think can advance their careers or for job opportunities. These often follow users with big followers and tag them on every little post they make or anyone else’s. 

Judge Pillay is meant to deliver her judgement soon. It will be interesting to hear how she determines the “reasonable” Twitter reader and what she thinks their interpretation of Zuma’s tweet is. 






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