Facebook is an interesting platform. It accords everybody space that hitherto wasn’t available. It is a perfect kgotla where mmualebe a buang la gagwe gore monalentle a tle a le tswe. Previously, one had to have a blog or even a website where they could broadcast their views and share images. Websites had restrictions on how many photos one could upload before they reached their limit size. Not with Facebook. Now, Facebook is a platform with no data limit and it is free. Photography groups from all over the world post hundreds to thousands of images daily. Individuals share views and announcements of all sorts. Friendships and relationships are established on Facebook. Some find partners while other lose them on Facebook. It teaches and sometimes misinforms. It is not the preserve of computer nerds. Anybody can have a Facebook page and post whatever they want. Politicians, businesses, departments and institutions have Facebook pages. This has meant that traditional channels of communication are undermined daily. Newspapers and radios are no longer the preserve of information dissemination and breaking news. Actually they are very slow and attempt to keep up with what is happening on Facebook and social media in general. We now have what is termed citizen journalism which has been reinforced by the proliferation of smart phones which can now record videos and take high quality photographs which can be shared almost instantly. Individual members of the public take videos and pictures and post events to Facebook as they happen termed #SRN (situationrightnow). Facebookers like breaking news. They have an insatiable appetite to be first. Their posts are usually done without regard to any ethics or rules. While journalistic requirements may be that one should conduct interviews, ask for permission or seek a view from protagonists; such requirements are bypassed in the social media world with serious cultural and professional repercussions. News indeed travels like a wild fire in a dry summer season on Facebook.
One of the great frustrations this has engendered has been the spread of sensitive news. Almost daily, one is confronted by pictures and updates about a terrible accident. For instance we first heard about the Matsha accident on social media, specifically on Facebook. When the news broke, it was said that over twenty Matsha students had perished in an accident – a gross over estimation of the situation on the ground. And then the photographs of the helpless accident victims thrown on the tarmac with an overturned truck in the background began to reach us. Then there was the story of a child who was snatched or grabbed by a snake-like creature in Old Naledi; a story which gained popularity on Facebook. The Old Naledi region was packed by news-seeking members of the public armed with smart phones, like field-reporters, each posting updates every few seconds from the scene.
In other instances Facebookers take a sleek and greatly frustrating approach to be the first to break news without stating the details. For instance, they would post something like: “We have lost one of the finest sons of the soil. Rest in peace, you will be sorely missed.” They will not disclose who the deceased person is, regardless of repeated pleas from their frustrated online friends.
The question that we must grapple with is this: Is there anything wrong with announcing someone’s death on Facebook before the next of kin have been informed? To answer the question in a fair manner we need to answer it outside the Facebook platform. In other words, we need to say: Is there anything wrong in informing other persons about someone’s death before their next of kin have been informed? Let us say on your way from the cattlepost, you encounter a small crowd and from their discussion you gather that Ramogotsi is lying cold on the ground after dying from a heart attack. You proceed on your way to your yard in the village. The question is: can you inform anybody that you meet on your way to your house about Ramogotsi’s death? It appears that traditionally amongst the Batswana, that is exactly what would happen. Word would spread from one person to another. Not only that, each person would like to break the news; they would put on their shoes and go and tell mmasemangmang or rasemangmang next door beginning with the words “A o utlule matlhotlhapelo a…” There was no expectation or even requirement that the next of kin must be informed before the news spread in the village. Admittedly the news was not shouted from the roof tops as by the town criers calling for dikgafela, nor was a poster put up in the corner of a street. But we must be careful because information rarely traveled far by the shouting of a town crier as in medieval England. Much of it moved from one person to another. Therefore at one level, indecent as it may seem to post information about someone’s death on Facebook, it is not culturally perverse, though a Facebook post could barely be equated to a word of mouth information spread. We generally frown at the bearer of bad news on Facebook, but they are no different from those who went before us who waited for no next of kin to be informed; who rather considered the dissemination of information above everything else to be important – loso ga lo lojwe, batho ba tshwanetse go itsisiwe. The right to know has always ruled supreme amongst us.
But wait a minute. Perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps the problem with Facebook is that information is published. It is declared in the public domain with no regard and control of who its consumers are. Perhaps the problem is that our Facebook friends are not really our friends. They are fake friends. They are mere consumers of our statuses. They are status leeches; mere news-mongers who masquerade as buddies. Therefore when we update our statuses with news about someone’s death, we pay them no emotional regard. We don’t know them and we are least concerned about how they would take our breaking news. Will they be shocked? Will they get a heart attack? We don’t care. The urge to break news takes precedence over the potential hurtful nature of our post. Perhaps we are driven by selfish motives of wanting to be first in a race of spreading news. We are perhaps not mourning other people’s misfortune; perhaps we are scoring an information goal which gives us a thrill; satisfying our pseudo journalistic desire of being first to break the news. We are merely chasing likes, comments and shares. Perhaps we are merely pretenders; putting up on a Facebook show.
Whatever the case, posts that announce somebody’s death will continue to increase. And in certain cases some individuals actually post about the death of their parents or of a sibling and in exchange receive much sympathy. It is doubtful that the announcement of someone’s death will cease anytime soon and the views about whether it is right seem to leave members of the public divided.