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Social Media Sway: Decoding the Cult of Online Worship

Business

Nicole Tau

Lesotho may be the Kingdom in the Sky but it is also connected and online, and the rise of influencer culture has birthed a phenomenon similar to modern-day cults, where blind allegiance to charismatic figures often trumps reason and empathy.

Recently, the disturbing case of Tjeka Tjeka Lekhaba Thakeli, an entrepreneur turned “Facebook Lord”, with a substantial following of 49K, sent shockwaves through social media circles. Following a tasteless jest questioning the paternity of Tjeka’s child, the influencer took matters into his own hands, physically assaulting the jester to the point of hospitalization.

What’s truly unsettling is the resounding support Thakeli received from his legion of followers, even as a disturbing image circulated of the victim’s battered face, is a testament to the perilous sway influencers hold over their audience’s sensibilities. This incident serves as a sobering reminder of the dark underbelly of “Faithbook” culture, where allegiance to online personalities eclipses basic human decency.

Thakeli’s retaliatory outburst, broadcasted live on facebook, underscores a troubling trend where individuals feel emboldened to mete out vigilante justice in the digital sphere. Such actions not only perpetuate toxicity but also foster an environment where dissent is swiftly squashed in favor of blind devotion.

In a similar vein, the snafu of Mapaseka Sekantši, a popular radio personality, with a following of 57K, unravels another facet of influencer dilemma. Recently accused of duplicitous fundraising tactics, Mapaseka faced a barrage of scrutiny from netizens armed with seemingly damning evidence of her alleged misdeeds. However, her fervent supporters rallied to her defense, illustrating the insidious grip influencer loyalty can exert on rational discourse.

The influencer culture in Lesotho is creating groups that resemble cults, where followers blindly adhere to the words and actions of their chosen influencer, often without critical thinking or consideration of consequences.

What is an influencer culture? It’s a sociological phenomenon of individuals gaining fame and influence through various social media platforms. According to Merriam-Webster, an influencer is someone who inspires or guides the actions of others.

These and other influencers, including public figures, wield a lot of power over the opinions, behaviors and certain decisions of their followers, predominantly on social media platforms.

They utilize their online presence to create engaging content, promoting products or services, and fostering a loyal community of followers who seek their inspiration, guidance and recommendations.

According to Global Digital Reports, at the beginning of 2024, there were 1.10 million internet users in Lesotho with an internet penetration rate of 47.0 percent. Among them, 25.7 percent, or 601.8 thousand individuals, are active social media users.

The Report also states that the average social media user now spends about 2 hours and 23 minutes per day on these platforms. This means that social media accounts for a significant portion, 35.8 percent, of our daily online activities.

In January 2022 Facebook was the most widely used social media platform in Lesotho with 603, 400 users, followed by LinkedIn (83, 660), Instagram (36, 600) and Twitter (22, 900).

In addition, according to the Long-Term Observer Manual EU EOM Lesotho 2022, facebook and

 WhatsApp groups are the primary social media channels used by political leaders to campaign and mobilize their electorate.

In today’s digital age then, it’s no surprise that even politicians have embraced the power of social media. They recognize the vast influence and reach these platforms offer, reshaping the landscape of information dissemination.

Gone are the days when people solely relied on newspapers, radios and television for news.

With the rise of streaming services and social media platforms, the majority now turn to online sources for information. But, this shift has its challenges. The prevalence of “churnalism,” a practice in journalism focused on generating clickable headlines to drive user engagement, has blurred the lines between quality journalism and sensationalism, particularly on platforms like Facebook.

In 2019, The Committee for the Protection of Journalists, raised concerns about the safety of journalists in South Africa during elections. They warned of the increased likelihood of journalists being targeted through smear campaigns and the use of bots.

Ranjeni Munusamy, as associate Editor at Tiso-Blackstar, which publishes the Sunday Times, Sowetan and Business Day, highlighted the dangers of inflammatory language used by some individuals to rally support.

“Some of the people making threats now don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone and did not witness people killed because some or other politician declared them the enemy. They use inflammatory language to fire up their constituents but seem not to realize that words have direct consequences,” she said.

A paper titled “Social Media’s Impact on Political Discourse in South Africa” (2021), explores the polarizing effect of social media on societal attitudes. The anonymity afforded by these platforms often leads to more and more people sharing similar views, which once echoed within like-minded communities, gain social acceptance.

“Researchers have noted elsewhere anonymity and associated lack of stigma further drives rhetoric, and such divisive views become more and more socially acceptable once they have found an echo chamber. Twitter’s success also depends on the ability of users to speedily react, and retweet, all too often without the careful consideration and weighing of the veracity of the image or source in question.”

So the gnawing question persists, why are people so receptive to influencers? They are relatable and are also considered as more sincere and trustworthy sources of information and advice where their communicative practices tap into the wider cultural appeal of authenticity (Brooke E. Duffy, 2020).

In essence, influencers offer a feeling of connection, inspiration and entertainment, molding consumer trends and impacting decisions in various aspects of one’s life (Source: “Why Brands Should Use Female Influencers to Endorse Male Fashion: A Synopsis”, 2022).

Evidently, a substantial portion of our lives is consumed by the digital realm of social media. But to what extent does this content influence our thoughts and behaviours with social media often catering to our vices rather than our virtues?

In a world where the echo chamber of online discourse threatens to drown our dissenting voices, it is imperative to strive for empathy, critical thinking, and above all, an unwavering commitment to truth and decency. Only then can we hope to mitigate the pernicious influence of the digital age’s most formidable figures.

This publication refrains from casting judgment on the implicated influencers, but seeks to shed light on the broader ramifications of their actions. In an era where virtual interactions bleed into reality with alarming frequency, it’s imperative to recognize the profound impact influencers, including political and public figures, wield and the ethical implications of that.

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