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Sunday Times STLive By Sunday Times Editorial, 2011-01-30

A case for open communication

Sunday Times Editorial : It took days and thousands of internet rumours for the authorities to come to their senses and issue a detailed formal statement on the health of former president Nelson Mandela.

At noon on Friday, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe ended speculation that Mandela was at death's door with these words:

"Madiba is well. He is receiving the best treatment from top doctors. There is no need for us to panic. There is no reason for us to fear for Madiba's health."

Motlanthe was speaking at Johannesburg's Milpark Hospital, until then off limits to journalists.

Motlanthe, it must be said, prefaced his remarks by thanking the media for expressing the fears and concerns of the nation over Mandela's health.

He seemed bemused by the extent of the attention given to Mandela, comparing it to an incident eight years ago when Mandela was admitted to hospital and barely any interest was shown.

Two important changes have taken place since then. The first is that Mandela has aged by eight years and, at 92, is much frailer than he was back in 2002.

The second is the advent of social media and the rise of public reporting on events.

The government would do well to ask itself what it is doing to adapt to this new media environment.

It is now possible for anyone with a cellphone to publish news and information to a national audience of what might be described as "key influencers" via social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

These media have brought greater freedom, variety and penetration to news, but they come at a price.

They are very good at allowing the events witnessed by users to reach a larger audience, but they are not accurate sources of hard news.

They do not employ the kinds of accuracy and fairness checks that newspapers such as this insist on prior to publication.

Most of the time, these wild reports are treated for what they are: the sometimes witty thumbings of the uninformed.

But when they tap into national anxiety, such as that over the health of former president Nelson Mandela, the dumbest thumb becomes a powerful source of rumour.

Responding requires both agility and speed. The government and perhaps other institutions such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation need to make their voices heard in real time and on the right platforms, mowing down rumours and speculation with detail and facts.

They will make a grave mistake if they believe that Twitter is an elitist phenomenon in a country where almost every adult carries a cellphone. Motlanthe did well to put out the fire, but he would not have needed to do that if communication had been open from the start.