Will this be the politicians’ year of the toxic tweet?

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Donald Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking of consequences before pressing the Twitter send button, causing embarrassment and outrage among allies and enemies

OF THE three state leaders most relevant to South Africans with Israeli links for this coming year, not one is particularly likeable or inspires confidence for a better world.

United States president-elect Donald Trump, with no political experience, is like a schoolboy constantly looking for what outrageous thing to say next, but who prides himself on straight-talking and how he will make the world’s global superpower, America, “great” again. South African President Jacob Zuma, and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu are the opposite – veteran political street-fighters skilled in manipulative phraseology. They have both been in office a long time, are disliked by much of their populace, yet still wield enormous power.

After Trump has settled in at the White House, it’s anybody’s guess what the consequences for the world – and South Africa – will be. The checks and balances in US politics will prevent him acting only by whim, but he can set the tone. Last week he outraged the CIA by tweeting accusations that the US intelligence community was reminiscent of Nazi Germany because of leaks about compromising data Russia allegedly has against him. Trump doesn’t seem to believe in thinking before clicking the Twitter send button, and the CIA director made no bones about his contempt for the man, saying on Fox News: “Spontaneity is not something that protects national security interests”.

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Jacob Zuma’s race-baiting is designed to boost ANC fortunes after its dismal performance in government

Zuma doesn’t shoot from the hip like Trump, but his vacuous utterances are laden with tired slogans as he looks towards the African National Congress’ December conference to choose a new president. His race-baiting and repeated accusations that the country’s ills derive from white monopoly capital are dangerous, as he plays victim against the “wit gevaar”. As if he and the ANC have done a sterling job – which they haven’t.

His expedient attacks on the political opposition aim to boost the ANC’s fortunes among the electorate, such as slamming Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane for visiting Israel last week and being photographed with Netanyahu against a South African flag. Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa tweeted the picture, labelling their Jerusalem meeting as “excellent”. Maimane fell naively into Zuma’s trap by not anticipating negative exploitation of his trip, which first went public through Twitter.

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest scandals have predictably provoked a Twitter fire-storm

In Israel the country’s Twitter universe has gone into overdrive, threatening Netanyahu’s power because of his alleged deal-making with mass circulation daily Yedioth Achronot for favourable coverage in exchange for financial benefits. Netanyahu is a fighter and won’t resign easily, however, and the agendas of groups such as the West Bank settlers are heavily invested in him staying in office. But most Israelis are tired of him, not just for ideological hypocrisy, but his profligate lifestyle – police are investigating alleged bribery by wealthy friends.

Politics doesn’t progress in a straight line, and nothing is certain. An old Yiddish expression says: Men tracht un G-t lacht (English translation: “Man plans and G-d laughs”).

The way things turn out this year could hinge on a fascinating new phenomenon – how the ubiquitous 140-character Twitter messages which have assumed disruptive power that most politicians don’t yet appreciate, are being used with abandon by presidents and prime ministers themselves. Democracy is manipulated these days not only by potential fascists, but the “mobocracy” of social media. A tweet from a careless or mischievous source goes viral in seconds, influencing millions regardless of its veracity in this era of “post-truth” politics.

Trump’s tweets – many of them definitely post-truth – are taken seriously, bizarre as they are. As are those of Netanyahu and Zuma’s acolytes.

It is likely that a year from now, as we enter 2018, these three state leaders will have impacted heavily – either from their actions or how they exit the stage.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: geoffs@icon.co.za)

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