I was shown this video the other day in class.
Granted we were discussing tropes of South Africa, and this was an easy way of critiquing how Nelson Mandela is portrayed in the context (or lack there of) history when viewing South Africa. A main criticism brought forth in class was that South Africa does not have the connectivity that would allow for social media to work the way it does in the film. Well, I hope no one that watches it thinks it’s heavily based in reality since Facebook was open for public usage in 2004 and last time I checked it was difficult to make a phone call from prison let alone check in to foursquare, so I doubt that anytime before his release Mandela was keeping people up to date via his news feed.
This is not the first time people have merged historical figures and social media profiles. There have been countless fabricated feeds displaying history such as if the founding fathers had Facebook profiles. I don’t think our main criticism of this should be its shaky relationship with reality. (One of my biggest problems is that date of each post is shown as being typed just as the status instead of just appearing as a whole, it’s a small thing but still bothered me) Sometimes you need to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the story being told. As a historian I may have some problems with the simplification of history. However, if I’m not willing to advocate for the banning of the Disney movie Pocahontas for its gross oversimplification and straight up manipulation of history, I think this video can stay too. I’m more intrigued by the idea of introducing people to a topic using a falsified platform that they are familiar with. It alone is not a sufficient education on the history of Nelson Mandela, let alone South Africa, but the burden of further information should rest on the viewers. If you don’t know about the bill being discussed on the Daily Show should you simply only rely on Jon Stewart to be your only source of news, or should you go beyond that episode to learn more about the topic you were introduced to?
You also can’t blame them for using it with social media, there’s much talk nowadays about the connection between making history and social media networks. Journalist Kevin Morris writes that there are those who believe recent revolutions have everything to do with the rise in Facebook and twitter usage and those that believe that revolutionary spirit does not need to be channeled through those sites: it would have happened, and has happened before the era of social networking. He amends that, “Both sides are somewhat right: Social networks are ultimately just tools for sharing information. Their success depends on a combination of who is using them and how.” Considering the who and how social media is being used I think we can benefit from this type of story telling because it definitely plays a role in how present day reality is being shaped into what will become, history.
Oh and his article is titled “What if the Founding Father’s had Facebook?” It’s a popular subject and historians and history nerds alike have a right to jump on the trend while it lasts because it may have a bigger effect than some of us assume.