“Faking” for democracy

What if “fake” as a mode of operating on social media held the key to unlocking democratic debate, as the practice would suggest in Africa?

Alpha Conde, President of Guinea. Image by World Bank.

“Fake” gets a bad rep these days and for good reasons. Fake news have been deployed effectively on social media—whether in Nigeria, Kenya or South Africa, as an effective strategy to undermine democracy’s very foundation. But what if  “fake” not as a label of news one dislikes, but as a “genre” or a mode of operating on social media held the key to unlocking democratic debate, as the practice would suggest on the African continent, particularly in West Africa?

The radical transformation of the media landscape in Africa has led to the emergence of new forms of political humor as users take advantage of the possibility to generate their own content enabled by new technologies. One form of political satire seems to have particularly proliferated: political faking, and more specifically user-generated fake accounts that satirize prominent political figures, heads of state in particular, through impersonation. In Guinea, for instance, the “fake” account of president Alpha Conde, tweeting under the handle @_Prof_AlphaConde, has more than twice many followers as the actual president’s account. In Equatorial Guinea, 76-years-old Teodoro Obiang, who has been in power since 1979, does not have a Twitter account. Yet, he exists on Twitter through his satirical alter-ego, a “fake” account tweeting under @PresidentObiang, one of the country’s most avidly followed account. A “fake” account for Zimbabwe’s ex-ruler, 93-years-old Robert Mugabe is using satire to live out his myth of immortality and indomitable sexual appetite. Again, the account is widely followed. Whilst not unique to the African context (see Elisabetta Ferrari’s work on Italy for instance), the “fake” genre seems to dominate political satire on African Twitter in ways that are not seen outside of the continent.

Why has political faking taken on such vigor in countries such as Guinea or Equatorial Guinea? One explanation might lie in the prominence of pretense as a dominant organizing mode of political life in postcolonial contexts. As the Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe notes: “… the postcolony is, par excellence, a hollow pretense, a regime of unreality (regime du simulacre).” Creating a fake Twitter account may be a way of productively engaging the dominant form, turning it on its head as it were. The Guinean account is here an interesting example. Today, after two terms in power, Alpha Conde, the country’s first democratically elected president, is following a sadly too familiar pattern in African politics, gesturing that he will cling to power for a third term, changing the constitution to do so if need be. In this context, the president’s “fake” alter-ego @Prof_AlphaConde has been on a mission of late to use his/her/its scathing humor and unrelenting satire to denounce the shady maneuver.

But, what can be achieved through satire, and particularly satire that fully takes on, and invests in the dominant fakeness? Clearly, political faking’s greatest strength is in mobilizing satire’s double-voiced-ness in order to reveal the true identity of the autocrat, as in the Guinea example. Faking becomes the means of “calling the bluff;” irony as a hallmark of sincerity. Still, whereas in the West, satire is typically understood as activist media and key to building a cohesive counter-discourse. In non-democratic postcolonial contexts, political satire has often been interpreted as either trivializing its message, and even as being tolerated by dictators in order to boost up their “democratic” credentials (“see, we are open to criticism, we even have political satirists?”) or worse, as joining in a fatalistically cynical exercise in laughing away daily oppression with no hope for any coherent counter-public or activist movement. For Mbembe, all that political satire can achieve at best is to “create potholes of indiscipline on which the commandement may stub its toe.” Cameroon, where Mbembe is from, has been governed by Paul Biya in some form since 1975.

But Mbembe was writing that in the pre-digital era, when humor was professionally produced and centrally distributed. Today, digital technologies are changing the game, for both good and bad. Whilst vulgarity and crudeness have been humoristic devices used to “tame” autocratic power in the past, social media norms, often set in the West, invite much more tame forms of humor. Explicit content is quickly shut down on Twitter. Even Mugabe’s “fake” account which largely plays on his image as a “dirty old man” exercises restraint. Yet, satire on social media also circulates much differently. And whilst most of the world still has to show it cares, “fake” accounts are operating outside of the confines of national conversations, a key difference with older forms of media. It is clear from talking to social media activists and humorists on the continent that part of the appeal of digital impersonation is a desire to inscribe what has tended to be a national conversation into a global movement towards democratic politics. And given that in digitally mediated politics, circulation is key, perhaps “creating potholes” is not a bad strategy after all.

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