Saturday, September 23, 2023

Did a funny meme warrant a state response?

If you are well versed with Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, then you’ve probably encountered and had a fair share of memes. These shareable, sometimes terse and often petty units of culture have risen to become the common language on social media, and have given Batswana an exclusively new way of expressing their views.

On the evening of February 10th, South African renowned rapper Kiernan Jarryd Forbes, known professionally as AKA, was assassinated in Durban according to KwaZulu-Natal police chief Nhlanhla Mkhwanazi. Following his death, the general cottage industry of humorous President Masisi memes took on a more pointed theme.

Memes started circulating on social media and one particular meme caught the eye of the Office of the President (OP). A picture of President Masisi was all that was displayed in the offending meme, along with the statement “AKA was like a son to me.” Another picture of airplanes in the sky was immediately below the text.

Apart from the fake caption, which the OP cannot be blamed for categorically denying to be associated with, the meme was intended to elicit humour about President Masisi, who has earned the nickname “the flying president,” and who was jokingly expected to fly off to attend AKA’s funeral. For the record, President Masisi is justified in traveling around the world to repair relations and restore the country’s standing.

However, following the circulation of the meme, the OP immediately issued a press release. “The Office of the President notes with concern the narrative that is circulating on social media platforms purporting that His excellency Dr. Mokgweetsi Eric Masisi, President of the Republic of Botswana, has said that the late South African Musician, Kiernan Forbes, popularly known as AKA, was like a son to him”. The press release ended with the OP conveying a message of sympathy to the Forbes family.

Subsequently, a volley of tweets poured in slamming the OP for what scores of people say was an unnecessary press release. One Twitter user said: “They should have known it was just a joke though. This is a similar meme that is released every time someone famous dies. It means the president never misses any funeral outside the country.”

Another user said: “Yes Sir, but still no problem even if you said it, he was a son”.

Other users agreed that the OP was justified in responding to the meme in order to keep it from spiralling out of control. “If the meme was fake, the OP is justified in setting the record straight,” one Facebook user said.

The last presidential election in Botswana in 2019 inspired a horde of strange memes to show support for parliamentary and presidential candidates. The election campaign became sillier, with some memes insisting Biggie Butale is a Khama string-puppet to likening Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) president, Duma Boko to a clown whose stage suddenly collapsed on him while he was performing for the audience. Funny enough, there was also a meme of President Masisi as Botswana’s superman who came to rescue Botswana from tyranny. Scores of Batswana at the time did not take the memes seriously because they understood it was all entertainment.

Because a meme is essentially a carefully designed visual framing of an idea that is circulated online with minor modifications, the question is whether memes are good when they portray you positively and bad when they portray you negatively, or are memes always bad?

Memes can be spot on, silly, fun, or absolutely false – but as an emerging medium not only in Botswana but globally, they haven’t triggered a lot of dialogue and analysis. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last few days, it’s that Botswana’s Cybercrime and Computer Related Crimes Act needs to be reviewed and perhaps revised to better reflect current circumstances.


Read this week's paper