New Media, Old Tactics: Humor and Ridicule in Political Protest

A friend of mine living in Cape Town forwarded a humorous advertisement for Nando’s Chicken, a restaurant chain based in South Africa.  The advertisement carried the title “The Last Dictator Standing” and provided an enjoyable laugh, especially for those with some knowledge of African dictatorships:

After watching, I started to think about the role that humor and ridicule have played in non-violent resistance movements and political protest, and how these efforts are expanding into the digital media realm.  It might not have been meant as a protest against Mugabe, but it certainly was perceived that way by Mugabe loyalists.

In fact, Nando’s decided to stop airing the advertisement after they learned of threats to their staff in Zimbabwe.  The threats came from a “youth group” loyal to Mr. Mugabe.  While it might be off the air, it will live on on YouTube and social media platforms though, reinforcing the image of Mugabe as a brutal political anachronism, and projecting this message at less risk to local activists and protesters.

New media such as YouTube, peer to peer file sharing, and mobile phone applications such as Bambuser make sharing faster and cheaper than the pamphlet approach, and take away the power of media networks to ban the broadcast of an advertisement or televised event.

Of course information control is still very real.  Governments with the interest and resources can police the internet effectively, and track citizens with unsettling accuracy.  But even in places like China, which boasts an internet control agency with 10s of thousands of analysts actively monitoring communications, the decentralized hyper-adaptability of the web is changing the way the Chinese government is interacting with citizens.

On the micro blogging website Sina Weibo the government realized that to monitor the information being shared effectively, they would have to be on the site.  This has led the government to start setting up accounts to interact with citizens over the platform.  In an ironic twist, the effort to control the citizenry is forcing the government to communicate with the populace in a way that begins to resemble…representative democracy.

Cyber-democracy is an unpredictable thing.  In an effort to sell chicken, Nando’s created a satirical critique that wound up cutting deep enough at the egos Zimbabwe’s political firmament to lead to threats and removal from the air.  We all know that a simple ban won’t stop the message because the emerging information environment (for better and worse) defies central control.  Whether it’s ridicule, a lampoon, or just forcing technocrats to interact with the people they govern, the internet is helping foster democracy in ways that many of us, particularly the powers that be, are continually (and sometimes humorously) surprised by.

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