How to spread Rwandan propaganda, and intimidate opponents? Twitter, of course.
- Simon Allison
- 16 Mar 2014 11:56 (South Africa)
Last week, a few unfortunate clicks revealed to the world that the Twitter account of Rwandan President Paul Kagame is run by the same person who spews pro-Rwanda propaganda under the handle @RichardGoldston. The faux Goldston is, of course, allowed to be a lot less guarded than Kagame himself, and a trawl through his Twitter cache offers up a few revelations – none of which are complimentary toward South Africa. No wonder SA-Rwanda relations are at an all-time low. By SIMON ALLISON.
The Internet is full of trolls. As journalists, ignoring them is a professional necessity – all that anonymous hate and vitriol is kryptonite to the self-confidence of any writer. But trolling is only as effective as it is anonymous; out of the shadows, the troll suddenly becomes accountable.
And so it is with a certain sense of schadenfreude that we at the Daily Maverick have been following the story of @RichardGoldston, a troll whose mask slipped in spectacular fashion last week. During an unpleasant Twitter argument with the academic Laura Seay (@texasinafrica), online observers were shocked when Rwandan President Paul Kagame (@PaulKagame) suddenly joined in the debate, seeming to pick up from where Goldston left off. Then Kagame’s tweets were suddenly deleted, and @RichardGoldston went into hiding. The implication was obvious: whoever controls @RichardGoldston also has access to @PaulKagame.
In the wake of the scandal, Kagame’s office (@UrugwiroVillage) confirmed the connection: “@RichardGoldston was an unauthorised account run by an employee in the Presidency. It has been deleted and the staff member reprimanded.”
And yet, questions linger. Who was the employee in question? How much did Kagame know? And how closely did the vociferously pro-Rwanda views expressed by “Goldston” reflect Kagame’s opinions? It is difficult to believe that someone trusted to run the President’s twitter account would hold views widely divergent from the president himself – especially in Rwanda, a country renowned for its tight control over public relations.
"It's impossible to know how close these tweets mirror Kagame's or others in Kigali. But the views expressed by Goldston are an exact representation of the views Kigali's critics have long suspected them of having," said Steve Terrill, a freelance journalist and long-time Rwanda observer. Terrill is the person who initially connected the "Goldston" account with Kagame's office, raising concerns with the Rwandan Presidency as early as January. And he's paid the price, too: over the weekend he was detained in Kigali Airport and refused entry to Rwanda on spurious drug charges, forced to abandon a planned trip to cover the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
"No one in the [Government of Rwanda] is allowed to say things using their real names," said Terrill. "There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Kagame knew about and approved of this account. [Paul Kagame's] office lied when they said this one anunauthorized account. It's worth noting that not one media person within Rwanda mentioned this incident in their reporting. In any other country this would have been huge news."
Although the @RichardGoldston account was deleted, Terrill shared with the Daily Maverick his cache of tweets made by the account over the last two years. In light of what has happened, they certainly make for interesting reading (apologies in advance for the spelling and grammar. We haven’t changed a thing).
Of particular relevance, given the recent crisis in diplomatic relations between South Africa and Rwanda, is @RichardGoldston’s thoughts on South Africa. President Zuma, look away now. The South African President comes in for a lot of stick as a power-hungry, mineral-grabbing buffoon, with “Goldston” taking particular delight at the booing at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
“Whats sad is not that #Mandela has passed on, whats sad is that he died at a time SA is in the hands of a black retard #MadibaMemorial,” he commented on December 10. Ouch. A few months earlier, he had blamed Zuma entirely for the difficulties in the SA-Rwanda relationship: “SA relationship with Rwanda ends with Zuma as a person & his interests in DRC, once gone, it will be over”. Oddly, this echoes comments made recently to the Daily Maverick by South African diplomats, who said that their problem was not with Rwanda per se but with “cowboy” Kagame himself.
South Africa’s military presence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – there are 1,345 SANDF personnel there as part of the Force Intervention Brigade, a United Nations peacekeeping mission with an offensive mandate – is obviously a sore point, and is brought up repeatedly by “Goldston”. “tz [Tanzania] and SA don't have good intentions, they r protecting interests” he says on 1 May. And then this on 31 October: “zuma, [Tanzanian President Jakaya] kikwete, the whole world will crave for DRC wealth, so expect no peace soon”.
As we have observed before, South Africa and Rwanda are effectively fighting a proxy war in the DRC; South Africa has engaged in active combat on behalf of the government, while Rwanda is allegedly supporting the M23 rebels that were the target of a successful government/FIB offensive last year. It is inconceivable that this is not a factor in the current diplomatic spat, and it is revealing that at least one senior figure in Kagame’s office harbours such active animosity towards both Zuma and South Africa itself; it is not a stretch to imagine that he is not the only one in the upper echelons of the Rwandan government to feel this way.
Having said that, “Goldston” might have a point here. The role of South African commercial interests in the DRC has yet to be fully explored, but we do know that Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse owns a couple of mines in the area. Coincidence? It’s worth investigating.
South Africa is not, of course, the only target of “Goldston’s” attacks. Human Rights Watch, the rights organization that has published a number of critical reports of Kagame’s administration, also comes in for abuse. This is “Goldston” on the latest HRW report on Rwanda, in a tweet addressed to HRW Executive Director Ken Roth: “The use of the word 'investigation' is embarrassing for this particular report, you do little to conceal bias, mediocrity.” And then: “Its hight time the international community reigned-in #HRW as a partisan player in the #DRC conflict, reports could escalate the situation.”
Even more revealing is how “Goldston” frequently slips into ethnic and tribal slurs. With Rwanda’s dark history, this is perhaps hardly surprising; but it does run contrary to the Rwandan government’s commitment to a post-ethnic polity. As the New York Times explained in 2004:
“Ethnicity has already been ripped out of schoolbooks and rubbed off government identity cards. Government documents no longer mention Hutu or Tutsi, and the country's newspapers and radio stations, tightly controlled by the government, steer clear of the labels as well.”
Despite this, a senior figure in the presidency – a man with access to the President’s twitter account, no less – seems to view the conflict in neighbouring DRC in essentialist ethnic terms. “Using Tz and South Africa by France under the guise of UN to silence Tutsi grievances in Congo won’t result in peace but pile more conflict,” he said on 18 November. And this on 16 April: “Have hutus called for dialogue? on what leverage? hevae they confessed their hatred and genocide?”
It’s a familiar narrative of downtrodden Tutsis and raging, blood-thirsty Hutus – but it’s a narrative that the new Rwanda is supposed to have moved beyond. Nonetheless, these ethnic divisions appear to be alive and well in the president’s office.
However you look at it, the @RichardGoldston scandal is a disaster for the Rwandan government. Perhaps he was a loose cannon, but then how was he allowed so much access? More likely is that the @RichardGoldston account, and others like it, form part of a deliberate social media strategy to spread Rwandan propaganda, and intimidate opponents.
"Kigali runs a sophisticated social media propaganda machine. It is wrong to think that all of this is done by paid actors. There are plenty of people participating out of a sense of loyalty to the [ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party] and a - probably mistaken - belief that nasty ad hominem attacks on anyone who doesn't read Kigali's script make their country look good," said Terrill.
With a few unfortunate clicks, @RichardGoldston lifted the façade on this operation – and gave us an unprecedented insight into the heart of the Presidency itself. The opinions and emotions expressed there certainly aren’t diplomatic, but the world according to Kagame’s troll reveals more about Rwanda than a dozen carefully-worded press releases ever could. DM
A stray tweet may have exposed Paul Kagame’s Twitter ghostwriter, and maybe much more on Washington Post
SA to Rwanda: Don’t touch us on our sovereignty on Daily Maverick
Photo: Rwanda's President Paul Kagame takes part in a joint news conference soon after a meeting with presidents Uhuru Kenyata of Kenya, and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda in Entebbe, 36km (22 miles) southwest of the capital Kampala, June 25, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena
- Simon Allison