In the age of Twitter, attempts to repress the media will not protect you from internet mockery—and may even guarantee it.
Robert Mugabe, the 90-year old president of Zimbabwe who has ruled the country since its independence in 1980, found this out the hard way today. Following a speech at Harare Airport, Mugabe jauntily stepped off the podium, then dramatically tripped and fell before being hurriedly helped up by his aides.
The brief moment was captured by photographers at the scene, who were then pressured by government officials to immediately delete any images of the incident. Nevertheless, photos were published by the Associated Press and other outlets, triggering a deluge of photoshopped images on Twitter and other social networks.
The hashtag #MugabeFalls was born and quickly took on a life of its own:
The country’s Information Minister attempted some Orwellian double-speak, telling reporters that Mugabe had managed to break the fall, and cited other “examples of leaders who have stumbled, from Jesus to George W. Bush,” the AP reported.
A video clearly showed Mugabe hitting the ground:
Zimbabwe is one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to press freedoms, ranking 135 out of 185 in Reporters Without Borders’ World Freedom of the Press Index. But like elsewhere on the continent, mobile phones and internet penetration are giving Zimbabweans the opportunity to evade free speech restrictions. And this incident demonstrates that, despite attempts at regulating online media, not even a notorious strongman is immune from the power of the meme.