In recent weeks, something quite unusual has happened in our domestic politics. After increasing waves of public scrutiny, the communications team of Angola’s President João Lourenço had to amend two Facebook posts in a row. For a regime widely known for its almost chronic allergy to criticism, fixing social media posts already seems like something “remarkable.” It seems remarkable amongst those who believe that the regime’s main critics and opponents should explore these events further. But, is Facebook a strong enough tool to change Angola’s status quo?
In a regime traditionally friendlier to the so-called conventional media (which in Angola are almost all state-run), it is fair to say that amongst other reforms, Lourenço’s presidency has revolutionized the relationship between political power and citizens. It has done so through the usage of social media, and other means.
After all, it was during his first term in office (from 2017 to 2022) that an Angolan president, for the first time, ran credible social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This was clearly one of the main elements that made him look, at least in the beginning of his presidency, very different from his predecessor. It made him look willing to be apparently closer to citizens and to the press. Therefore, he seemed to be a more trustworthy politician.
Tiago Costa, a high-profile standup comedian and satirist, observed that “In the past [during the late José Eduardo Dos Santos’ almost four-decade rule] the presidency did not communicate with ordinary citizens at all. The openness for communication brought about by João Lourenço is now irreversible.” But, to paraphrase the popular Spiderman: “with greater exposure comes greater scrutiny.” So, as the Angolan regime opened up with the coming of Lourenço to power in 2017, popular demonstrations against him, his government, and party grew on social media too. Which does not mean that Lourenço is the father of “contemporary freedom of expression in Angola,” as some of his supporters love to claim. I believe it is important to state this. After all, social media are platforms that belong to everyone and no one.
Earlier on April 18th, Lourenço’s Facebook page made a post claiming the importance of promoting a good image of the country abroad. The post had the following caption: “Promoting and creating a good image of Angola abroad, which reflects the fundamental aspects of our culture, hospitality and the spirit of peace and solidarity of the Angolan people, is a permanent challenge for the institutions and of all Angolans wherever they may be.”
Minutes later, the caption was heavily criticized. Reason: instead of an Angolan landscape, as the post text made some believe, the image associated with it was the United Nations Headquarters building in New York. Annoyed Angolan Facebookers said that it was “shameful” that the president was using an image that did not correspond to the reality of the Southern African country. They claimed that the lack of a location source in the post was misleading. It was making some believe it was Angola’s capital, Luanda.
After receiving so much criticism and negative comments about the president’s alleged attempt to “mislead” his followers, the president’s communications team decided to replace the post’s image. The altered one came up with the description of the actual location of it: New York, United States of America.
The following day, on April 19th, Lourenço’s Facebook account came under fire again. This was due to an error also related to an image chosen for a new post. This time around, the post was about Angolan youth, quoting a speech that Lourenço had delivered a day before. “Our bet on youth is not only a simple matter of statistical representation, but is above all about taking the country in the right direction,” it said. However, instead of using a representative image of the Angola youth, the presidential Facebook page used an image of young Hispanics and African Americans. The image again caused a revolt among many of the page’s followers and others.
What at first was only a suspicion was quickly confirmed after a quick search online. The complainers were right: the image of the young people used on Lourenço’s Facebook page did not portray people from Angola. Rather, the image belonged to American-British stock image company Getty, something not mentioned in the initial post. As in the first case, the president’s social media managers were forced to replace the post’s image. Some on Facebook were asking, “How can a presidential team make so many mistakes?”
Although the president’s social media managers never acknowledged the mistakes made, they acted upon the criticism and this raised many questions. Some followers suggested that it might be a positive sign from the presidency. Noted Facebook influencer and author Mwene Vunongue questioned on Twitter if the government couldn’t correct their way of governing as fast as Lourenço’s press corrected the Facebook posts. Tiago Costa, who is also a notable social media user, argues that the Angolan regime has always paid much attention to what people say on social media. He argues such is their need to control what is thought and what is said. However, Costa does not think that the presidency’s post changes mean the regime is now more receptive to criticism. In Costa’s assessment:
I think what happened was a blunder whose alteration was inevitable. They can only act when dealing with very chaotic cases, where social pressure imposes some kind of action. Which does not mean that they are more engaged in positively listening to what people are saying. If they did, they would have issued a statement apologizing for the mistakes.
According to recent data from Dublin-based Statcounter, Facebook is the most used social media platform in Angola. And it is not too hard to understand why: it’s the cheapest one around. That’s why it has been the strongest platform Angolan activists and independent journalists use. They use it both to disseminate information and mobilize people. Examples of this include the page of the social justice non-profit organization, “Movimento Cívico Mudei,” created in September 2021. It has more than forty thousand followers, while the page of the independent news outlet “Club-K” has almost four-hundred thousand followers.
As a much “loved” platform of Angolans online, Facebook is where recent strong civic campaigns have emerged. These civic campaigns are contesting social, political and economic issues in the country. In 2018, for instance, a movement called #AcabemDeNosMatar emerged on Facebook. Hundreds of pictures were shared where people placed various objects such as rocks, fuel bottles and food on top of themselves. They did it to protest the worsening social conditions in the country. At the time, the lawyer and founder of the magazine Jovens da Banda, Mila Malavoloneke, said that the protests were an audacious way for young people to express themselves. As she wrote in Novo Jornal, “In modern Angola, where little or nothing surprises us anymore, social media have become the stage for every new form of protest and restlessness; they are almost the only escape, especially for young people, who pray in them, even without knowing which of the saints will answer their supplications.”
More recently, a new wave of Facebook-led protests has erupted. These protests are responding to broken policy promises and widespread discontent. The wave erupted after the long-ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) won last year’s very disputed elections. The “new forms of protests” include asking citizens to stay at home for a day, as they did in late March. They also ask people to go to their home windows to bang pots at a certain agreed time or even go to the window and ask direct questions like: “Where are the jobs Lourenço promised us?” as some did on May Day.
However, not everyone seems to be happy about these developments. Gangster, an activist who has been receiving impressive support from youngsters, and one of the people leading the above protests from his Facebook account, is being sought by Angolan authorities “for offending the president on social media.” Angolan authorities have become increasingly controlling over what is said on social media, particularly on Facebook. They are chasing and accusing activists for comments they make online.
Recently, a considerable number of young men have been arrested because of comments made on Facebook, or videos that became viral. In September 2022, three were arrested in Luanda for creating alleged “outrage” against the president. But will Angola’s surveillance regime be enough to stop a country increasingly demanding immediate political change?