I went into my project hoping to make some distinctions between the way people are remembering Nelson Mandela on the social media platform Twitter. I had read a piece in Jacobin in which Benjamin Vogel claimed that, “while Mandela was certainly ‘an important historic figure’ few tributes to him are able to move beyond hagiography.” Vogel’s article describes two Mandelas: the exemplary revolutionary and the architect of a progressive rainbow coalition. Others have described a more distinctly divided Madiba the public conscious.
I imagined that it would be relatively simple to group tweets into two broad categories: “cultural” and “political”. However, separating the 140 character contributions to the public discourse on Nelson Mandela into these categories proved to be an impossible task. The first obstacle was quantity. I collected two datasets consisting of 44,839 tweets, The first data set of 6,806 was archived using the search term “RIP Mandela” while the data set of 38,033 tweets used the search term “Madiba”. I decided, in the interest of time, to cull through the first data set thoroughly and use the larger “Madiba” archive as a reservoir to search through using specific text filters. Nevertheless the cultural category was difficult to pin down. At what point does Nelson Mandela cease to be a political icon and become a pop icon?
For a moment I thought it was safe to consider to the 1,235 retweets of “RIP Mandela” submitted by the teenage girl who manages the profile @Harry_Styles, a fan page for the One Direction star of the same name, a purely cultural manifestation. My instincts told me that many of the users who retweeted were making a statement about their feelings for Harry rather than Madiba, but it’s impossible to know for sure. I thought of my friend’s daughters who could talk your ear off about Madiba (and football) and who are the same age as most One Direction fans. Ultimately, I decided that assuming One Direction fans can’t have political thoughts was a bit callous (even if I don’t quite get their taste in music). In any case the evidence in my first twitter archive indicates that, for most people, political and cultural celebrity overlap.
The Prophet and Paul Walker
RT @TATTEDNlGGA: Heaven accepted 2 Angels this WeekRIP Paul Walker 9/12/1973 – 11/30/2013RIP Nelson Mandela
The most audacious example of Mandela’s celebrity in public memory can be found within the tweets of users who coupled their eulogies with similar sentiments for Fast and Furious star Paul Walker. Most would consider Walker a celebrity and not a political figure. However, even in this case, it is not entirely safe to assume that micro-bloggers are simply remembering Nelson Mandela in a purely cultural context. Examples of political and cultural overlap abound even among the RIP tributes that include Mandela alongside other political and cultural figures. @shottaspence tweeted, “Bruce Lee, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Tupac, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr, Joshua “Chino” ZhouRIP. Thank you for paving the way.” Here the list of figures in the micro eulogy blurs the line between culture and politics. One might argue that Mandela moved people to be more tolerant all of these men at some point, which is clearly this blogger’s opinion.
Other examples that blur the lines between political and cultural celebrity include @KingXisco’s tweet, “RIP CAPITAL STEEZ, PROOF, PAC, BIG L, NOTORIOUS, NATE DOGG, EAZY-E, BUGZ, TRAYVON,PAUL WALKER,MANDELA , CAYLEB, BRADY, UNCLE ABU,” and @micha3l_96’s retweet of the following poem about Madiba attributed to rapper Tupac Shakur by the instagram account tupacgram.
It is also possible that some users associated Walker with Mandela ironically. For instance, @SomeEvertonFan tweeted, “March 2nd 2014, The RIP brigade haven’t tweeted about Nelson Mandela & the fast and the furious fella, thought I would RIP the lads.” Several tweets that remember both Mandela and Walker together predate @SomeEvertonFan’s post, but his reference to the “RIP Brigade” in his network reflect broader cynicism about the mini-celebrity obits that that populate twitter. @Jay_Bordeaux wrote, “Remember when Brian O’Connor (RIP Paul Walker) died and yall cared more about Brain Griffin dying? Both somehow more important than Mandela?”
“Andre Marriner, probably,one of the guys who tweeted ‘RIP Mandela’ with a picture of Morgan Freeman,a few weeks ago.#ChelseaVsArsenal” – @vinay_sangwan
Twitter users took people to task for tweeting “RIP Mandela” and using pictures of Morgan Freeman rather than Madiba. Some of these users were simply ‘outing’ the ignorant for personal reasons. For instance in what can only be described in an all out offensive by a Strasbourg teen tweeting under @SaraaahBlk, Charline Segpa was called out for tweeting her RIP without actually knowing who Mandela was. Incidentally, the acrimonious posts on #CharlineSegpa read like a French remake of Tina Fay’s film Mean Girls. Others expressed disbelief that so many people tweeted goodbyes to Madiba with pictures of Freeman. @flabbyabistocks wrote, “Hahah just remember when nelson mandela died and loads of people were uploading pics of morgan freeman like ‘RIP’ phahahha what is life.” Here the blogger’s laughter reflects a genuine disbelief that so many people could make such a mistake.
The ‘RIP Mandela’ tweet archive indicates that many users tweeting pictures of Freeman were making inappropriate jokes rather than genuinely confusing the two men. The tweets are archived out of context so often the motive is unclear. Perhaps the users are attempting to comment on Black Jesus iconography or critique the Mandela hagiography, but it is far more likely that they are simply eager to offend. Ultimately, the tweets trivialize the identities of a number of black men and their contributions to society. For example @ismailhashi4 retweeted, “RT @macagalvin: RIP Nelson Mandela, your “I have a dream” speech will never be forgotten x.” Another retweet makes similar reductive comments “RT @2004witch: RIP Nelson Mandela, president of the United States. http://t.co/ueL9s4IhGB” also includes a picture of Martin Luther King.
Yet another states “That’s Nelson Mandela you idiot” and posts the following picture.
I doubt many readers are surprised that Twitter serves as a forum for low brow humor and public shaming. What is interesting though is the various ways Twitter users used Mandela alongside other celebrities to construct or deflate identities. In the first instance, users included Mandela within a larger pantheon of cultural and political icons that reflected the individual’s identity. In the second case, Madiba’s name was coupled with images of other black icons in misguided attempt to be funny that trivialized Mandela’s identity by presenting him as a forgettable figure known easily confused with other civil rights leaders and any black person he might vaguely resemble. Overall Twitter users in this archive did not remember Mandela’s activism or politics specifically, but rather his celebrity, which was invoked with varying degrees of politicization.
The tweets that stood out as political statements were those that cast Mandela’s early militant activism as terrorism. Only three tweets took up the line that Madiba’s violent resistance to the Apartheid regime was uncalled for. Two users retweeted “@Alec_Pullinger: Are we all forgetting Mandela was a mass murderer and killed thousands, yeah RIP to all of those that he killed” Another user retweeted “@BonesThomas: When did the murderer #Mandela become a hero? And why is Twitter full of teenagers who have no idea what he did typing RIP…” In a perfect world the answer would be that young people have recognized that resistance to oppression has to match the violence of the oppressive force to achieve liberation. But as far as I can tell, the answer to this question has something to do with the band One Direction.