JOHANNESBURG — With fresh rumors of Robert Mugabe on his deathbed making the rounds, a Twitter account claiming to be from the Zimbabwean president's party, Zanu-PF, has jumped to the 88-year-old leader's defense.
The account, @zanu_pf, on first glance looks genuine enough, bearing the ruling party's flag and a link to the official website. But a careful read of the tweets — all the tweets — and it seems obvious that the Zanu-PF Twitter account is an amusing fake.
For starters, recent tweets explain that Mugabe is in Singapore to go shopping with wife Grace, not to receive medical treatment. But the state-run Sunday Mail has reported that the president is in Singapore to arrange post-graduate studies for his daughter Bona.
And furthermore, a shopping trip is hardly something Zimbabwe's ruling party would flaunt: Grace has been dubbed the "First Shopper" for her extravagant spending sprees in Europe and Hong Kong, while back home her impoverished country suffers.
Laura Seay, an Africa expert at Morehouse College in Atlanta who tweets as @texasinafrica, wrote that "@zanu_pf is clearly a joke. A brilliant, hilarious joke."
But some journalists, including ones from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and The Atlantic, took the Twitter account to be real — perhaps a reminder not to assume that crazy tweets claiming to be from a repressive regime are fact. (Remember the excitable "North Korea on Twitter!" stories over tweets by the KCNA state news agency? Yeah, that wasn't real either.)
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Australia's ABC quoted several of the fake Zanu-PF tweets in a story about the reports of Mugabe "gravely ill" in a Singapore hospital, saying that "Mr. Mugabe's Zanu-PF party took to Twitter in an attempt to dispel the latest rumors."
The Atlantic's Max Fisher, writing about the same "thinly sourced reports," said that even if the story about Mugabe on his deathbed in Singapore turns out to be wrong, "it was worth it just to watch the government spokesman struggling on Twitter to claim that everything is fine."
Fisher accurately described the tweets as "an increasingly odd and poorly spelled rant about how Mugabe is definitely, definitely not on his deathbed in Singapore."
"Whichever party official decided to take to Twitter to combat these latest Mugabe death rumors, they should just stop," he advised.
Some of the @zanu_pf tweets in question:
Please be advised 4the last time thats Cde G R Mugabe is shopping with his wife, God has blessed him-you agents will probably die before him— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
So much hype about our beloved leader Cde GR Mugabe, people r spreading rumors like feces during a cholera crisis.— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Cde President RG Mugabe is merely on a prolonged shopping trip with his wife, as God has blessed him with spending money. He's alive & well— ZANU PF (@zanu_pf) April 9, 2012
Fisher later recanted. "I was fooled," he wrote. "I wasn't the only one, but I regret the error. Still, the tweets are valuable in their own satirical right."
The ABC doesn't appear to have noticed their error.
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As for the stories about Mugabe in Singapore, the rumors continue today but nothing concrete is yet known about the old man's health or the true reasons for his trip abroad.
GlobalPost deputy managing editor Andrew Meldrum, who reported from Zimbabwe for more than two decades, said he is being "very cautious" about the latest Mugabe health rumors, though at the age of 88, "you can never be sure."
"Over the years there have been so many rumors about Robert Mugabe's ill health and impending death that journalists in Harare have become used to urgent phone calls from their editors who claim they have it on good authority that Mugabe has died or is on his deathbed," Meldrum wrote.
"And then Mugabe shows up jaunty and outspoken, dashing the reports ... until the next set of rumors surface."
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