The Tiny Nation That Tweets More Than Bieber and Obama Combined
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s one peculiar story behind 200,000 tweets.
By Taylor Mayol
Comoros: the land of rare bats and even rarer lemurs. It’s a tiny African country, sandwiched between Madagascar and Mozambique in the Mozambique Channel, known primarily for its wildlife and unstable politics. “You can tell it’s been mismanaged from an agricultural perspective, a business perspective and a political perspective,” says Leslie Labruto, director of the Clinton Foundation’s Islands Energy Program. Fewer than 7 percent of its scant 700,000 citizens have internet access, according to the United Nations. But it still manages to tweet like a boss.
Comoros had the highest number of tweets per capita in all of Africa in 2015.
That’s more tweets than Barack Obama, Narendra Modi, David Cameron, Vladimir Putin, François Hollande and Justin Bieber combined.
This is most definitely not the Silicon Valley of Africa. But Comoros had a tweets-per-capita rate of 0.77, according to the continent-wide survey How Africa Tweets, published this year by Portland Communications. That’s much higher than 0.29 in South Africa, a country that’s far more connected to the web and 529 times more populous. Curiouser and curiouser. Then there’s the content. The 2015 tweets overwhelmingly promoted blockbuster-worthy conspiracy theories about government meddling and cyberstalking. The most popular hashtags focused on cyberwarfare, gangs and Raytheon, a major defense contractor. And here’s the kicker: They were largely in Japanese.
Could Comoros be a secret hub of cybercrime? Not that we know of. It definitely isn’t a military base. And as of now, the nation isn’t home to a single Japanese expat. So who’s to blame? Turns out the real culprit is a disgruntled ex-employee in Japan, who did not return multiple requests for comment. The Japanese man had been laid off from his job and took to the web to air his grievances. He tweeted nearly 200,000 times in a year, around half of those tweets geolocated in Comoros — targeted precisely because its online space was so unused. Squatting on an otherwise unused Twittersphere might seem as futile as raging against the corporate machine. But his strategy ultimately did garner him international attention and nearly 30,000 views on his Google+ profile. All the while, he had fewer than 600 followers on Twitter. Did it get him his job back? He did not respond to OZY’s request for comment, so we may never know. The Embassy of the Comoros to the U.S. said it was unaware of the situation and declined to comment further. (It did, however, seem amused.)
What we do know is, Tweeter X isn’t the only one scoping out vacant web spaces and taking them as a pulpit. The Portland Communications researchers found a surprisingly high number of Turkish, Korean, Chinese and Japanese tweets in the inactive Twitterverse of several African countries with little internet connectivity, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, they found a slew of Japanese tweets promoting clubs in Hong Kong. “That was puzzling, because you’d think if you want people to go to your nightclub,” you’d try and target people in the vicinity, says Mae Dobbs, a researcher on the study. Her guess is that these accounts may have been banned as spam in their original countries, so they set up virtual private networks in countries where they could not only operate, but also try to be the No. 1 spammer. The picture isn’t limited to online trolls, though. In some instances, like for many of the Turkish tweets, the users appear to be real humans, as opposed to bots or spammers, who are suffering from a crackdown on social media and political dissent in their home countries and are forced to get creative to circumvent their governments’ reach.
But the prevalence of so-called Twitter-jacking in Africa doesn’t give a clear picture of how Africa really tweets. In 2015, there were 1.6 billion geolocated tweets in Africa. “Every single country had at least double-digit growth rates” in how many people were tweeting compared to the previous study in 2012, says Dobbs. And despite the spam-tastic tweets in Comoros, Africans were five times as likely as Americans and Brits to tweet political content in the same year.