If Carthage Is Destroyed, It Won’t Be at the Hands of Mark Zuckerberg

Tunisia’s conspiracy-minded autocrat is using a regulation aimed at combating fake news to take down free speech

If Carthage Is Destroyed, It Won’t Be at the Hands of Mark Zuckerberg
Left, Bill Gates with Mark Zuckerberg on the latter’s 40th birthday; right, Kais Saied, president of Tunisia. (Left, Facebook; right, Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

As part of his recent glow-up, Meta CEO and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg released a series of whimsical photos of himself, commissioned by his wife, for his 40th birthday. In one, crammed in a Disney-esque half-scale model of his Harvard dorm room alongside a tube sock-sporting Bill Gates, Zuckerberg sits laughing, wearing a black T-shirt with Gothic letters spelling out the phrase “Carthago Delenda Est.”

The phrase is a kind of meme among Classics geeks and the subset of men, Zuckerberg among them, whose partners don’t even have to ask to know how often they think about the Roman Empire. It is a shortened version of the proclamation the Roman soldier and senator Cato the Elder used at the end of every speech he made before the Senate in the second century BCE. Rome had been at war with Carthage, its great rival and enemy, for much of Cato’s life. He had fought in the brutal Second Punic War and wanted to see Carthage gone. He would stand at the dais and say, “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam,” translated, essentially, to mean “I believe Carthage must be destroyed.”

The photos made waves on the shores of modern-day Carthage — that is to say, the North African nation of Tunisia — where, within hours, discourse was circulating on social media (including on Facebook) about whether or not this was a silent signal that Zuckerberg had plans to use the platform to destabilize the country and undermine the regime of Kais Saied, the president-turned-autocrat whose official mansion sits overlooking the ruins of Carthage.

“The inventor of Facebook, which is the most dangerous invention in human history, is Zionist in belief and knows well that everyone is following him,” one Tunisian commenter wrote. There were some calls for Zuckerberg to apologize and others for a public response from the regime.

The idea that Zuckerberg is familiar with the details of modern Tunisia, let alone plotting its destruction with the ardor of Cato, may seem far-fetched. But the fervor and velocity of the conspiracy theories that swirled around the photo op highlight the real peril happening in Tunisia today, where, amid an economy in a death spiral and a spike in human rights abuses, Saied is cracking down on opposition with a law designed to combat fake news, while trumpeting a nationalist vision of his country spurred on by the continuous specter of Western, Zionist plots against it.

In early May, security forces clad in balaclavas burst into an office of Tunisia’s bar association and arrested the lawyer and commentator Sonia Dahmani. She was hauled off under the auspices of Decree Law 54, which Saied issued in 2022. It slaps offenders with a $15,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison for using information networks to “produce, promote, publish, transmit or prepare false news, statements, rumors or forged documents” that target the rights of others or harm public security. Saied touted it as a way to combat misinformation online. Instead, he has used it repeatedly as a cudgel to silence even the mildest of critics, arresting politicians, journalists, pundits and activists from across the political spectrum for offenses as minor as hosting a controversial guest on air or making a political statement on Facebook. The pace of arrests and convictions has surged in recent weeks as Tunisians react to Saied renewing some of his most pointed nationalist rhetoric.

The supposedly false statement for which Dahmani was arrested was a bland if somewhat sardonic retort she’d made earlier to a TV host’s assertions that Black migrants were angling to settle permanently in Tunisia and thus fundamentally alter the makeup of the country. Sitting on a panel of guests, she replied, “What kind of extraordinary country are we talking about? The one where half of its youth want to leave?”

The “Black Zionism” conspiracy theory — that Western powers are using Black Africans as pawns to make colonial settlements in Tunisia as a way to subdue and conquer it — is one of Saied’s most dearly held and oft repeated. Last spring, after Saied launched a series of violent attacks against and expulsions of Black migrants with a speech in which many heard echoes of the “Great Replacement Theory,” New Lines investigated the source of Saied’s thinking and found it in the swampy sublayer of ultranationalist Facebook in Tunisia. The head of a minuscule nationalist political party had been seeding anti-Black and anti-Western theories online for years, and members of Saied’s government had met with the party to hear out their ideas. Analysis from the fact-checking organization Falso Tunisie concluded that segments of Saied’s initial speech were copied, almost verbatim, from language the Tunisian Nationalist Party had circulated on Facebook.

As in many places around the world, Tunisia’s hardline nationalists favor open platforms like Facebook for their discourse. They are not too difficult to find — much like their alt-right counterparts in the U.S., many sport avatars of statuary (Punic, of course, never Greek or Roman) and drape themselves in the ostensibly classical values of manliness, heterosexuality and dominance. Weak content moderation in the Tunisian dialect of Arabic means that plenty of vitriolic speech that wouldn’t pass muster elsewhere is left unchecked, to be shared and amplified. Yet even at their most violent, these kinds of posts do not draw the eye of those enforcing Law 54, largely because they align with Saied’s view on nationalist politics and an encyclopedic array of conspiracies. They view Tunisia as a modern-day Carthage — powerful, independent and resilient in the face of an encroaching empire.

There is, of course, deep hypocrisy among the Carthage-worshiping nationalist crowd. The isolationism Saied seeks is a far cry from the economic and social diversity that helped Carthage rise to its station as a cosmopolitan capital. Saied’s firm rejection of “diktats from abroad” when it came to an International Monetary Fund deal that could possibly bail out a crumbling economy seemed to melt away when the European Union offered up millions of euros to essentially hunt down and persecute Black migrants, dumping them in the desert, where many of them perished. His vision for a populist, grassroots government structure, defined by local councils, has been undermined, as anyone who seems poised to challenge him or the system he has built is accused of terrorism and jailed or brought down under Law 54.

Even the accusation that Facebook would be plotting against the regime carries a kind of richness to it: Loath to meet the press or have a communications team to engage with the public, the president communicates — apart from occasional speeches given on state TV — primarily through an official Facebook page. Some of his most important addresses bypass traditional media altogether and are uploaded directly to his page.

With a muzzled media and opposing voices cowed into silence or arrested, all that is left is Kais Saied, standing at Facebook’s digital dais, proclaiming, through his policies, conspiracies and orders, the path by which his own Carthage may be destroyed.

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