• Sunday, April 21, 2024
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Nigerian politicians struggle to tame social media generation

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On April 10, Uber Facts, a Twitter account with over 13 million followers and famous globally for its public affairs posts, caused a stir in Nigeria’s social media space. The account tweeted that Bola Tinubu forfeited $460,000 to the United States government in 1993 after a court found out the money was tied to heroin trafficking.

Hours after the tweet was made, thousands of people retweeted, liked, and shared, pushing the post to a top trending topic and resurrecting an issue the Nigerian ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), would rather wish would go away.

Not too long after, a Twitter space was organised to revisit the contents of the court papers. Nearly 1,000 people joined the space, which lasted for hours and contributed to making the $460,000 forfeiture fee a trending topic as well.

Bayo Onanuga, spokesperson for the APC Presidential Campaign Council, didn’t find the attention his principal was getting amusing and as expected by many, he unleashed his vitriol on supporters of Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, whom he said were quick to jump on a tweet meant to gain more Nigerian followers.

A few days after the governorship election on March 18, which was marred by violence and intimidation of voters, Onanuga took to his Twitter page to slam Igbos’ involvement and influence in the election in Lagos. The post, which was widely seen as inciting hate speech, was later deleted but not before many people reported it to Twitter. Onanuga went ahead to say he didn’t owe anyone any apology for asking the Igbos never to interfere in Lagos politics.

Gideon Christian, an international legal practitioner, wrote a petition to the International Criminal Court seeking approval to open an investigation on Onanuga’s post.

A few days after the Uber Facts tweet, Google searches for Tinubu, the President-elect, went up more than usual to about 200 percent. Aside from Uber Facts following up with a thread of the court papers, several media outlets and international reporters also made a point to write something on the subject.

Onanuga is not the only spokesperson from the ruling party struggling to keep control of the political discourse on social media; Femi Fani Kayode, Dele Alake, and Festus Keyamo, all spokespersons for the APC campaign, are finding out the social media generation, also called the ‘Soro Soke’ generation (a Yoruba phrase meaning ‘speak up’), is unwinnable once their minds are set. It wouldn’t have been so difficult in the past when social media was not so pervasive in politics and most of the influencers spoke for one party.

Prior to coming to power in 2015, the APC unleashed the most restrained social media campaign against the then-incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, who was vying to be reelected on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). In a bid to control the narrative on social media, the supporters of the APC – then the main opposition – went to town with all manner of propaganda against the incumbent government. In some of the viral political posts, the supporters had a coffin that had the face of Jonathan plastered on it.

So pervasive was the role of social media that President Muhammadu Buhari in his inaugural speech in May 2015 appeared unsure of how to react to the massive social media wave that brought him to power.

“My appeal to the media today – and this includes social media – is to exercise its considerable powers with responsibility and patriotism,” the newly inaugurated President then said.

Opeyemi Agbaje, founder/CEO of RTC Advisory Services and a political analyst, said in an opinion post that the Nigerian election in 2015 was decided on account of propaganda messaging.

“The [opposition] APC’s ‘change’ message was compelling and the campaign stayed on the message throughout the campaign. This effective message was complemented by the devastating deployment of propaganda, often false or contrived but which most voters believed. President Jonathan’s and [the People’s Democratic Party]’s communication machinery was in response hapless. A ruling party could be so completely incoherent in its communication that it soon became portrayed in the media (and sometimes in its own mindset) as a de facto opposition party. The election also marked the coming of age of social media as a critical force in Nigerian politics, for good or bad,” Agbaje said.

Although social media was deployed in the 2019 presidential election with APC also having the upper hand, 2023 has proven to be an outlier with social media playing a ginormous role never seen before in the history of elections in Nigeria.

Nelson Ajero, a digital marketing expert, said 2023 differed from previous elections because many Nigerians were enlightened about the new Electoral Act before the election. But other experts say the management of the economy by the Buhari-led administration contributed to pushing more Nigerians into poverty (133 million people estimated to be living in multidimensional poverty last year) and therefore not amenable to seeing the APC return to power.

The signing of the Electoral Act, which gave legal backing to the use of technology in the electoral process, and the assurances by the Independent National Electoral Commission that results would be transmitted electronically fuelled many eligible voters’ interest in the 2023 election. Statista projected that as of December 2022, there were about 28 million Nigerians actively using Facebook, representing 12.7 percent of the population. Nigerians on Twitter were estimated at 5.1 million.

Importantly, the entrance of Obi, candidate of Labour Party, and Rabiu Kwankwaso of New Nigeria People’s Party took the shine off the two biggest parties in the country, the APC and the PDP. Social media was largely instrumental to the rise of the ‘Obidients’, the popular name for the supporters of Obi.

“What we saw in Nasarawa, Edo, several other places, and in Delta State, where the PDP vice presidential candidate comes from, we saw that young people were serious about what they were doing and they took advantage of social media to project a programme which has shaken the nation,” said Labaran Maku, a PDP chieftain from Nasarawa and former minister of information.

Social media became the most convenient platform to disseminate election education. Many people got information on the Permanent Voter Card registration process. Social media also gave room for election monitoring and information sharing. It also made it easy for the Nigerian diaspora community, who were not allowed to vote, to get involved in the process.

“Most people that voted for the first time got inspired by social media platforms. Some voted because of what they heard about a candidate of their choice,” said Jesse Ndulor, a social media manager. “I know someone that voted because his candidate was criticised and he believed his vote would count and bring him to victory. The power of social media cannot be underrated anymore, especially, from the just-concluded general election.”

Read also: How social media changed the face of politics in Nigeria

That power that once worked in favour of the ruling party may no longer be in their control. It is now with the ‘Soro Soke’ generation. These young people are only a few fingers away shooting down a propaganda video, audio, or picture. For example, in February when Keyamo shared pictures of an APC rally in Sokoto that showed a huge crowd and which he titled ‘Mother of all rallies’, it took only a few minutes for a Twitter user Sound Jay (sound_jay6) to raise the alarm that one of the pictures was fake. Dubawa, a fact-checking platform, ran an analysis on the picture and discovered it was originally shared by Colin Hinkle (@hinklecolin) on Twitter on July 31, 2021, when he tagged @Lollapalooza, a music festival that is held in Chicago.

Adamu Garba, a former presidential aspirant, and an APC chieftain, also shared a photoshopped picture on April 8 – following the detention of Obi in London by security officials over false identification – in which he claimed that Abike Dabri intervened to secure Obi’s release.

Dino Melaye, the spokesperson of the PDP Presidential Campaign Council, recently shared a video that alleged that APC political thugs were arrested on Twitter. The caption says the thugs were arrested in Lagos on March 17, 2023. TheCable, an online newspaper, fact-checked it and found it to be an old video on YouTube as far back as May 2022.

Celestine Kezie, a lecturer at the Institute of Humanities at Pan-African University, said the social media propaganda had continued weeks after the election because of the interest of the APC, which was declared the winner of the election, to keep up a narrative.

Concerns already expressed by opposition parties, different election monitoring teams and many Nigerians about the election have compelled the ruling party to make more efforts to control the narrative.

“Unless the people are convinced that justice has been served by the judiciary, whoever is sworn in will be a king without a kingdom. The people make the kingdom,” Kezie said.

However, Jiro Ejobe, managing partner at VIISAUS, said there will never be reconciliation when the opposition parties are challenging the outcomes of the elections in court.

“They know the increasing power of social media, so they intend to control the narrative. In fact we see a situation where if the ruling party cannot control social media, they are likely to place a ban on it,” Ejobe said.

The Buhari-led administration lifted a seven-month ban on Twitter in January last year after it said the company met some conditions it set. BusinessDay later found that the microblogging platform did not reach any agreement with the government.

Ejobe said the battle to control the narrative could also lead to a situation where the new government would have to contend with a deeply divided nation.

“Although only about 16 percent of Nigerians are on social media, a good proportion of this 16 percent will continue to feel alienated and disillusioned with the new government,” he said.

He said it can also result in a situation where the government finds it difficult to shift focus from politics to governance, preventing the Nigerian people from enjoying the dividends of democracy.

“If the incoming government decides to rein in social media or ban it altogether, there could be serious implications locally and even from the international community,” Ejobe said.