Nigeria has 100 million mobile internet subscribers, according to the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC). More and more, Nigerians are taking their conversation online, drawing real-time attention to issues and even calling for solutions from their elective representatives.
Social media platforms have been able to relay the pulse of the nation to election officials, and as the 2019 elections draw near, social media will once again play a key role in shaping the way Nigerians practice democracy.
Social media in Politics Post-2015
In the runup to the 2015 elections, one word dominated the narrative on social media: change. Statecraft Inc., a governance communication firm run by Adebola Williams and Chude Jideonwo, handled Buhari’s PR campaign and were able to change the public perception of the three-time loser from that of an oppressive military ruler to a reformed Democrat.
In his inaugural speech on May 29th 2015, President Buhari thanked “those who tirelessly carried the campaign on the social media”.
Learning from the role social media played in Buhari’s victory, elected officials began to engage more with their constituents. Senator Ben Bruce has attained notoriety on social media for his “common sense” approach to governance. Senator Bukola Saraki has used his social media handles to keep Nigerians informed of the workings of the National Assembly and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s social media handles have served as a medium to inform and educate Nigerians on the policy drive of this administration. Chief amongst this has been the government’s efforts on improving the ease of doing business in Nigeria.
In the 2015 elections, social media shaped opinion, changed narrative, contributed to viral campaigns and monitored election results from the various situation rooms across the country.”
Social media and the 2019 elections
Many commenters in media and governance are alert to the role social media may play in the 2019 elections. Tolulope Adeleru Balogun, a broadcaster, and Rosemary Ajayi, a social media expert, both see it having an even larger effect than last time around.
Come the 2019 elections, social media will enhance the campaign for “voter education, crowdsourcing solutions on election day and independent election monitoring,” says Rosemary.
Tolulope believes that social media exposes the aspirant and their message to an audience that may not be their electorate, but potential influencers. “Between retweets, reach and influencers, the potential to shape a narrative or the perception of a candidate is strong,” she says. Tolulope adds, “While I don’t believe social media can be solely responsible for election success, I think it can play a massive part in election failure and success, candidates can use social media to articulate plans and take a stand on issues.”
Others, however, remain unconvinced and believe that traditional media still holds the key to electoral success. Yet, research shows that the market might have become more digital. In an essay at the start of the year, Bolaji Okusaga explained, “In Nigeria, there are clear signs that traditional media is struggling to challenge the disruption of digital media platforms.” He outlined the struggles traditional media firms face: falling circulation, difficulty in managing printing presses, declining advertising revenues, etc. as a result of the rise of digital news platforms. “Today, the digital media platforms have reinvented how news-consumers access news, share news and push news among communities,” he adds.
Fake news and the 2019 elections
There is one thing that is different about the 2019 elections: the dominance of fake news. We saw it in the United States election, and we saw it last year in Kenya. Elections are highly politicised and such periods are perfect for the spread of fake news.
This was already a problem in 2015. According to a Guardian UK report, Cambridge Analytica was employed to orchestrate a ferocious campaign against Muhammadu Buhari, the then leading opposition candidate.
Social media has highlighted the issues around fake news, and this is because social media has liberated the news media space.
Nigeria may struggle to curb this trend as elections approach. But Tolulope believes there is a way out. “Citizens need to use tools available to them to verify stories and pictures. We need to call out politicians who use fake news to discredit others or to prop themselves up,” she asserts. She also highlights the role played by the informal media. “Bloggers and citizen journalists need to be more circumspect in “breaking news” and sharing stories. Fake news is everyone’s responsibility because the implications are real and will happen in the real world,” she says.
However, a terrible way to handle this would be through censorship, an idea Nigeria has sometimes flirted with.
War against Indisciplined News
In 2016, the Senate considered a bill titled the Frivolous Petitions (Prohibition, etc.) Bill 2015, one that many Nigerians see as a means of restricting freedom of expression – particularly on social media. Despite this, the bill scaled through the first and second readings in the Senate.
The Senate withdrew the bill in 2016, perhaps under pressure from media and civil society organisations that termed it an anti-social media bill.
Nevertheless, the threat of censorship in African democracies is never too far away, a sentiment echoed by Tolulope. “Social media censorship will be difficult to achieve in Nigeria, but it doesn’t mean it won’t be tried. Websites will likely receive requests for tracking accounts and IP addresses,’ she says carefully. “We saw the death of the anti-social media bill, but that by no means is the end of state attempts to regulate the space,” she adds.
Hopefully, aspiring leaders would be more interested in cultivating social media than regulating it. Candidates should use social media to shape narratives, sell their manifestos, and reach out to a larger percentage of the youth demographic. The next set of leaders will be those who can use social media to their advantage to connect to the voters and get their votes come election time.