In this age of digital connectivity, social media has emerged as a monumental force in shaping political outlooks worldwide. And Nigeria is not left out when considering countries with the most social media activism in politics.
Nigerians, especially the youths, have long been adopting social media as a tool for advocacy and a platform for exercising their human rights. And social media, in turn, have been offering both the promises of empowerment and threats of manipulation.
As the country with the largest population in Africa and foreseen to be the third largest population in the world by 2050, its presence on social media has been tremendous.
This article delves into the multifaceted impact of social media influence on Nigerian politics, exploring how it has empowered citizens while raising concerns about its potential to manipulate public opinion.
Table of Contents
Social Media Influence in Nigerian Politics
Nigeria’s political scene has been significantly transformed by the proliferation of social media platforms, which has given voice to millions of Nigerians who previously had limited access to traditional media outlets. The democratisation of information through social media has empowered citizens to engage more actively in political discourse and hold political leaders accountable. The following case scenarios buttress this;
A vivid example is when Nigeria passed a bill to lower the age limit for contesting for political office; the Age Reduction Bill, aka Not Too Young to Run, granted access to eligible citizens from 30 years of age and not longer than 35 years, for the senate, and from 30 to 25 years for the state house of assembly and house of representatives.
This change accounts for the youths who advocated for younger people in politics on social media using hashtags like #NotTooYoungToRun. This campaign forced policymakers and politicians to enact bills and policies – although it is argued that only the movements that will benefit them are given attention.
Due to the Age Reduction Bill, more young Nigerians are running for office and registering for electoral participation. This was seen in the 2023 presidential elections, as young people comprised approximately 76% of newly registered voters. This increased participation of youths dissatisfied with the status quo, constantly voiced on social media.
During the 2023 elections, the emergence of the Labour Party and its leader, Peter Obi, galvanised social media activists and led to several political marches across the country. Nigeria’s established political elite initially derided Obi’s rise, claiming that his campaign and growing popularity were based on four people tweeting in a room.
On election day, social media commentary had a tangible impact on real-world actions. Although he didn’t secure victory due to the claims of being cheated, he garnered 6.1 million votes, a noteworthy achievement for someone outside the typically dominant two parties [APC & PDP].
However, amidst all these, international observers have asserted the deficiencies in Nigeria’s electoral processes and the EU’s Election Observation Mission, the systemic weaknesses of the election conducted. These issues concerning the Nigerian political system continually shape how social media influences lasting real-life change.
Another example of a campaign taken to social media by Nigerians was the #EndNIPOSTExtortion in 2020 when the Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) decided to hike its licensing fees for operators of courier services in the country.
The hashtag trended on social media, forcing a reversal of the hike. For Nigerian social media users, platforms like Twitter, especially Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, even proved effective ways to participate in politics.
Although the above instances led to a reversal of policies and an applaudable response from the government, the social media impact has not led to long-term real-life changes in many cases. An instance is the #EndSARs global trend on Twitter.
In 2020, the footage of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Delta State allegedly killing a man went viral on social media. Nigerians were infuriated and took to the streets to protest and demand political reforms.
#EndSARS drew attention to Nigeria’s failing political leaders, and there were rumours of the government trying to hide under the shell to secure their name, post and go after youths protesting on the streets.
There is still significant debate about whether the #EndSARS movement has been/is successful. Although the government claimed to abolish the SARS as demanded, other uniforms still kept on oppressing the youths on the street for a long time. The demands eventually evolved into calls for broader and more systemic reforms of the social, political and economic issues primarily affecting Nigeria’s youth.
Additionally, restrictions on social media have hindered its potential to drive long-term change. In 2021, the Nigerian government temporarily suspended access to Twitter after the platform froze the president’s account due to a post deemed violating its ‘abusive behaviour’ policy.
The former president, Muhammad Buhari’s administration, argued that Twitter was working against Nigeria’s interest and that malicious individuals were exploiting the platform to disseminate misinformation and engage in criminal activities. Although the ban did not entirely ban Nigerians from using Twitter(as many were using VPNs), the restriction took place for over seven months and had an economic cost of about N10.72 trillion.
As social media continues to gain ground, it will remain a vital tool for political analysis and discourse. Yet, the extent of its influence on politics and policymaking in a diverse nation like Nigeria will be a multifaceted and evolving phenomenon that requires vigilant monitoring.
Social media platforms empower Nigerian citizens to participate in political discussions and engage with policymakers actively. However, the ability to translate online commentary into enduring, long-term change will ultimately depend on the existing systems and administrative practices.
Benefits of Social Media to Nigerian Politics
Social media platforms have become indispensable tools for political campaigns in Nigeria. Candidates use these platforms to reach a wider audience, share their policy proposals, and mobilise supporters. A vivid example of this can be seen in the 2015 Nigerian presidential election when Muhammadu Buhari effectively leveraged Twitter to communicate his vision to the masses.
His campaign’s hashtag, #GMB15, trended nationwide, demonstrating the power of social media in political messaging.
Voter engagement and mobilisation
Social media has proven instrumental in engaging and mobilising Nigerian voters. A striking illustration of this occurred during the 2019 general elections when young Nigerians organised the #NigeriaDecides movement on Twitter.
This movement, marked by its vibrant discussions and calls for voter participation, led to a surge in young voter turnout. It showcased how social media could galvanise a demographic previously disinterested in politics.
Citizens’ journalism and accountability
The rise of citizen journalism through social media platforms has transformed how Nigerian politics is reported. Ordinary citizens can now capture and share real-time footage of political events, often exposing corruption and electoral malpractices.
An example is the #EndSARS protests in 2020, where social media played a crucial role in highlighting police brutality. The global attention generated by these online narratives pressured the Nigerian government to address the issue and led to reform promises.
Political discourse and activism
Social media has emerged as a space for political discourse and activism, allowing Nigerians to voice their opinions and hold leaders accountable. Notably, Ndi Kato’s Twitter campaign against sexual harassment in Nigerian politics, under the hashtag #MeTooNigeria, is a vivid example of how social media has enabled activism and amplified marginalised voices.
Empowerment through information and awareness
Social media has enabled Nigerians to access information, news, and political analysis from various sources. This has expanded political awareness and discourse, allowing citizens to engage with diverse perspectives and make informed decisions.
Online platforms have become spaces for robust political discussions, helping break down geographical, socio-economic status, and education barriers.
Moreover, social media has given a platform to voices previously marginalised or underrepresented in traditional media. Women, youth, and minority groups have used social media to advocate for their rights and concerns, challenging the status quo of Nigerian politics.
In this way, social media has promoted inclusivity and diversity in political discourse, empowering those who have long been sidelined.
Political accountability and transparency
One of the most significant advantages of social media in Nigerian politics is its ability to hold politicians accountable. Through citizen journalism and the rapid dissemination of information, social media has become a watchdog that can expose corruption, nepotism, and other forms of misconduct.
Public officials are now aware that their actions are under constant scrutiny, creating a sense of transparency that was previously absent.
A prime example of this is the “budget padding” scandal of 2016, which social media activists exposed and eventually led to the resignation of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee Chairman. Such instances demonstrate that social media can be a potent tool for ensuring that those in power are answerable to the public.
Mobilising for positive change
Social media has also been instrumental in mobilising Nigerians for positive change beyond protests. Various online campaigns have raised awareness about important social and political issues, from voter education initiatives to fundraising for medical treatments for vulnerable citizens.
These campaigns leverage the power of online networks to address pressing concerns and drive meaningful action.
For instance, the “Not Too Young to Run” campaign, which aimed to reduce the age limit for running for political office, gained significant traction on social media. This grassroots movement successfully lobbied for legislative changes, demonstrating the potential for social media to catalyse political reform in Nigeria.
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Challenges of Social Media Influence in Nigeria Politics
While social media has brought undeniable benefits to Nigerian politics, it is not without its challenges and potential pitfalls. They include;
One of the most pressing issues is the spread of misinformation and fake news. Falsehoods and manipulated narratives can quickly gain traction on social media platforms, contributing to polarisation and confusion among the public.
The “fake news” phenomenon peaked during the 2019 Nigerian general elections, where false information about candidates, parties, and electoral processes was rampant on social media.
This could influence voters and undermine the integrity of the democratic process. It highlighted the need for social media companies, government institutions, and civil society to work together to combat the spread of disinformation.
Promotion of selfish interests
Another concern is the weaponisation of social media for political gain. Some political actors have been accused of using social media to manipulate public opinion, incite violence, and spread divisive content.
Trolls and bots are often employed to amplify certain narratives, creating an illusion of widespread support or opposition. This manipulation can undermine the credibility of online discourse and erode trust in democratic institutions.
Social media also has the potential to perpetuate echo chambers and filter bubbles, where individuals are exposed primarily to information and viewpoints that align with their existing beliefs. This can reinforce polarisation and make it difficult for citizens to engage in constructive dialogue across ideological lines.
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Striking a Balance
The influence of social media on Nigerian politics is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it has empowered citizens, increased political awareness, and facilitated meaningful social and political movements.
On the other hand, it has presented challenges related to misinformation, manipulation, and polarisation. A multi-pronged approach is needed to harness social media’s positive potential while mitigating its adverse effects. This include;
Implementing responsible regulation of social media platforms to curb the spread of disinformation and hate speech without infringing on freedom of expression
Promoting media literacy and critical thinking skills among citizens to help them discern reliable information from fake news
Encouraging collaboration between government, civil society, and social media companies to develop strategies for combating online manipulation and ensuring transparency.
Social media is not a monolithic force; its impact on Nigerian politics is shaped by how it is used and regulated. If harnessed wisely, it can be a powerful tool for democratic participation, transparency, and accountability.
However, if left unchecked, it has the potential to undermine the very democratic values it seeks to promote. The challenge lies in striking a balance that preserves the positive aspects of social media while mitigating its negative consequences for Nigerian politics and society.
Oluwanifemi Akintomide edited this article.