In 2017, as a postgraduate student of Mass Communication at one of Nigeria’s foremost universities, I was tasked with writing a project on social media and its role in shaping political discourse. After citing various scholarly definitions, I described social media as an emerging phenomenon conceived purely for entertainment and networking purposes. I further expatiated that it serves as a medium for people with similar interests or established acquaintances with friends they had not interacted with for a while to meet and interact.
I also noted that although social media became fully functional in its present form just over two decades ago, this medium of communication has now become a vital means of sharing ideas, feelings, thoughts, and opinions among human beings. It has, to a great extent, influenced the mode of communication at all levels of human relationships. Aided by the technological advancement of communication technology, the rise of social media as a communication channel is unprecedented. I added that this web-based broadcast technology has transcended beyond just being a medium for chatting with friends; it has now become a medium that disseminates information instantly and influences people’s opinions on different issues.
The study, among other things, found that while social media does have an influence on shaping political discourse in Nigeria, the various social media platforms could also be hostile to the reception of differing views. Many social media users refuse to acknowledge and accept divergent views. The lack of respect for differing opinions, according to the research, could affect personal friendships and relationships, if not checkmated.
Six years down the line, one of the nightmares the study had identified has turned out to be a monstrous nuisance. Many Nigerians in 2023 felt comfortable destroying friendships and relationships they have created and maintained on social media for years. But for what purpose: to be the lackeys of politicians because their said friend(s) did not gravitate towards their political affiliation. Before some of these people went to war against each other, their friendships, particularly of individuals deemed influential on social media, were quite symbolic as they showed that Nigerians could connect, irrespective of ethnic or religious affiliations.
I think I fool myself here a lot thinking I have relationships with certain people that hold things in their minds against me over political differences or difference of opinions. This is the 3rd time I’ll experience this and I think I should learn something from these exposé. https://t.co/rZOuQ9bkFV
— Foundational Nupe Lawyer (@Egi_nupe_) April 21, 2023
Just as it happens in every facet of life, a social media user is naturally disappointed when his or her point of view is not accepted by the other party (an individual or a group) as the “correct” view in a discussion. With the habitual failure of the National Orientation Agency (NOA) to conduct intense enlightenment campaigns at regular intervals to sensitise people on the need to be tolerant both offline and online, social media has become of the mechanisms to reach people across Nigeria to deliver such a message.
Seen as a leveller, which does not discriminate across wealth, religious or ethnic status, social media, used by an estimated 32.9 million users in Nigeria (as of February 2023), according to Statista, was supposed to be an unrestricted mechanism to reach and encourage Nigerians to freely air their opinion and engage in robust discussions devoid of negativity, while also tolerating varying views. However, the discourse on social media took a different turn during the recently concluded 2023 general elections.
During the campaigns and even after the 2023 elections, arguments, ordinarily meant to be intellectually driven, have escalated into heated debates, with various individuals across the divide using vulgar and expletive words, at times, to prove their point. Some have even sworn never to initiate discussions with friends on social media again because of their political choices. Everything beautiful, it seems, has gone down the drain just because of politics.
“If you are loyal to a wicked man, you are a wicked man.” — Bishop David Oyedepo
The statement above is one of the reasons why nobody will be able to tell me after this election season that “it’s just politics, we can be back to normal life”. My friend, will you shift?
— Ayomide (@ilufemiloyei) April 21, 2023
It may not be surprising that events have turned their head full circle, but it is ridiculous that the relationships of ordinary Nigerians have had to be the fall guy to satisfy the selfish interest and egos of politicians. This is quite calamitous, particularly at a time when nerves are frayed and there is a need to genuinely promote unity and respect in Nigeria. Alas, aided by the devilish intention of politicians and the inanity of their footsoldiers, social media has wrecked interpersonal relationships, particularly at the level of the masses, while that of the elite remains, unsurprisingly, unaffected.
Social media was filled with disinformation and propaganda as politicians and political parties frequently utilised the various SM platforms to fuel anger or doubt against their opponents and supporters online. Added to this dilemma was (and still) the deliberate propagation of ethnic hatred by the lackeys of political actors, who have used social media as their pawns in disseminating their messages.
Many people will recall that before the elections, social media was used not only to forge and maintain friendships but it became a platform through which people got favours. Individuals met their future employers, people’s businesses were promoted and got investors, and assistance was rendered to the indigent and those who lacked resources to afford certain amenities.
Yet, for instance, in the build-up to the gubernatorial elections of March 18, 2023, a prominent media aide to the governor of a state in the country openly stood beside a campaign poster that read: “My Lagos, not your Lagos: You are here because of your business.” The poster slogan was interpreted by those who criticised the aide as an antagonist scheme approved by the state against those who opposed the governor, especially non-indigenes.
A month after the elections, the same aide made headlines again when news emerged that a female train driver, who is not an indigene of the state, reportedly criticised the state governor. In a now-deleted tweet which he wrote in his native language, the aide said the woman in question was discovered to be working for a contractor hired by the state government, adding that she was thankfully not employed by the state.
This nonsense over the CCECC employee is further proof that there's no way back from what happened in Lagos last month. The only way is down.
— The Rhino of Justice (@je_mc2) April 19, 2023
Such a statement by a leading figure, whose job, ironically, is to shape the perception of his principal on social media, has led some to express their fears and misgivings over the rhetoric posted on social media to exacerbate the already fragile faultlines of the country. Others have deemed such statements and messages as hate speech.
With no established means of media gatekeeping or verification of information before being published, messages disseminated on social media platforms before, during and after the election by all the major parties and politicians in the 2023 election and their footsoldiers have contained elements of hate speech. Asides from smearing the personality and reputation of people, hate speech can also rile up unsuspecting people against a religion, tribe or political affiliation, as witnessed in this election cycle.
As the late J.P. Clark, one of Nigeria’s eminent poets and playwrights, wrote in his poem, The Casualties:
The casualties are not only those who started a fire and now cannot put out; thousands are burning that have no say in the matter.
As illustrated by the poem, the casualties in this latest social media scrimmage are not just the influencers or citizens arrested for purported defamation or allegedly breaching the public peace, but the ordinary masses who have been indoctrinated to believe that begrudging their fellow Nigerians over politics and social media is the right thing to do. Partnership, cooperation and collaboration should be the crux of the matter for Nigerians to make an impact in the country and themselves, rather than division, toxicity and rancour.
Also, there is a need to create a more hospitable environment for people to express their views on social media regardless of political affiliations, as well as ensure the implementation of gatekeeping and regulatory measures (not censorship) for the sake of credibility and peace.
Social media should be a force for good, not for evil.