Use and abuse of social media in Nigerian elections

Over a million Nigerians are on Facebook, and so are most of Nigeria’s newspapers. In addition, the number of Nigerians with Twitter accounts is growing; most newspapers and bloggers also use Twitter.

Elections social media-style

Since the announcement of the date of Nigeria’s 2011 elections, the country’s news media has been full of stories of political intrigue; a plethora of candidates has emerged. Old faces, which needed to disappear, have revived themselves; new ones provide plenty of opportunities for gossip.

Together with campaign and pro-democracy groups, they are all vying for constituencies and publicity using social media like Twitter and Facebook.

While it is positive to see so many candidates and pro-democracy groups doing it, a disturbing trend has begun to emerge over the last month. It raises questions of social media ethics.

To put social media into Nigeria’s context, it is important to note that out of a population of around 150 million, between 70 and 80 per cent of people live on $1 a day. Around 43 million people in Nigeria – almost a third – are estimated to have access to the internet.

However, this figure doesn’t break down into those who have internet access at home or at work and those who occasionally use it in public cafés. Nor does it correlate with the numbers living on $1 a day or the literacy rate of 50 per cent.

Where is the real Save Nigeria?

My concerns over the misuse of social media in the Nigerian elections came a few weeks ago, when I received an email from a Facebook group called Save Nigeria (SN). It informed me that it had now become the ‘Dele Momodu for Nigeria’ election campaign group.

What I thought was the pro-democracy group ‘Save Nigeria’ has now morphed into a campaign site. I later discovered that many people had been joining the SN Facebook group thinking it was THE Save Nigeria, but in fact we were joining the Vote for Momodu page.

My first reaction was to remove myself from the group and report this via Twitter. Later I discovered there are three Momodu campaign groups on Facebook and several Twitter handles connected to his campaign: TeamMomodu, Dele Momodu, MrFixNigeria and Cool2Vote.

MrFixNigeria is Momodu’s campaign manager and the creator of the non-partisan Cool2Vote site. He relinquished his professional interest in the group when he became campaign manager, yet the tweets on his personal account and that of Cool2Vote are often similar in content.

Another example of this trend is the social media strategy applied by President Goodluck Jonathan (PGJ). I recently counted 17 Facebook groups under PGJ; however, only two appear to be directly connected to him. There are also various Twitter accounts, but again, only two appear to be directly connected to the president.

The disturbing side

Two issues are disturbing here. Firstly, Nigeria’s government website has a link to the PGJ campaign site. The social media links on the official Nigerian government site link to PGJ’s campaign Twitter (@jgoodlucktweets) and Facebook pages, which link back to the campaign site.

Another Twitter account under PGJ – Presjonathan, previously linked to the Facebook page, is now deleted. There is also a second campaign site, ‘Goodluck Jonathan 2011’, which links to Facebook pages ‘President Jonathan’ and ‘Goodluck Jonathan Campaign’. Jonathan used the latter to announce his candidacy for 2011, but it no longer links to his Twitter or Youtube channels.

I understand that the above is confusing, and that is exactly my point. While there is no evidence of intentional deception, the connections between the supposedly non-partisan campaign groups and presidential candidates and their campaigns AND between the federal government and the election campaign of the president, suggest incompetence at best and lack of probity at worst.

The second emerging trend is that although candidates are using social media, they are not engaging with their followers. The candidates and their representatives often ignore people’s questions on both Facebook and Twitter. But even this lack of feedback has not rubbed off on the followers, who are actively engaged in conversations with each other.

The ugly

One exception to this is the Dele Momodu campaign, administered through his campaign manager MrFixNigeria, whose real name is Ohimai Godwin Amaizey. Unfortunately, his engagement is not always pleasant and in some cases it is outright abusive. This raises questions about bullying on social media and how this can be dealt with.

In the case of MrFixNigeria, it is particularly irresponsible and worrying, given his connection to a political campaign.

One example took place last Sunday. MrFixNigeria sent a tweet stating that the Dele Momodu campaign was offering Naira 5 million in exchange for writing a party manifesto. Although there is nothing illegal about this, many Nigerian Twitter users found this unethical. They are concerned about attaching material gain to a campaign, no matter how well-intended.

The response from MrFixNigeria was dismissive and abusive to me and others to the point where he called me a ‘cockroach’. A section of the conversation is printed below, but more comments to others can be seen on MrFixNigeria’s Twitter timeline for Sunday 17 October between 7am and 10am EST.

blacklooks: @MrFixNigeria OMG if you cannot take criticism on Twitter how do u expect to be President of #Nigeria?

8:32am, Oct 17

MrFixNigeria: @blacklooks DESTRUCTIVE CRITICISMS are like Cockroaches – good only for destruction. All constructive criticisms are very welcome my dear.

8:38am, Oct 17

blacklooks: @MrFixNigeria That is a complete cop out – admit it you cannot deal with criticism – stop offering ppl money to hlp u

8:40am, Oct 17

MrFixNigeria: @blacklooks If you make yourself a Cockroach on my Twitter space, I will treat you as one. Trust me.

8:45am, Oct 17

MrFixNigeria: @blacklooks And you are gradually metamorphosing into a Twitter roach! Hehehe! I have my broomstick waiting for you...rubbish! Lol!

And more...

In another unconnected Twitter conversation on the same day, extremely homophobic comments were exchanged between a number of Nigerian Twitter users. They were related to the outing of a Nigerian celebrity, Charley Boy, in the local media.

These abusive comments are particularly disturbing in the context of the recent outing of LGBTI community in Uganda, who were threatened with hanging, and the increasing number of suicides among young gay boys and men in the US, a consequence of homophobic bullying.

There are many LGBTI Nigerians who use Facebook and Twitter and one has to consider how such bullying impacts on their psyche and security. Although Facebook has a procedure for reporting hate on its site, Twitter appears to be free-for-all, with no clear policy on hate language, abuse or bullying.

Opportunity for offline support

The Nigerian elections are still some six months away and it will be interesting to return to the issues raised in this post to see if there have been any changes.

Dele Momodu’s followers are between a few hundred and 4,000, depending on which sites you visit, and I don’t believe he has much of a chance of being elected, despite the hype around his having the ‘youth’ vote.

So far, President Jonathan has nearly 300,000 fans on his Facebook page and each post there receives between 100 and 3,000 ‘likes’ and comments, which is pretty amazing – it shows that people are seriously interested.

It’s just a shame that his office is not taking this opportunity to actively engage with his followers. Facebook and Twitter also provide an opportunity to recruit a huge number of offline volunteers to support his campaign in the field, but that needs to start now, if there is to be any real impact on voters.

I have not mentioned some of the other candidates, such as Nuhu Ribadu, Atiku Abubakar and Ibrahim Babangida, all of whom have Twitter and other social media accounts. Hopefully someone else will take the time to investigate them in some depth.

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