2023 elections, social media, and matters arising

As Nigerians elect their governors and members of the Houses of Assembly today, TOPE SUNDAY writes on how Nigerians have turned the social media space into a tool to gauge their political interests.

Undoubtedly, Social Media has evolved and become one of the leading tools to solicit votes and mould the people’s opinion in Nigeria, particularly during the electioneering period. According to research, Facebook is the most popular social media in Nigeria, while other popular social media platforms in the country are Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Telegram, YouTube, and TikTok.

Before and during and after the 2023 presidential and the national assembly elections, Nigerian politicians and their followers turned social media into a battleground where both real and fake news were peddled.

Also, major political parties like the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Labour Party (LP) actively embraced social media to sell their candidates and to debunk misinformation about their parties and candidates.

In the run-up to the presidential and national assembly elections, a social media expert and convener of Speak-Up, Emeka Ndaguba, had told Blueprint Weekend that social media had become a veritable tool for political mobilization and campaign, especially among the youth.

“In the last few months, the social media space has been abuzz with supporters of the major contenders for the 2023 general election campaigning for their candidates on social media even when the campaign has not officially commenced. Considering that social media information reaches far and too many people almost immediately than traditional media, its impact cannot be underestimated in any election year, especially in a country like ours where many are yearning for change.

“Recent partnerships between youth organisations and civil society groups have led to concerts targeted at young people in Lagos and Abuja to promote voter registration. As a result of such efforts, 74% of applications for the country’s recent continuous voter registration exercise were from young people,” he said.

Social media’s impact on the presidential poll

Before the 2023 presidential election, the social media space was agog and filled with political activism, allegations, and counter-allegations over some developing issues regarding the elections, and the major candidates. Interestingly, the social media engagements were majorly among the members and loyalists of APC, PDP, and LP.

However, this medium can reliably report that the social media space became saturated and hostile shortly after the conduct of the poll with fake news on the increase. Before the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which is constitutionally mandated to conduct the poll and announce its result, loyalists of APC, PDP, and LP presidential candidates had started laying claims to the electoral victory.

But as soon as INEC announced and declared Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the APC as the president-elect, the social media became hostile, and fake news purveyors rented the air with claims that their preferred candidates won the poll.

While this was going on, some of the active social media users who are politically sympathetic to the president-elect countered their claims and levelled some allegations against their candidates in return.

‘It has come to stay’

A public affairs analyst, Mr. Sunday Alifia, while speaking with this reporter, said social media has come to stay as a tool for political mobilisation, adding that the use of social media which is the virtual means of exchanging information has been on the increase, especially in this 21st century.

He said: “The role of social media globally remains an idea whose time has come to stay as the famous Victor Hugo postulated with no exception to Nigeria. In the 2019 elections, the Atikulated Youth Force, the social media team of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)’s presidential candidate, and the Buhari Media Centre (BMC), with links to the APC, dominated the online discourse.

“These groups of supporters metamorphosed and became more active in the just concluded 2023 presidential election, although part of the BMC then has now evolved to centre on APC presidential candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu, with his supporters identifying as being ‘BATified’. However, they have been supplanted in 2023 by Obidients – the label used by the supporters of the Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate, Peter Obi.”

Speaking further, he said, “They are the most active online actors in this election. In addition to promoting his candidacy (Obidients), many have been accused of spreading mis-information and fake news overzealously. The use of social media which is the virtual means of exchanging information has been on the increase, especially in this 21st century. It has also been used as a strong weapon for the transmission of political activities in Nigeria and the world at large.

“According to Google as of January 2022, Nigeria registered approximately 109 million active internet users, which corresponds to about half of the total population. This simply tells you that social media could be a great weapon for achieving power and influence in Nigeria if properly used. In the run-up to the 2023 elections, the general perception by the ruling party and some quarters were that the deployment of social media by the opposition, especially the Obidients, was a mere paperweight.”

He added that, “Some even said elections are not won on social media and that those making noise on the social platform don’t even have their PVC. But such gospel messengers have forgotten that social media engagement could transcend to citizen mobilisation on the street.

In the history of voting population registration in Nigeria since the era of the return to democracy in 1999 precisely, the youths turned up in 2023 have never been this way.

“In fact, records have shown that the youth’s active participation in the 2023 general election in voting capacity rose to 40% of the entire population demographically. The mobilisation was perfected on social media. So, social media have played a vital role either negatively or positively. The users could spring a huge surprise in our future election and could also determine who rules the country in no time from now taking our premise from the last presidential election.”

‘Didn’t impact on voter turn-out’

However, a legislative aide at the National Assembly, Mr. Aliyu Usman, in his view, said despite the heavy presence of Nigerians on social media before the election, its impact was not significant, claiming that the turnout of the electorate was low during the exercise.

Usman said: “It is hard to tell if social media had any impact on the 2023 elections because it is not possible to measure such outcome with a visceral assessment, and no study has been done to determine the extent of Social Media influence. However, based on the evidence of voters’ behaviour and electoral outcome that are out of the exercise, it is safe to say social media didn’t have much impact.

“he first thing to observe is that the 2023 election is one of the most vociferous on social media, yet it had the lowest turn-out of voters. Secondly, the traditional political parties (APC and PDP) had more votes and by implication performed better than Labour Party which laid claim to social media’s favour over the top four presidential candidates. And lastly, voting patterns reflected traditional political sentiments across most of the states bar Lagos, Osun, and Nasarawa. And the candidate of the Labour Party did particularly well in certain areas not necessarily because of social media but because of local sentiments.

“I will, therefore, like to state that social media narratives themselves don’t exist in isolation. They are to a small extent, results of political activity, but especially engineering by politicians or people who support a particular politician to skew the narrative in their favour, and to predict favourable outcomes for themselves by creating a semblance of national spread.

“For instance, we saw an army of bots with northern-looking names and testimonials. They were raised for the campaign of a particular candidate who still didn’t do well in a greater percentage of the north. It is worthy of note that the bots have since fizzled out after the election.”

Platform for fake news during polls

According to a mass communication scholar, Dr. Rasaq Adisa, who admitted that social media has become a powerful tool in shaping public opinion that influences political activities in the electioneering periods in Nigeria, it was used as a platform for fake news before and after the polls.

Adisa, who is of the Mass Communication Department, at the University of Ilorin, said the roles of social media in the last election did not go without controversy, adding that it was greatly used to spread fake news, misinformation, and mis-information.

“My assessment of social media roles in the last February 25, 2023, general election is based on the following: There’s no doubt that social media has become a powerful tool in shaping public opinion that influences political activities in the electioneering periods in Nigeria. Specifically, social media such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have provided great opportunities for political candidates and parties to communicate directly with voters, and share their policy positions and campaign messages.

“These social media platforms also allow for the spread of information and news at an unprecedented speed and scale like never before in the Nigerian election, by enabling Nigerians to quickly and easily access a range of viewpoints and perspectives about presidential candidates and other candidates. Additionally, I can say that social media platforms were used by all the candidates to facilitate the mobilisation and organisation of youth movements and campaigns,” he said.

Continuing, he said, “However, the roles of social media in the last election did not go without controversy. It was greatly used to spread fake news, misinformation, and disinformation. We can see many fake election results through social media. The politicians also used them to manipulate public opinion along religious and ethnic lines. Particularly, the churches used them to sway Nigerians’ minds towards a particular candidate for the presidential race.

“To me, I think the way social media was used in this electioneering campaign has resulted in the reinforcement of pre-existing biases and polarisation in Nigeria. The Lagos state and Yoruba reactions to LP governorship candidates is a case study. Generally, I can say that social media played the role of voice to the voiceless and platforms for spreading rumours, fake and hate speeches.”

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