The online virus globalised Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine’ revolution and sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali packing. While this has been seen as a universal convergence against dictatorships, yet it may have signalled a spike in the political power of the social media. Observers are wondering whether the new media can ignite a similar democratic flame in Nigeria or will be a damp squib.
2011 Elections and the Social Media
The political space in the country has been broadened with the hyperactivity of young people who not only desire change but are impatient about it. With the influx of many groups with a dominating online presence, the 2011 elections seem to be too important to be left for politicians alone. Familiar names like Vote or Quench, RSVP (Register, Select, Vote and Protect), If Naija Votes, have assumed buzz status. More importantly is that the crowd of young Nigerians are making it trendy. Facebook alone has 2,777,440 registered Nigerians – ranking 38 out of 213 countries.
The new media is a blanket term for the internet and mobile telephony. A hybrid of video, text and audio information all available on the internet, the social media is a subgroup of the new media; providing an interactive platform for online communities to share information. Chief amongst these are e-mails, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.
Asides early adopters like Patrick Utomi, Nuhu Ribadu, other Nigerian politicians are becoming internet savvy. Jonathan Goodluck not only hugged Facebook but declared his presidential ambition there and made a book from his conversation with his friends. Soon after, IBB and Atiku followed and even Godswill Akpabio of Akwa Ibom State has started ‘friending’ on that medium.
Besides the politicians, never before has INEC voters registration been so monitored. The predominance of tweets tagged #inecregistration attests to this. Also the Delta Run-off election was observed via Twitter and Facebook. The PDP presidential election was a global trending topic on Twitter – with the contestants and Nigeria rebranded with cyber gaze.
Down with Gatekeepers!
The once cultish aura of editors (TV, radio and newspaper) has been broken. With internet freedom, there is no longer a clear distinction between the news consumer and news makers. Clay Shirky in his Foreign Affairs essay – ‘The Political Power of Social Media’ – conceptualised internet freedom as outlined by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. This freedom comprises of three essential ingredients: “freedom to access information, the freedom of ordinary citizens to produce their own public media; and the freedom of citizens to converse with one another.”
The ubiquity of social media makes it more difficult to track. One thing is obvious; people are talking, not only within the rigid milieu of localisation but beyond it. Armed with a smart phone, more Nigerians now have access to information and thus spill the bile they have bottled up for so long. It seems that the greatest weapon of this century is not the gun but information.
With a reckless political oligarchy flaunting corruption as a norm; the economic bent of the Nigeria situation makes online ‘clicking’ quite attractive. Majority of these young Nigerians – between 18 and 35 – asides being eligible to vote also bear personal scares of the mismanagement of our common good. They want a ‘better life’ for their children, electric power to be a right not a privilege, they need jobs, want to buy or rent homes and in short, a dignified future. This is the group that have ignited the political flame via social media. Their vocal outburst is a manifestation of a deep seated pain. What is not yet certain is whether this fire will endure or will it fizzle out?
Prophet or Pathologist?
Prophets have the divine ability to peer into the future while pathologists are sages made wise with hindsight. Though my ability to foresee lacks any divine potential, I think I am quite comfortable prophesying a rise in political power of social media in Nigeria. The traits are quite obvious. (By the way, most Nigerian prophets deserve a first-class ticket to the infernal pit for manipulating poverty for fantasy).
The legitimacy of the conversation in these new media platforms shows it will endure. This is not the flimsy flippancy of teenagers but a real life need. In this I concur with Clay Shirky that “a public sphere is more likely to emerge in a society as a result of people’s dissatisfaction with matters of economics or day-to-day governance than from their embrace of abstract political ideals.” It is true that not all who join the conversation will translate their courage online to real life. Yet if only twenty percent (555, 488) of the Facebook Nigerian population actually RSVP, it will take more than rigging to beat that.
It is difficult to disagree with a friend who lamented the lack of synchronisation of tweets on the Delta Runoff election. I encountered the same bump when trying to do a blog post on INEC registration in my area in Ibadan. It was difficult to classify information based on city, area and then wards. Nonetheless, this is a minor hitch that I hope will be easily resolved, for a preponderance of information without order, is useless.
For those still expecting a revolution, the truth is that we are witnessing one. While it makes lyrical beauty to rant about a bloody upset to clean the slate, the truth is that type of violence never solves anything but creates more problems. At the click of a button, messages go viral from laptops and mobile phones. Quietly but effectively, this is effecting the change we all dream of. May the political fire of the social media endure and not fade.