By Nwachukwu Egbunike
The internet is a neutral tool but the users are not: they might be fair and balanced or obnoxiously biased. And the Nigerian blogosphere is no exception to this rule. Consequently, it is given that there exists – in some cases – a Janus-like existence between online and offline media.
It takes neither rocket science nor a diviner’s globe to state that the netizen is first and foremost human. As such the identity, bias or both that a netizen expresses on issues in the blogosphere was formed apriori offline. This does not mean that new habits cannot be acquired online, nonetheless, the greater part of our digital footprints are forged not online but entrenched in reality.
In simple terms, it may have been easier to investigate this parallelism between new and old media. But the truth is that it is not that simplistic. For the new media provides no clear demarcation between the user and receiver – all are lumped into an amorphous whole and are situated in one person. While in the old media, the user is distinct from the source of the information.
Media scholars have continued to peer into the divergence and/or convergence the new and old media. Particularly in political communication, the study of social movements and the asymmetrical relationship with old media is a case in point. The emergence of new media, initially offered ‘redemption’ for the fecundity of the message of social movements, however, this was short-lived. Movements now face an entirely new challenge, which Veronica Barassi described as the ‘voice of one’ vs. the ‘voice of all’. This means that the blogosphere while preserving the message of social movements without distortion (as was the case with old media) has also the demerit of destroying the collective group identity.
In the Nigerian context, recent events provide examples for a casual examination of the blogosphere and its netizens. For instance, the BMW malfeasance of the Minister of Aviation, Stella Oduah was a positive for investigative journalism as carried out by an online news medium. The Nigerian Season of Letters also saw the rising influence of social media as an alternative source of news. That the letter of Chief Obasanjo to President Jonathan was leaked to an online news portal illustrates two major assumptions – the new media has gained popular validity, that virtual news eliminates gatekeepers and jumps into the traditional media.
Nonetheless, the fact that the conversations of netizens have moved from new to old media does not automatically translate into the veracity or credibility of news peddled. It is sad that the same online medium that broke the news of the BMW acquisition, also created a phantom Oduah MBA scandal. This media had based their ‘investigations’ on Wikipedia – which can be edited by anyone – to claim that the minister has an MBA from St Paul’s College while Stella Oduah’s CV as submitted to the Senate, never mentioned having any such degree.
These two examples provide a representation of the dynamics of new/old media relationship. Thus a critical lens is needed for a nuanced understanding the Nigerian blogosphere. It is also important in discovering inconsistencies in the actions and reactions of her netizens. The Nigerian blogosphere is neither a romantic avenue for idealistic youths who are desirous for change nor is it street brimming full with idle “children of anger”. The reality is that there are good, bad and ugly netizens. On Nigeria’s Twittvilla, for instance, this perception is necessary to unpack tweets from some ‘overlord’ twitterati. In order words, one finds both brilliant and not so brilliant intelligence. Also there is present in some cases, those who try to pass off as what they are not.
Does being online favour investigative journalism or activism? There is no single answer – it lies in between. The inability of traditional journalists to do their job might have led to the seemly media dependency on online media for ‘credible’ news. However, the credibility of blogosphere news might not be so credible always. The same factors that afflict print media – ownership – have also been inflicted on online media as well. The bias of the sponsors is hardly suppressed and might not necessary be a clear cut positive or negative push for investigative journalism.
The demographics of tech savvy youths vs. old guard have led to an unnecessary bifurcation of the good vs. evil. Just as tech-utopianism against tech-cynicism, has beclouded the creativity and innovation which is imperative in media evaluation. The new media has democratized information; it has delineated the space between the governed and their government. But to the extent that it will hold leaders accountable depend on how online activism is able to substantially threaten the comfort of those in power. The righteous anger of netizens alone will not change anything. Rather it deepens the illusion of ‘change’ of an echo chamber.
But are netizens change vassals? Are they free from the malaise they point out in their leaders? Are they capable to transforming their ideals into actions? Will they move from the comfort and security of their keypads to confront the vicious terrain of political life in Nigeria? I am afraid not.
Nwachukwu Egbunike can be found on twitter as @feathersproject