By Omotayo Ayanda
In the age of connectivity, social media platforms have emerged as powerful tools that influence public opinion, ignite political movements, and provide a space for individuals to express themselves. In Nigeria, a country with a vibrant online community, the impact of social media on political discourse and the challenges it poses to digital rights and online freedom of expression are becoming increasingly evident.
Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp, have evolved into powerful tools that shape public opinion, spark political movements, and provide individuals with a space to express their voices. This article delves into the multifaceted role of social media in the Nigerian context, focusing on its empowering effects and the challenges it poses to digital rights and the fundamental principle of online freedom of expression. Likewise, it aims to provide an in-depth analysis of how social media is reshaping the political landscape in Nigeria, while addressing the critical concerns that have emerged in its wake.
The Rise of Social Media in Nigeria:
In recent years, the rise of social media in Nigeria has been nothing short of revolutionary. Social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and others, have witnessed a significant increase in users, fundamentally altering the way Nigerians communicate, access information, and engage in various aspects of their lives.
Increased internet penetration, driven by the availability of affordable smartphones and data plans, has made social media accessible to a larger segment of the population. The growth of 3G and 4G networks in urban and rural areas has improved connectivity, enabling more Nigerians to access social media platforms.
Nigeria has a predominantly youthful population, and young people have been at the forefront of the social media surge. The youth’s digital savvy nature has led to a rapid adoption of social media for various purposes, including social interaction, education, and political engagement.
Social media has become a hub for political discourse, with politicians, activists, and citizens using platforms like Twitter to discuss policies, voice concerns, and mobilize for social and political causes. The influence of social media on Nigerian politics is evident, with campaigns, protests, and advocacy efforts often finding their origins or gaining momentum on these platforms.
Social media has become a primary source of news and information for many Nigerians. People rely on platforms like Facebook and Twitter to stay updated on current events. Citizen journalists and bloggers use social media to share news, personal experiences, and analysis.
Social media has also transformed the business landscape, with many entrepreneurs and businesses leveraging these platforms for marketing, advertising, and customer engagement. Influencer marketing and e-commerce have thrived on platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp.
Beyond politics and business, social media provides a space for Nigerians to connect with friends, family, and acquaintances. Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are integral for personal communication.
The rise of social media in Nigeria has had far-reaching consequences, from amplifying the voices of marginalized groups to providing a platform for political activism and grassroots movements. It has reshaped the way Nigerians access information, engage with political issues, and participate in the digital economy. As a result, social media has become an indispensable part of the country’s social, cultural, and political fabric.
Empowering the Voiceless:
Social media has emerged as a powerful tool for amplifying the voices of marginalized individuals and communities in Nigeria. In the past, many of these voices remained unheard or were underrepresented in traditional media and political discourse.
Marginalized groups, such as victims of injustice, discrimination, or government abuse, have found a platform on social media to express their grievances and tell their stories. Individuals who may have previously suffered in silence now have a means to share their experiences with a broader audience.
Social media has enabled citizens to demand justice and accountability from authorities and institutions. They can bring attention to cases of police brutality, human rights violations, and corruption. Hashtags like #EndSARS, which called for the end of police brutality in Nigeria, gained widespread attention and mobilized citizens to demand justice and reform.
Social media campaigns have been effective in raising awareness about critical issues. For instance, the #BringBackOurGirls movement drew global attention to the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram, putting pressure on the government to take action. These campaigns not only inform the public but also galvanize support and solidarity from both within Nigeria and internationally.
Social media platforms foster the formation of virtual communities where marginalized individuals can connect, support one another, and share resources. These communities provide emotional and practical support, creating a sense of belonging for those who may have felt isolated.
Marginalized voices often evolve into advocacy movements that use social media to influence change. These movements can put pressure on authorities, corporations, and institutions to address their concerns. Social media has enabled the coordination of protests, campaigns, and advocacy efforts with remarkable speed and efficiency.
Challenges to Digital Rights:
While the rise of social media in Nigeria has brought about numerous positive changes and opportunities, it has also introduced significant challenges to digital rights and online freedom of expression.
Governments, including the Nigerian government, have sought to control the digital space, leading to concerns about online censorship. Attempts to regulate or censor content on social media platforms have raised questions about the extent to which governments can limit freedom of expression online.
The Cybercrime Act in Nigeria and proposed legislation to regulate social media have drawn attention to the legal framework surrounding digital rights. These laws, while intended to address issues such as cybercrime and misinformation, have generated debates about the potential for overreach and infringement on citizens’ online freedom.
The digital age has enabled governments and other actors to monitor online activities, which can infringe on individual privacy rights. Citizens are concerned about the extent of surveillance, data collection, and potential misuse of their personal information.
Fake News and Misinformation:
The proliferation of fake news and misinformation on social media is a pressing and complex challenge, not only in Nigeria but also on a global scale.
Fake news and misinformation are false or misleading pieces of information presented as facts. When shared on social media, they can quickly go viral and reach a vast audience. These false narratives can have serious real-world consequences. For instance, misinformation about health can lead to wrong medical choices, while political misinformation can influence elections and social misinformation can trigger panic or violence.
To combat misinformation on social media, multiple strategies need to be employed. Fact-checking organizations and individuals analyze and verify the accuracy of claims, helping to debunk false information.
Promoting media literacy helps individuals critically assess the information they encounter, teaching them how to discern reliable sources from unreliable ones. Encouraging critical thinking skills among social media users empowers them to question the information they encounter.
Speaking with a social scientist, Dr. Samuel Opoola, who canvassed that social media companies need to take steps to address misinformation on their platforms. This includes the use of algorithms to identify and reduce the spread of false information, warning labels and fact-checking notifications should be applied to disputed content.
Dr. Opoola said that governments can play a role in regulating misinformation, but it’s a delicate balance. According to him, “excessive government control can lead to censorship and stifling of free speech. Governments can also promote media literacy and support fact-checking efforts to combat misinformation.
He added that civil society organizations, media, and concerned citizens must take part in combating misinformation, conduct investigations, share accurate information, and raise awareness about the dangers of fake news.
“Engaging the public in the fight against misinformation is essential for building a more informed and vigilant society”, he said.
In is own view, a Veteran Journalist, Elder Ezekiel Ayanda said that, combating misinformation on social media is a multifaceted task that requires collective efforts from social media platforms, governments, civil society, and individuals.
He said that “while maintaining freedom of expression and privacy rights, it’s crucial to develop strategies and initiatives that promote accurate information and critical thinking, ensuring that the digital space remains a source of reliable and trustworthy content for the benefit of society”.
No doubt, social media has become a powerful platform that empowers ordinary citizens in Nigeria. It provides a voice to those who were previously unheard, amplifying their grievances, demands for justice, and experiences. Movements like #EndSARS and #BringBackOurGirls exemplify how social media serves as a catalyst for social and political change by allowing marginalized voices to reach a wider audience.
As Nigeria continues to evolve in the digital era, protecting and promoting the fundamental rights of its citizens in the online realm is paramount. This includes respecting freedom of expression, privacy, and ensuring that the digital landscape remains a space where citizens can engage, express, and advocate for their concerns without undue restrictions.
In summary, social media’s role in Nigeria’s political discourse is a double-edged sword. While it empowers citizens and drives change, it also poses significant challenges. Navigating this complex landscape necessitates a commitment to protecting digital rights, combating misinformation, and finding ways to balance the empowerment of citizens with the need to maintain the integrity of the digital space.
Ultimately, the evolution of Nigeria in the digital era requires careful consideration of how to harness the potential of social media while safeguarding the core principles of democracy, good governance, and human rights.