Social media now battlefield for 2023 polls – Experts




As Nigeria goes to the polls next year to elect its leaders, social media appears to have become a tool to canvas for votes, sell candidates, and at the same time, bully the people with dissenting views.  TOPE SUNDAY and BENJAMIN SAMSON take a look at the scenario in this report.

The advent of social media has changed how politics is played around the world, and Nigeria is not an exception. According to research, Facebook is the most popular social media in Nigeria, despite the huge presence of other platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Telegram, YouTube and Tik Tok. As the country goes to the polls, the use of social media has become very pronounced, and political parties and their candidates have keyed into it.

As it stands, social media has become the platform where both real and fake news are peddled. The major political parties like the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Labour Party (LP) have embraced social media to sell their candidates and to debunk misinformation about their parties and candidates.

Blueprint Weekend can report that some social media users are employing the platform to bully some people who differ from their beliefs and ideologies, and in most cases, some even resort to curse and abuse. In all, misinformation is now the order of the day.

Social media

Speaking with our reporter, a social media expert and convener of Speak-Up, Emeka Ndaguba, said as  the country approaches 2023, social media has become a veritable tool for political mobilisation 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 elections campaigning for their candidates on social media even when the campaign has not officially begun.

“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.

“With nearly eight million new registrations, young Nigerians are presently topping PVC registrations out of 10 million fresh registrants, which significantly boost the percentage of youth-registered voters from 2019 significantly. With the frenzy and preparation for the forthcoming 2023 elections in Nigeria, it is pertinent to note that youths have unanimously decided to become active and take their place in politics.

“We have seen the influence of some celebrities and social media influencers on most of their followers. On social media, mainly Twitter, which is the most comfortable environment for youths to express their emotions, there has been a noticeable reduction of political apathy among youths. They are determined to get their permanent voter cards (PVCs) and ready to vote for whoever they feel deserves to become the president,” he said.

In the same vein, a Port Harcourt-based public affairs analyst, Comrade Sunday Alifia, said social media engagement is a revolution.

He said: “The use of social media in social engagement, political engagement is a revolution and an idea whose time has come as postulated by Victor Hugo, the future man.  The digital strategy has been a lifeline of the campaign for young people. The young men and women create and connect in their millions for a matter of interest. Recall that during the #EndSARS saga, it was beautifully deployed on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

“In 2015,  and the 2019 general elections, social media was massively used against Buhari and Jonathan respectively, so, the technology is here to add up to the  already existing way of political campaigning. Nonetheless, social media influence on politics has attracted much attention and that is why the LP and the supporters of its presidential candidate, Peter Obi, are deploying it effectively.

“The majority of those spreading the Obi-dient gospel are youths who form a major demographic in the voting population. How far they can go in the 2023 polls is another question, but it will not be business as usual as the LP candidate is seen as a fresh face from those of the two major parties. Even if Obi does not win the presidency, he would have made the impact to give people the courage that they can make a change in the future.”

He said further that, “The good thing about it is that the youths connect on social media and regroup and in the streets, just like they did during EndSARS. It’s really influential, although not all those who engage on social media for political campaigns have PVCs, nevertheless the drum beat about their dreams and aspirations is loud and clear.

“Social media deployment by the youth is used to campaign, intimidate and create political tension against the opponents just as Obi-dient slogan is going on at the moment. They have been able to register Obi-dient in the minds of millions of Nigerians to the point that if churches talked about members’ obedience to the gospel, watchers will jump into conclusion that the church is aligning to the Peter Obi presidency. That is the power of social media engagement”

Social versus traditional media

However, a political communication experts and a lecturer of mass communication at the Federal University, Lafia, Nasarawa state, Dr. Godwin Oniwon, told our reporter that although social media is gaining grounds in the build-up to the 2023 general elections, the traditional media is still the more relevant.

“Although the media has since gone digital and news coverage has gone digital, traditional media still holds sway among many Nigerians, particularly radio, which is cheap to buy and portable to carry from place to place, even on android phones.

 “Nonetheless, social media influence on politics has attracted much attention because the Labour Party and supporters of its presidential candidate, Peter Obi, are deploying it effectively. The two other candidates, Abubakar Atiku of the PDP and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of APC, are also active on social media; some as far back as 2013. The majority of those spreading the Obi-dient gospel are youths who form a major demographic in the voting population.

“How far they can go in the 2023 polls is another question, but it will not be business as usual as the Labour Party candidate is seen as a fresh face from those of the two major parties. Unlike what happens in the developed world like the U.S.A where ex-President Barack Obama deployed it to maximum use to cause an upset in the 2000 presidential election, his successor Donald Trump prided himself as the most social media-friendly president in American history, internet penetration in Nigeria is still very low.

“Considering the country’s population of about 200 million, it is still largely an urban affair. Social media has 60 per cent coverage in the country more than the traditional media of radio, television, and newspapers combined. But sadly, social media has little presence of boomers, those above 50 years. This has created the impression that nothing significant is happening on social media,” he said.

Fake news, hate speech

Likewise, the director-general of Centre for Leadership and Governance, Dr. Kemi Adebisi, lamented the pervasiveness of fake news, hate speech and misinformation on social media.

She said: “The rise of social media has offered numerous advantages, including the ability to make money, networking, and developing professionalism by breaking barriers, creating content, business growth, and other opportunities.

“For these reasons, people around the globe have leveraged social media platforms as the most pervasive technological development in the world. Given the ease of citizen engagement, social media platforms have offered increased access to citizen participation.

“Unfortunately, social media is also used for the spread of fake news and hate speech. There are numerous instances in which some users of the internet have used social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram to cultivate disreputable means of gaining clout by fabricating stories without verifiable sources or facts. Sometimes these stories are propaganda by users with ill intentions or satirists mischievously creating disruptions to mislead the reader and serve selfish reasons that could be detrimental to society.

“Social media is filled with fake news, half-truths, and malicious lies from all sides. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between fake news and accurate news. Character assassination and dirty language are also rife.

“Fake news peddlers creating parody accounts on social media during periods of crisis is another warning to Nigerians. These social media accounts are often generated by ill-minded people who are impersonating high-profile personalities to take advantage of the situation to direct traffic to their blogs and incite crises for selfish motives.

“The viral video of the members of the National Association of Seadogs (Pyrates Confraternity) gyrating to a song about a presidential candidate’s health condition is a prelude to the satirisation that will still come as the 2023 elections draw closer.”

Facts-checking

Similarly, Dr. Godwin Oniwon lamented the spate of disinformation and fake news carried, especially by the political elite, ahead of the 2023 general elections. He, however, called for a fact-checking training for information managers as a way to tackle fake news and disinformation.

“The fact-checking training is actually to bring a very large number of Nigerians who are in information management and information dissemination to incapacitate them, enhance their competence level in countering the menace of fake news and disinformation which has actually come to stay with us.

 “Most importantly, we are concerned that as we are moving towards the 2023 general election, we will be faced with lots of fake news and disinformation, especially coming from the political elites. It is very important that we try to avert our minds, and we must find a way of countering this fake news, and the only way to do this is to have a very large number of fact-checkers trained across the country.

 “We must be mindful that disinformation, misinformation and fake News, as the name implies, is very often intended to instigate, cause hate, anger, and acrimony with the main aim of causing disaffection, division, violence, and even war. Fake news is outright falsehood; distorted or alternative facts purveyed as authentic news intended to mislead people, cause disaffection, confusion, and chaos. Although fake news has been with us over time, the advent of the internet, especially social media, has encouraged its spread like wildfire.

 “This is further exacerbated by the use of religious, ethnic and political platforms to promote these negative values. Susceptibility to disinformation is usually a product of insufficient analytical thinking, rather than motivated reasoning. In other words, we’re too stuck in automatic system thinking and not enough in analytic system thinking. Prevention, not cure, may be a more effective way to combat misinformation and one of the most effective means of prevention is to build people’s capacity to fact-check.”

Advice to politicians

Oniwon said to avoid violence in the country politicians and their supporters must desist from insulting and ridiculing others. According to him, hate speech could cause violence which may lead to loss of lives.

He said: “Although detecting fake news remains a challenge, considering the time factor, labour, logistics, and technological resources, it is necessary to curtail its spread before it causes more carnage to lives and national development.

“Thus, the exceptional works by other media platforms to curb the spread of fake news through fact-checking are commendable and should be sustained to foster peace and unity in the country.

” As we are aware, the run-up to the general elections in Nigeria is usually characterized by the blatant use of provocative, strong and derogatory hate speeches by political actors and persons who are inclined to their political interests.

“These speeches are not peculiar to Nigeria, it has become a strong tool in the hands of persons with divisive tendencies before, during and after elections. Their aim is to insult and ridicule perceived opponents of political parties and aspirants and thereby incite electoral violence leading to loss of lives and destruction of properties.”

He explained that it is even more worrisome and unfortunate when relevant stakeholders including some religious leaders and media houses joined the “foray of spreading hate speeches.”

On his part, an Abuja-based ICT expert, Mr. Olaleye Obidiya, said the social media war between the presidential candidates would make a difference if the right strategies are deployed.

“I think the social media war between the supporters of the different parties and their presidential candidates can make a difference if the right strategies are deployed. One of the strategies is to take the sensitisation beyond social media, and engage the inhabitants in rural areas. Help them understand why the popular party voting is the wrong way to go this time around. The involved parties and their supporters should be strategic in their dealings, both on social media and in the offline campaigns,” he said.

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