“Elections are not won on Twitter”? | As Aregbesola wins, Joachim MacEbong interrogates this statement

by Joachim MacEbong


This is a famous jibe of some people (most of whom lean toward the PDP) against those they call ‘social media activists’, ‘bloggers’ and so on. The ‘social media activists’ tend to lean toward the opposition APC, and they dominate the social media space with their followers, passion, and sharp rhetoric. Their PDP counterparts are increasingly combative as well and have their own following, but it is safe to say that opposition supporters own social media, or at least, Twitter.

The fact that social media has gone from an afterthought to having its influence on elections even being debated inside four years, shows just how far the medium has come, and how far it can go.

As a result of the incapacitation of President Umaru Yar’Adua, the intrigues in its wake, and the Enough Is Enough movement was born. By 2011, social media was being harnessed for election reporting, via the Revoda application and the Situation Room.

January 2012 saw social media used for mobilising the Occupy Nigeria protests, in response to the removal of petrol subsidies. These subsidies were eventually reinstated partially, but the point had been made: Nigerians had discovered a new way to hold their government accountable, and they would use that tool at every opportunity.

From the rape incident at the Abia State University, to Child Not Bride, legislators’ allowances and most notably with #BringBackOurGirls, social media has demonstrated an ability to improve governance, even a little bit.

It exposes institutions or public figures to feedback they might not otherwise have gotten. The instant reaction to proposed policies have led to clarifications or outright changes in some instances. One such instance occurred late last year, with a proposed bill on electronic fraud that had a clause inserted which said: “any person who intentionally propagates false information that could threaten the security of the country or that is capable of inciting  the general public against the government through electronic message shall be guilty of an offence and upon conviction,  shall be sentenced to seven years imprisonment, or a fine of N5m, or both”. The outcry that greeted this clause in the bill led to its removal.

Social media breaks down barriers around institutions and public figures, connecting them directly to the public. The effect of this is to humanise the institution or public figure, making them more relatable. Atiku Abubakar’s social media engagement is a great example of this. An increasing number of politicians and their aides have come to engage on Twitter and Facebook, using the platforms to disseminate statements and burnish their image. Some could not stand the heat, while others have engaged only sparingly after achieving – or not achieving – their political objectives.

In terms of absolute numbers, Nigeria is in the top 10 globally for people connected to the internet, while the penetration rate is about 30%, indicating that there is still a lot of room for growth. As the price of smartphones and data reduce over time, these numbers will only increase.

As the numbers of connected Nigerians have climbed and more people outside cities like Lagos and Abuja have joined the online party, there is a clear sense that politicians see the direction of the trend, and are increasing their online footprint. As election season got underway in Ekiti, Kayode Fayemi invited popular bloggers to observe what he had done in his state, and in general, social media appeared to be an important part of his re-election campaign. His loss, then, was interpreted in part as a failure of that approach.

Nothing could be further from the truth, as can be seen from the victory of Rauf Aregbesola, for whom several Twitter profiles, handles, and trending topics were offered in sacrifice. He was clearly the social media favourite, and he did spend a considerable budget on winning the online war.

The message is clear, really: Social media is merely a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

The aim of online engagement is to trigger offline action, and no one who understands the medium can say otherwise. For as long as people cannot vote with their phones, they still have to register, collect permanent voters’ cards, select their candidates, come out on election day and vote, as well as protect their votes. Even in the event that engaging online improves the perception of a particular politician, it will not matter without a corresponding series of offline actions.

Social media also cannot make up for serious political missteps. If a governance style has proved unpopular, its use may not help significantly, especially if the electorate are not active on those platforms. In short, any social media strategy must be contextual. You must know where the voters are, and go there to engage with them. If those you need to reach are best influenced by text messages, there may be no need to use Twitter. There are several other social platforms where a significant number of Nigerians congregate.

It is also interesting to note that those who say: ‘Elections are not won on Twitter’, come on Twitter to say so. If Twitter and other social media platforms do not matter, why do we see sympathisers of both parties go after each other day in, day out? Why do they constantly trade insults and counter the narratives of the other side? Why has the social media space become more confrontational with every passing day as elections approach?

These gladiators probably know something others don’t know. Famous ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky said once: ‘I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been’. While social media is not going to decide any elections next year, it will become increasingly influential. The best thing is to be ready.


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