Last week, Twitter users this side of the Niger experienced a display of rare humility by a subset of that group of social media users known as influencers. Promises of follow backs in exchange for likes and retweets were rampant from new handles being recast in the image of their originals after Twitter’s wave of suspensions.
For plagiarism and tweetdecking, spamming and cyber-bullying among other reasons, more than 70 million accounts have been suspended since the social media platform initiated a purge. In the wake of increased scrutiny and criticism of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter over their inability to ensure their platforms are safe spaces for conversations, Twitter’s suspension of accounts is a major statement in enforcing its rules which, until now, have not been put into action very often.
There is no official statement on why the accounts in Nigeria were suspended. It would appear to be a case of dealing with plagiarists and cyber bullies as some reactions to the suspensions suggest. Were that to be the case, the moral is that there are networks of account holders whose activities on Twitter have led to the multiplication of artificial voices on the platform. These voices tend to sway opinion into territories that produce clouds of paranoia and misinformation, both of which are adverse societal conditions for which Twitter does not wish to be the motivator or breeding ground.
Social media found its public role in Nigeria in the Occupy protests of January 2011. But since it was founded in March 2006, the 2015 elections was the first time Twitter really arrived on the electoral process in Nigeria, thanks in part to the boom in internet penetration before the elections. The campaigns for Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election and of Buhari’s third successive bid for the presidency invested heavily in social media influencers. Even if the Jonathan campaign seemed to drift into confused messaging at some point, it did not stop it from throwing as much money as possible in last-ditch attempts to sway the conversation against Buhari’s election. To the extent that Twitter was the battleground for the war on owning the narrative, the role played by owners of accounts with large followers to form walls of resistance and attack with multiply-shared tweets as armoury cannot be over-emphasized.
And as internet penetration has continued to increase since then, the figures up by more than half, we can expect that Twitter will once again be the turf on which President Buhari’s re-election campaign will be most vigorously advocated and antagonized. We already have semblances of this with presidential hopefuls quoting online polls conducted by some of those influencer accounts from 2015 as though they were authoritative statements of popularity representative of voter sentiments across the country. The association of activities on Twitter with authority produces the need for the platform to ensure that it does not become a hub for the kind information that becomes disseminated as though they were without bias.
As the 2019 conversations heat up, other forms of bias related to race, religion, ethnicity and gender will come into play, which could yet see more evictions undertaken. There will be arguments as to whether the company may tacitly give an advantage to any side of the conversation with its pattern of suspensions, or if it becomes too high-handed in suppressing the freedom of speech. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s joining board has generated mostly praise, but it will be interesting to see how much her influence will be questioned as the build-up to the re-election of her boss’s successor intensifies. She’s not quite the Twitter overlord but activity from her account as well as offline statements will be subject to much interest.