Whether you think it’s a narrow attack on easily identifiable social media voices or a dispassionate assessment of a growing social problem, what NOEL IHEBUZOR writes here (produced un-edited) is quite fascinating.
Reactions to recent events in Nigeria, notably the very tragic loss of lives in the crash of a Dana aircraft and the changing of the name of the former University of Lagos to Moshood Abiola University, Lagos bring again to the fore some persisting peculiarities about social media usage in Nigeria.
In the former, whilst families and almost the entire nation stood in shock and mourned in a spontaneous outburst of grief and outrage, a group of individuals jumped on the sad event and sought, after a brief interlude of demonstration of solidarity with families affected by the tragedy, to twist it to advance particular agendas. In the latter, rational discussion and review were marred by a combination ethnic undertones in the reactions and comments of a number of Nigerians and again by an “events hijack” by a group of individuals anxious to score political points.
The ethnic undertones were indeed disturbing and of such a strength and intensity that some persons were even willing to venture as far as to question the significance and brand value of MKO in relation to the institution that was being re-named after him. This was surprising as it came from a section of the country that had all along clamoured for some fitting recognition for MKO for his contribution to the re-emergence of democracy in Nigeria. Politics does strange things to people’s memory and their judgments!
But let us leave that aside for now with the hope to return to it on some other occasion.
My interest is this write up is the behaviour of a particular group of users of social media, specifically “Twitter”. This group is of interest to me because they were in the forefront of the attempts to politically hijack the two events I had mentioned earlier in this write up. This group dominates the Naija Twitter space by the sheer volume of their tweets and see themselves as social activists. It sees itself as the social conscience of our nation and has arrogated to itself the moral high ground of socio-political rectitude and probity. I write this piece as a first sketch of the sociology of this group. My intention is to see what, at a first level of examination, the patterns of conduct of this group on Twitter as a social media can reveal for the field of sociology of groups.
The easiest definition of sociology is that it is a study of society – how society is structured, the rules, the norms, codes and convention that govern it and the power relations which sustain it. Sociology looks closely at institutions, especially at its norms, rules, laws and codes. Central to sociology is the assumption that things do not just happen and that no structure in society, no event, no human action happens by chance. By implication, events in society are linked by a deep nexus of functions, causality, intentions and end seeking behaviour.
Sociology assumes that human actions are purposive but are framed in time and space by rules, norms and functions. Events and actions are socially determined, rewarded and sanctioned by rules, norms and conventions which in the end betray power relations, social functions and status.
Sociology also sees every society as being made up of smaller units or communities, which are also mini societies in themselves. Each of these communities would have its norms, rules, conventions, power structure and reward system. In the larger society we can then find a community of writers, a religious community, an Agbero community, a medical community, a social media community and even within this community, a twitter “social activist” community!
It is this last group that I will be looking at in this article that attempts, as I have indicated earlier on, a first sketch of its sociology. This first sketch is based on observations from the tweeting habits of this Nigerian “Twitter Social Activist community”, especially the content, pattern, language and style of its “tweeple”.
These observations allow one to uncover a discernable power structure, clear pecking order, a set of unwritten rules of engagement, and a package of incentives and reward structures that ensure group cohesion and sustain loyalty. These observations were made from January to June 2012, it therefore covers from the “occupy” period right up to the recent June “sting”. I will be looking at the following – purpose and intention of this group – (stated or implicit), structure of the group, control and incentives, content of tweets, ground rules (stated or implicit), how the group deals with opposition and the spatial distribution of this group. This article is exploratory and I welcome comments and challenges.
Purpose and intention
The major ambition of this “social activist community” is to steer and dominate public opinion to the point of suffocating and drowning any dissenting voices. In the current dispensation, this ultimate end game is to unseat the PDP in 2015. Marketing this agenda and drawing supporters to it has been greatly facilitated by the seeming inability of the Jonathan administration to deal in a decisive way with critical problems of governance in this country, especially corruption, insecurity and decline in our social services provision sector.
In the short and medium terms, the objectives are to magnify these failings of the GEJ administration, increase its unpopularity, undervalue and rubbish any achievements it may lay claims to. Regime change through the ballot is the ultimate goal. The means to this end include direct insults to the presidency and the person of the president, distortion of events to inculpate the president, deliberate falsehoods, exaggerations, ridicule, biased reporting and deliberately outrageous remarks meant to inflame and confuse. Members of this group are socialized into behaviours that produce all of these in the tweets. This socialization is achieved through a subtle blend of social pressure and incentives made possible by the structure of this “activist” community.
The structure of the community looks deceptively flat but it is not so in reality. There is an overall leader and below him/her, another level of leaders. These second level leaders are in charge of their specific “cells” and do their best to maintain a supportive and “mentoring” relationship with members with the aim of cleverly creating a dependence syndrome by these members. Below this second leadership level, and within these cells, there is the broad followership. In this broad followership, you will find an assorted array of persons – male and female, who function more or less as enforcers and hit men and women. Their job is to increase the anti-government tweet traffic and protect their members by hacking at anybody bold enough to challenge tweets from them.
In many ways, this “social activist” community functions with a lot of the modus operandi and patterns of typical cults in our tertiary institutions – follow and obey the cult leader, loyalty to the cult and to its overall mission is more important than your individual likes and dislikes; your individual standing in society is actualized and enhanced the more the cult flourishes; your blind and unquestioning loyalty is critical for the cult to flourish. As with cults, so it is with this community where members willingly abandon reason and logic to follow the tweets of their leaders and defend these with passion and fury!
The overall leader of this community is not elected. Rather he/she emerges by self-selection, exploiting any surviving credibility from previous political incarnations to dazzle and befuddle members. This surviving credibility is carefully nurtured, packaged and repackaged and kept in the eyes of this “activist” community who relate with him or her with considerable adulation! He or she shapes and determines of the social activist agenda and direction for the week. This is usually achieved through the use of well-choreographed regular clinics on Twitter where this leader fields and answers questions and then makes broad swipes at persons and institutions. Such clinics then set the tone for the week and the abuse sound byte for that week is usually released during such clinics. The contents of the clinics are constantly shared to all members through the instrumentality of “Following”, retweets, member replies and new tweets by members – the purpose of these being to amplify the leader’s voice and reach.
Let us suppose that the leader’s name on Twitter is @Yabiswacko, then the members, especially the second level leaders quickly start sending out tweets like “If you are not following @Yabiswacko now, you are missing a lot. Please retweet”. Because of the architecture of twitter, once you send out this message @Yabiswacko automatically knows it and you suddenly come to his attention as a strong ally! Any member who retweets or replies is also noticed. This explains the rather sudden burst in tweeting and retweets that accompany the leader’s clinic sessions, as tweeple, especially the new recruits and fresh converts, all start tweeting away and struggling to be noticed.
Control and incentives
How does this community manage to control its members? This is intriguing and the leaders of this community have developed and modified the use of a management pattern described in management literature as influence without authority. The modification comes in the form of the subtle blend of thought control tactics with reward and recognition. Leadership is always feeding its members with a specific spin on issues that ends up warping their minds and creating in them a sense of hysteria. It exploits a desire to belong by young people and uses subtle and psychological pressure to get these young people in their various locations to respond along lines that the leader desires.
One group-belongingness strategy consists in creating a belief among members of this group that they, the self-certified social activists are the correct, morally upright few with vision and boldness. Further recognition also comes in the form of retweets and mentions by the leaders, something which members crave. Another form of recognition is promoting the member with the greatest volubility and distinction in insolence by the leader with a tweet such as “Follow @Fineshineshinebobo444 – he is a great Nigerian”! Members then retweet! Or this for a group of selected members – “Please follow @hair_ead999 @liteebrane001 @hemuty_kokohead0Y0 @FyneGal789 because they are Nigerian youths with vision”. This type of recognition is anxiously sought after and lapped up by young men and women thirsty for social recognition.
The final recognition, the icing on the cake is made when the leaders and his lieutenants follow the tweeter in question. This type of recognition is celebrated the same way an adolescent boy celebrates the first sign of hair growth on his face!
Content of tweets
Most of the tweets are one liner swipes and insults. Name calling is rampant – goons, thugs, thieves occur with deadening repetitiveness and frequency. Complex situations are reduced to simple statements and blame is shared very liberally, with finger pointing always pointing to the other person.
Any event that embarrasses government is celebrated and orchestrated to the point that some tweeple were triumphant at the yellow card incident in South Africa, the failed rescue mission where two hostages died, killed by the captors. A screaming tweet – something like – “British Army invades Nigerian territory” suddenly jarred the twitter space as one tweeple gave expression to the sensationalism which is also a feature of the behaviour of this group. NOI failed bid for the World Bank presidency was celebrated in style and with rejoicing. There is a restructuring in a federal ministry and the first reaction is to gloat because of a feeling that the personal ssistant to the minister in the affected ministry is going to lose his job!
The Bashorun MKO recognition effort was roundly rubbished as the “clueless” act of a “clueless” and “shoe-less” president, the Dana crash was caused by presidential incompetence, the president tears at the sight of the crash were fake, the cassava bread is a no brainer, GEJ is trying to undo UNILAG by renaming it MAUL because he failed to get admitted there … the list is endless – a sad commentary on how far the slide in mental processing has gone in certain sections of the populace of this country.
No visible ideology, no alternative vision, no grand plan are discernable in the tweets of this group. Rather what seeps through is simple intense dislike for the president. A growing number of these tweeple are beginning to have their own blogs but apart from a minuscule of well-argued articles, content and style are one dimensional, single simple story in orientation, and usually marred by bias, deliberate deceptive spins, and distortions. Whatever facts are in them are badly mangled by subjectivity and poorly concealed political motives.
Every community has its ground rules. The “social activist” is no exception. You can discern some of their unwritten ground rules from their tweeting behaviour.
1. Never criticise those higher than you on the pecking order.
2. Never disagree with those higher than you in public. Use the DM facility, if you must disagree.
3. Align behind the leadership and follow them, supporting and backing up their every utterance, no matter how outrageous and out of touch with reality they may be.
4. Show unswerving loyalty to the leaders, overwhelm them with adulation and you will get your stripes and more recognition.
5. Join the twitter battle to defend the leaders even before you understand what the issue is all about.
6. Defend group members – act with greater fury than the cavalry described in the Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
7. Give credit to the leader using the @Yabiswacko option even in a general tweet.
Such behaviour and the norms which underpin them show that this tweeter community is not about equals who share a commonly held ideology freely associating. They rather reveal an association marked by subservience and pernicious mind control. We are seeing social interaction strongly steeped in well internalize power relations and subservience to authority.
Persons in this community subject themselves to the influence and control in a structure that has no directly visible formal authority. To understand this, we will need to posit that this influence is exercised through an incentive structure which uses recognition in the present accompanied by the hope of social ascent/mobility in the future.
Dealing with opposing voices involves a swarm and swamp attack strategy when the target is suddenly besieged by taunts and insults by “social activist” acting with fury and frenzy in a co-ordinated storm attack. Reason is buried. Senseless fury and noise are let loose on the Twitter space. And the storm attack is not fortuitous – it is triggered by an innocent tweet say by @CAPO_ogbaegbe to all who follow him “check out my TL for my rants” or by another capo to his brigade – “check out @CAPO_ogbaegbe as he takes on a goon”. Leading the attack are hackers – male and female – who act with energy of unchained sadists, unleashing an un-ending chain of verbal violence, directed not just at the victim but also to his/her family.
Geography and spatial distribution
One should never trust names on Twitter because people use fake names. However, if names are anything to go by, a lot of these angry people are from the South-West of Nigeria. They are very liberal and non-discriminating in their attacks. To qualify for their attacks and insults, you simply have to belong to the PDP, or be suspected to have sympathies for a PDP position.
The voices of the South-South and the South East are more moderate in this community; not so loud; and their representation is weak. But the very few who do show up appear to want to out-do themselves and their soul mates from the South West – but they are not really convincing, their hearts are not really in it and theirs could be simple posturing.
Voices from the North have two key features – they align predominantly behind one voluble and all-knowing gentleman. They are usually very guarded in their attacks on persons from the North, even if that person belonged or still belongs to the reviled PDP. However, they become very bold in their tweets on persons from the South!
We therefore are dealing with a group dominated by the South-West and the North who are using Twitter to attack and run down the president and his party but who are careful and controlled in their tweets on persons belonging to political parties that have the South-West and the North as their home bases. In addition, tweeple from the north are also very careful in what they say about persons from the north, whether or not that person belongs to the reviled PDP. Their take on the emerging revelations from the recent “sting” operation speaks volumes.
So this is the Nigeria “social activist” community. The social conduct and actions as described above are not reflective in the least of social activism as universally understood. Rather, they smirk of the antics of immature political opposition that conveniently tells itself that it is practising social activism. Or perhaps, the title is a convenient label being used by opposition party political activists to disguise their real intentions and its identities. This is not to mean that there are no genuine social activists out there but their voices are usually drowned in the howling noise of this new breed of political party mobilisers, recruitment agents, and propagandists.
One anxiously looks forwards to hearing more of their voices as the call attention to key social issues of governance guided by the principles of problem solving, objectivity, non-partisanship, impartiality, truth, relevance, justice and a concern for the common man and woman struggling to make ends meet in our struggling country.
This piece was first published on http://noelihebuzor.tumblr.com
Editor’s Note: Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.