#YNaijaEssays: The not too fine art of Nigerian internet trolling

YNaijaEssays

You might not have heard of Adeniji Ayodeji, but unless you are one of Nigeria’s few remaining luddites with no access to instant messaging or social media of any kind, you have heard of his social media incarnation, Pablo Ayodeji. In brief,  As Pablo Ayodeji, Adeniji came into focus as part of a new wave of internet celebrities who got famous thanks to a series of personally instigated controversies. On the March 29, 2017 Ayodeji (who is based in Ibadan) took to social media platform Twitter, to rant bitterly about a date he went on with fellow Twitter user Oreoluwa Oyebola, accusing her of trying to grift him of money by agreeing to go on a movie date with him when she had no intentions of returning his affections. Oyebola, blindsided by Adeniji’s accusations shed more light on the situation, including the amount of money he’d purported spent on her (N5,000) and promptly refunded the money, documenting the entire exchange through a carefully curated barrage of tweets, pictures and screenshots of their conversation and the refund transaction.

The exchange would have gone largely unnoticed except for one thing, Oyebola signed her bank transfer with the pithy phrase “Keep the Change bruh”. That singular phrase was a final piece in an internet puzzle to virality that had started months before Oyebola and Adeniji met. Two months before, a video of a couple discussing the reason for their breakup had gone viral, coining the internet meme “Hurt Bae”. A month after, Nusret Gökçe, a Turkish Chef with a certain predilection for salt and insane culinary flair went viral for his unusual kitchen practices. He came to be known as “Salt Bae”, and spawned a million memes. ‘Nigerian Twitter’ as the loosely knit community of Nigerian users are known were itching to create their own iteration of the global meme, and Oyebola’s decimation of Adeniji, complete with a ready made catchphrase was quickly transformed into “KeepTheChangeBae”.

Oyebola might have gotten first digs, but Adeniji, who ran a techblog at the time, got the last laugh. He capitalised on the infamy the exchange brought him, turning his account private and oscillating between apologies and brash narcissistic outbursts. Media companies tried to get cheap advertising off the episode, news outlets like PulseNG and TheCable granted him interviews to tell his side of the story and hundreds followed his social media account, trying to get the scoop first hand. He had our attention, and he was intent on keeping it. Between March 29th and the time of publishing, Adeniji has remained the consciousness of Nigerian Twitter users through misogynistic and bigoted outbursts, needless scats with other users and a series of increasingly Machiavellian scams.

In December 2017, a couple of Twitter users uncovered a multi-level scam Ayodeji had been running through a dummy Twitter profile @Nuella_AG, where he posed as a female Twitter user trying to raise funding for her terminally ill sister, even going as far as creating a GoFundMe account. His cover was blown when Adeniji through the said account tweeted that ‘she’ had recently lost her job and shared a Wema Bank account number soliciting help from unsuspecting users. A simple back check revealed that the account actually belonged to Adeniji.

To confirm this, old tweets were dug up. Ore (from the first story) had shared his account details and the link up was real. As more people dug into the digital trail Adeniji had left behind, they found out he had also roped in a friend of his and his unsuspecting twin sister into the scam, using their accounts as a repository for his stolen wealth. Confronted with a trail of evidence he couldn’t deny or bluster his way out of, Adeniji finally admitted, after initially trying to foist his crimes on another Twitter user that indeed he was behind the fraudulent accounts and GoFundMe’s. He ‘apologised’ at the urging of his ‘lawyers’ and promised to pay back the money he’d stolen.

The money still hasn’t been returned.

In the latest installment of outrage baiting episodes, Adeniji recently took to Twitter to blame his many crimes on his self diagnosed ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’. Advocates of mental health awareness swarmed his account, amplifying his original tweet and granting him another 15 minutes of fame. The rest of Nigerian Twitter took their jokes where they could get them, amused and defeated by Adeniji’s sociopathy.

Adeniji is the most recent incarnation of a new brand of celebrity tied inextricably with the rise of the internet in Nigeria. His fame (or infamy, if you will) relies on a cycle of indiscretion, outrage, despair and acceptance, a cycle that requires increasingly despicable acts to stir up any emotion from its intended audience. This class of celebrity understands fundamentally that we use social media for two things; to confirm our biases and to remind ourselves that there is always someone with less manners, refinement and restraint than us. There is a level of detachment that the internet provides, like a bell jar, that allows us shake our heads at the antics of this crowd, without ever really feeling the need to intervene and change anything. Adeniji is an internet troll, a mild one, if we consider those who came before him.

The Subdeliveryman easily is the worst and most influential troll Nigerian Twitter has ever seen, which is fascinating, considering at its most popular, the Twitter handle only had 35,ooo followers. The premise behind the account was simple. Nigerian Twitter has always been plagued with scandals; fights between users, relationships crashing and burning in front of strangers, arguments about topical issues like feminism and rape culture that devolved into free-for-alls. These events were often instigated by subliminal messages, otherwise known as ‘subs’, caustic remarks that directly referenced their intended target with situational descriptions but never actually mentioned them. Other users would ‘decipher’ the sub, and their reactions to it would trigger the escalation, that could lead into multi-level confrontations that could last for hours or days, depending on the scale of the confrontations and the number of people directly and indirectly involved.

These events became so routine that users began to set aside days to fully indulge in these digital brawls. But no one wanted to have their carefully wrought digital reputations permanently tainted by a scandal, the attention these brawls brought, while interesting wasn’t worth the long term ostracisation that followed. The creator(s) of SubDeliveryman offered a cost-effective solution, outsource the ‘subs’ and the drama that follows to them, sit back in your relative anonymity and watch as the world burned. What did Subdeliveryman get in return? Eyeballs, the advertising dollars companies would pay to reach those eyeballs.

The ‘sub delivery’ model proved quite successful, and while Subdeliveryman capped at 35,000 active followers in 2015, they routinely reached 500,000 social media users or more, with their carefully orchestrated scandals. As they gained ground, they began to cross from harmless spats to truly terrifying territory, violating privacy and contravening criminal law by positing illegally obtained nude photographs of Twitter users as well as other private information about them, an act they often justified as ‘full disclosure’. Users like Uduak O (@Uduakisbae) and Madonna Djembah (@6ftHobbit) received threats of investigation from the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) after the Subdeliveryman account latched on to a personal spat between them, outed Uduak and another Twitter user as bisexual and  amplified accusations that they were both recreational cocaine users. Even influential celebrities like Victor Anichebe and DJ Cuppy weren’t exempt from the scrutiny of the Subdeliveryman. Their secret relationship was exposed by the account, and the account’s handlers continued to scour their social media, releasing unsolicited updates on their relationship. And who could forget the Davido paternity scandal first ‘reported’ by them?

While many of the account’s followers and fans saw the handler’s antics as harmless fun and bants, others believed what was pretty obvious to everyone else – that the account promoted and profited in cyber bullying. Thus, it was with great joy that many Twitter users received the news of the account’s suspension in September 2017, even though a new handle @subdeliverypage has now surfaced in its place.

How does one talk about older trolls and leave out TweetOracle? This account was one of the earliest most popular handles on Twitter Nigeria. It was famous for its question and answer sessions, which usually trended on the platform. TweetOracle was one of Nigeria’s first influencers who weaponised sexism, capitalising on a largely misogynist audience looking for someone to voice their private thoughts to garner popularity. TweetOracle routinely slutshamed women, pitted ‘good girls’ against perceived ‘loose women’ and would regularly direct his followers to doxx men and women who stood up to him or inundate their accounts with insults.

This style ensured he became one of those who first made money on the platform through native advertising and subscription model on his website at some point. TweetOracle is still active on Twitter today, and he still has a niche following though he has lost most of his social media clout.

But not all trolls exclusively court infamy as a way to remain relevant. A subset of internet celebrities use infamy as a way to nudge the door to fame open, and almost immediately reinvent themselves as respectable citizens and thought leaders, returning to infamy only briefly when their influence starts to wane, or when they need to promote a cause or capitalise on a trend. They never truly gain respectability because the internet never forgets, but they gain and retain influence, which in Nigeria where we keep voting politicians that have shown us they cannot be trusted,  is just as good.

There are some who would put Japheth Omojuwa on this list. Japheth afterall is a savvy political analyst and easily one of the most recognisable faces in publishing in the country, but for many, he came to reckoning thanks to his #ArikWhereIsMyiPad campaign, a social media campaign he relentlessly drove, placing himself as a martyred avatar for millions of Nigerians who had harboured displeasure with the then embattled Arik airline. Omojuwa insisted for months that the airline had singled him out for abuse, and stolen his iPad and refused all attempts at reconciliation, threatening at some point to sue for N50 million after the airline blacklisted him from their flights. Eventually, the barrage of bad press forced the airline to ‘reconcile’ with him, and Omojuwa put out a public statement, flew Arik the very next day, and all was well.

And there are those who would call that a misnomer. Japheth after all is an entrepreneur with strategy in his sights, and is taken seriously across the world, giving speeches, consulting for organisations.

You certainly couldn’t say the same about ‘political analyst’ and former Goodluck Jonathan strong man Mukhtar Daniyan, known on the internet as Mr. AyeDee. Daniyan bullied his way into the Nigerian consciousness through an all out offensive on Linda Ikeji in 2014, where he accused her of copyright infringement, drew her into a very public spat and took credit for Google temporarily deactivating her blogger website, gaining the attention of her then 1 million daily visitors and tenable one million more casual visitors. The controversy dragged on for a few weeks, with @MrAyeDee careening straight to the top of the influencer totem pole. Linda, who until then was notorious for ignoring any assaults on her character broke type and released this statement, exposing how Daniyan had courted her friendship a few years prior to this incident and then used that proximity to attack her business and doxx her personal life. Their relationship was irreparably damaged but by that time Daniyan had gotten what he wanted, which was the attention of the then Goodluck Jonathan government. In the months after, he went from relative obscurity to a direct spokesman and advisor to the Jonathan government during their re-election campaign.

His influence has ebbed significantly since Jonathan lost the election, and these days he is seen to be positioning himself to take advantage of the 2019 elections with cryptic tweets like this one.

If there is anything that connects all of these very instances of trolling in Nigeria, it is this. Our trolls are almost always men, and the victims of their unconscionable actions are often women, the disabled or unconventionally attractive or sexual, ethnic or religious minorities.

While cyber-trolls exist and thrive in their fun and banter bubble, their victims usually end up as recluses, vulnerable and distrusting of others, depressed by the self imposed isolation that the vast majority of people cyber bullied on that scale resort to. Some have even been led to commit suicide. The detachment that allows us log off after gleefully consuming the bullying of others as entertainment is the very same sentiment that allows trolls profit off the pain of others without remorse. But their actions often cross over into the real world with devastating consequences. During the first wave of 2014’s Ebola crisis, trolls began to spread rumours that increased alkalinity in human bodies could either kill the Ebola virus or grant persons immunity from the virus. From a few tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook statuses, this lie snowballed into a whole movement, with thousands of unsuspecting parents sharing this misinformation as WhatsApp broadcasts and implementing suggestions to use salt baths and salt solutions as a supplementary medication. Before long, reports began to surface of people rushed to hospitals because their internal organs were failing, unable to handle the strain of having to cleanse their bodies of so much salt. Two deaths were recorded as a result of the Ebola Salt bath panic, the actual numbers probably much higher considering only a small fraction of Nigerians can afford primary healthcare, let alone emergency health care. There were investigations into the origins of the Salt bath myth but no one was ever charged with fraud and misinformation and those death went unanswered for.

Adeniji ‘Pablo’ Ayodeji hasn’t answered for his misdeeds either. He is still active on Twitter, currently in the remorse phase of his troll cycle, hinting that our rightful outrage at his crimes has made him suicidal and led him to diagnose himself as bipolar and suffering from a Multiple Personality Disorder. But this doesn’t mean that things aren’t changing. We are far more likely to call out a misogynist or racist troll than we were five years ago, and after the revelations of the last election cycle, we are more distrustful of the new crop of trolls turned political pundits like Deji Adeyanju who first rose to fame by going viral after he publicly feuded with another political pundit. We might not give them as much social currency (we are far less likely to follow a person because they gained virality during a scandal of any kind) but we still give them our attention and that attention still translates to influence and opportunities where it truly matters.

What the troll culture that we have all inadvertently or deliberately condoned and nurtured says about us, is that for all our enlightenment, we aren’t that much different from the generation before us. We relish Adeniji ‘Pablo’ Ayodeji’s cycles of insouciance and remorse because it allows us indulge our own cycle of outrage and benevolence. We condone Omojuwa’s practiced victimhood because we have employed those very same tactics ourselves in smaller, less visible circumstances. We do the very same thing with Dino Melaye – share his antics among ourselves, shaking our heads at his increasingly juvenile behaviour while he represents us at the Senate and signs laws that subjugate us all. We go ahead to console ourselves with the assertion that if we were in his position, we would never be as juvenile as he is. We did this with President Buhari, who after contesting for several elections and condoning violence in his name, sold us an underdog story complete with a party ticket bought with a bank loan and a simple life replete with farm cows.

We allow trolls thrive because they act out in ways we desperately wish we could, but are too afraid of ostracisation to actually do ourselves, and we forgive them when they misbehave as downpayment for our yet to be exposed indiscretions.

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