According to Statista, there are 32.9 million active social media users in Nigeria. Of the usual suspects, WhatsApp and Facebook are the most popular platforms, perhaps because they consume less Internet data, Facebook, for example, previously made provisions that allowed Nigerians to access its platform without an Internet connection.
In the last decade, social media has increasingly played a huge role in the lives of Nigerians. Many have launched successful businesses off the back of social media, found jobs, found love, and continue to discover new opportunities for educational and career growth. But its influence has transcended these areas; social media now plays a major role in the country's political space, and one only needs to look at the just-concluded elections to understand this influence.
After the results of the 2023 presidential elections were announced, one of the major talking points for many was the Labour Party's victory in Lagos State, a stronghold of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Before the elections, few people, if any, had expected the Labour Party to defeat the APC in Lagos because of the influence of its presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
That loss perhaps triggered what can only be described as reactionary campaigns by the incumbent Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu. For much of the campaign season, he had followed Tinubu as he went round the country to get support for his presidential bid, failing to do much to encourage Lagos residents to support his bid for a second term in office. Until the Labour Party's victory.
Elections are not won on social media
When Peter Obi, the Labour Party's presidential candidate, left the People's Democratic Party (PDP) just a few days before its presidential primaries to fly the flag of the Labour Party, many predicted a poor showing for him at the polls.
Obi, a former governor of Anambra, a South-Eastern state, had gradually built up momentum, especially among Nigeria's youth, many of whom are on social media. Nigeria's young people, which many estimates place at 70% of the total population, have become a significant voting block.
According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), 39.65% of registered voters for the 2023 elections are aged 18 to 34. Students are also heavily represented and make up 27.8% of registered voters. A victory at the polls could therefore lie in a candidate's ability to inspire a group that has typically stayed away from the political process. So what was the best way to reach this group?
There's no data to confirm this, but if we go by the tweets that followed the conclusion of the presidential election, many Nigerians between the ages of 18 and 27 get their news from social media and platforms accessed through a smartphone.
That played a role in how many politicians approached the electoral process. Where rallies used to be the norm, social media became a common tool for voter education, campaigns, and, later, election monitoring.
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You'd be hard-pressed to find an election campaign in Nigeria devoid of disinformation and propaganda, with candidates frequently using them to fuel anger or doubt against their opponents. Unsurprisingly, the 2023 elections had their fair share of them, but let's begin with campaigns.
As I pointed out earlier, Nigerian politicians have typically relied on political rallies to meet their constituents and share their message, but organising these rallies costs a lot of money. That's not the case with social media, where a smartphone is often all you need to reach your audience, and it was not entirely surprising to see most of the candidates use social networks to reach their audience.
Sanwo-Olu went into a tweet frenzy shortly after the results of the presidential election were announced. One of his opponents, the Labour Party's Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, could frequently be seen tweeting and even made an appearance on some popular podcasts.
The Labour Party's presidential candidate also benefited from the use of social media. Clips from his numerous television appearances were circulated by supporters and opponents, while he appeared on the occasional Twitter Space or Instagram Live. The PDP's presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, was not left out, as his supporters and media aides frequently shared his ideas and propositions on social media.
To be fair, the 2023 election cycle was not the first time social media played a role in Nigeria's elections, but as Ebenezar Wikina, Founder, Policy Shapers, a civic tech organisation, said, this was the first time it was driven purely by citizens and not just paid influencers.
"I think 2015 seemed like the first time we saw an increased intersection between socials and politics, but it was more from a 'pay PR experts/influencers to whitewash you' sort of lens with smear campaigns here and there. What we observed this year is the people taking over the conversation. Because of how engaged the people were, influencers were not even able to lead and direct thought."
Deborah Tolu-Kolawole, a member of the Editorial Board at Punch Newspapers, shares similar sentiments. She argues that while Nigerians have always used social media, its use for political purposes grew significantly between 2019 and 2023.
"Even though social media existed before then (2015 elections), the kind of awakening we had between 2019 and 2023 can’t be compared to what we had in the years before the 2015 and 2019 elections. We have most young people on social media trying to advertise their goods and services; we see those who are there to 'catch cruise,' we have those who are there to 'learn,'" she says.
In October 2020, Nigerians protesting the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) were shot at by soldiers. Since then, the government has lifted the ban it placed on Twitter in June 2021 and also banned commercial banks from trading cryptocurrencies. Kolawole points out that this has driven many Nigerian youths to use social media to voice their displeasure against unfavourable policies.
"Not everyone could go to a radio or a television station to air their grievances, so they took to social media, and then it became a rallying point. You now have young people (Gen Zs and Millennials) who aren’t scared to air their opinions. These factors particularly helped boost the influence of social media during the 2023 elections."
With social media playing a central role in election campaigns, disinformation and misinformation were common, and Oluseun Onigbinde, Co-founder, BudgIT, pointed out that social media allows false information to reach large audiences in a short time.
"The sheer volume of content on social media platforms made it difficult to distinguish between reliable sources and unreliable ones, contributing to an environment where falsehoods were able to take root and be propagated widely."
Wikina adds that the elections revealed the inability of many Nigerians to distinguish between propaganda and accurate information.
"What the elections showed me is that we need to educate citizens on fact-checking more and more because people were swayed by the most basic form of propaganda."
Ahead of the elections, you could see operatives of the major political parties chanting different versions of 'elections are not won on social media,' in reaction to increased political conversations on those platforms.
The thinking was that social media activities were unable to influence the outcomes of the elections, but all that feels naive at this point. While the data suggests that this year's elections witnessed the lowest voter turnout in recent times, Wikina argues that it doesn't take into account the millions of Nigerians who were disenfranchised.
"I think INEC's 27% voter turnout is the most underestimated statistic I have seen in my life. In many regions across the South, especially in Rivers State, thousands of voters were either suppressed or not given a chance to exercise their civic duty.
"For example, at my polling unit, there were about 1,000 people, but only 100 people voted. My wife and I were numbers 257 and 258, and despite standing for ten hours, we still didn't get a chance to vote. This was purely INEC's fault. So is INEC measuring turnout based on the 100 people who were able to vote or the 900 people who stood for ten hours in the rain and sun, and didn't vote?"
For Kolawole, reports of voter suppression and disenfranchisement make it difficult to determine how much of the social media frenzy influenced voter behaviour.
"I can’t really say how much of social media noise translated to offline voting patterns due to reports of voter suppression and massive disenfranchisement, but I can say that I am impressed. I monitored some polling units, and I was able to identify some 'social media' youths."
Going forward, one thing is clear; social media now plays an important role in Nigeria's political discourse. With broadband and smartphone penetration expected to grow, its influence would only get stronger, and Onigbinde believes it would help politicians communicate more effectively with their constituents.
"With its ability to spread information quickly and engage with audiences around the world, social media can be used as an effective way for politicians to communicate their messages directly with voters in an efficient manner. Additionally, it provides a platform where candidates can interact directly with supporters and answer questions or address issues raised by them in real-time."