Friday, 2 September 2011


The 2011 elections were undoubtedly remarkable for a number of reasons; they were historic in part because information and communications technology allowed more people to participate than ever before.  I am not just talking about voters’ turnout, I am talking about Blogs, Twitter, email, SMS, Facebook, etc.  Nigerians actively reached out, connected, exchanged ideas, and promoted their points of view using social networking sites.

While expenditures by candidates on print, electronic and out-of-home media were still high,  2011 was undoubtedly the first time in which social media played a momentous role in persuading and galvanising the electorate. Indeed I believe it is apposite to tagged the 2011 elections as Nigeria’s first social media elections. I am one of those people captivated albeit not amazed, by the smudging line between politics and technology, particularly social media in Nigeria.

The liberalization of the telecommunications industry has made access to telephones and internet very easy. With just about 400,000 telephone lines a little over a decade ago, Nigerian telecommunications operators now have a combined customer base of about 90 million. Easy telephony access has also led to improvement in internet penetration. The increasing penetration of Internet and telephone technology has culminated in an embrace of social media platforms by the Nigeria electorate especially the youth who are increasingly becoming very vibrant and technology savoir-faire. To connect with this target group, Nigerian politicians had no choice but to leverage the media platform through which they could be reached easily.

President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria joined Facebook about 10 months ago. He was able to attract over 100,000 fans in less than 20 days. At present, he has over 500, 000 fans on the social networking site. His current Facebook fan base number places him second only to that of United States’ President, Barack Obama among World Presidents on Facebook.

With only about 3 million home based Nigerians on Facebook (according to official Facebook statistics), it is quite phenomenal that the country’s President has been able to attract a significant percent of this following.

The first political campaign in history to correctly exploit the power of social media to spread a candidate’s message, gain support and get the public engaged was the 2008 campaign for the American presidency by the then Senator Barack Obama.  The Obama campaign reached 5 million supporters on 15 different social Networks over the course of the campaign season. By November 2008, Obama had approximately 2.5 million (some sources say as many as 3.2 million) Facebook supporters, 115,000 Twitter followers, and 50 million viewers of his YouTube channel.

 Learning from the successful use of the social media platform by Obama and the desire to connect with the technology savvy Nigerian youth, President Goodluck Jonathan embraced it before he commenced campaigns for his party’s ticket. In fact, he announced his decision to vie for the ticket using the instrumentality of facebook.

That announcement was one of the smartest Public Relations tactics employed by any of the aspirants. It was a smart move because the facebook announcement took place the same day General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) launched his campaign. While Babangida invited the major print and electronic media to cover his campaign with the goal of dominating the media, the social media platform announcement resulted in the sharing of the conventional media by both Jonathan and Babangida that evening and the next day.

Not to be left out, other politicians jumped on the bandwagon. For those that used the platform very well, they were able to spread their messages fast and to get a buy-in by users because while many people employed the conventional media like newspapers to get political information about the candidates, they also went to the Internet and used social networking sites to see who people they knew were supporting. The information gleaned from their social networks in some cases was the information they found most convincing and swaying.  They listened to their friends on facebook, not necessarily the traditional messengers that candidates employed to reach out to the voters, or even the candidates themselves.

However, not all the politicians that employed the social media platform really understood how to effectively use it. For some, it was just like another traditional medium characterised by one way messaging. Unlike the Obama campaign, they could not create the power of involvement, of participation, and a sense of purpose in their supporters.  For many of our politicians, it was as if the medium was the message. In the Obama campaign, the medium wasn’t the message, so to speak; it was the vehicle.  It connected real people, with real enthusiasm, in real time, and gave them an easy and accessible way to show their support for change.  The platform is therefore supposed to be for dialogue, it is to ensure that everyone have an opportunity to engage with the candidate.

President Goodluck Jonathan was one of those who were very effective in the use of social media especially facebook. His page was updated frequently with posts written in his name and spiced up with lots of photographs. There were palpable efforts to make them interesting and keep readers engaged – for what it’s worth.

Late last year he launched a book entitled My Friends and I: Conversations on policy and governance via Facebook. The 357-page publication is a compilation of his Facebook postings and responses by his numerous readers and supporters. One of President Jonathan’s key messages in the book, and indeed his Facebook postings, is that he believes every Nigerian citizen has a right to express his or her views about how the country should be governed. He is also signaling that he sincerely wants to listen to the people and work with them.

The book’s release coincided with the official launch of a government-backed national reading campaign in Lagos dubbed ‘Bring Back the Book Campaign.’ The event attracted several of Nigeria’s literary giants and publishers, including Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, Odia Ofeimun, Fatima Akilu, Reuben Abati, Dapo Adeniyi and others. 400 secondary school students attended the event. The president said he invited them to come together to start a “serious discussion in order to bring back the book.”

I decided to publish because I want to promote a reading culture and accountable governance,” he explained, adding, “The campaign on [developing a] reading culture supported by Professor Wole Soyinka and other well-meaning citizens is a battle to restore our educational standard to its glorious past and to lift it further to the heights where it would lead to resurgence of our march towards economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and social advancement.”

Since then he continued to use Facebook to drum up public support for the reading campaign, telling Nigerians, “We have no choice but to read and encourage ourselves to read and read and read again.” A number of writers, publishers, booksellers and librarians have presented him with a wish list of what needs to be done to kick start Nigeria’s ailing publishing sector, and they’re patiently waiting for him and his government to deliver.

It is also pertinent to mention that the use of social media was not limited to engaging supporters. On a daily basis eligible voters used social networking sites to discuss political issues, voting procedures, the strengths and weaknesses of different candidates, and why they felt some candidates would win and others would not. After the announcement of results and Polling Units, many Nigerian voters also used facebook and other social networking sites to escalate the results of their Polling Units. Even before the results were officially announced, it was easy to know which politician was doing well in different areas.

I  also make bold to say that the credibility of the elections was also  aided by social media. The fact that people waited for the results of their polling units to be counted, the escalation of the results and the eventual announcement of results which were in line with what a lot of people already knew made it impossible for politicians who lost to rubbish results announced by INEC. For example, Mallam El Rufai has been having an uphill task convincing his facebook friends that the presidential election was not free and fair. The more he tried to do so, the more he is assailed wth contrary opinions by many of his facebook friends and supporters.

In conclusion, I will say that it seems as if our politicians have caught the social media bug, and have ubiquitously used it to connect with voters before elections. Now that the elections are over, there is a need for us to pay close attention to how many of the elected officials will continue to use the internet to engage their constituents. I hope social media will not become just another platform for press releases, rather than a way for supporters to gain direct access.

According to Mindy Finn, partner at e-strategy firm EngageDC, “it has been noticed that when politicians are candidates, they have this incentive to be engaging online, to be very active through social media communicating with voters to win them over. And then, when they get elected, their outreach through social media becomes stilted--it reads much more like a press release. That's unfortunate, Of course, that doesn't mean Obama should be constantly tweeting from UN sessions or expecting him to bust out another "Yes We Can" viral YouTube video. But politicians should know that engaging with voters through social media is a continuous process, and can't simply be revived a few months or a year before the time of election. There are innovative ways to use social media to include the public in the process of governing--not just the process of campaigning”.

"So much of social media is non-partisan--it can make government better," digital strategist Matt Lira revealed, "The key is making sure people...are making an authentic impact on the process. We must apply these lessons to other activities in the future: incorporating audiences into bill crafting, oversight, hearings, committee meetings, floor activities--make the public's interaction real."

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