by Ikenna Okonkwo
The Nigerian social media space is large and still growing with 75% of Nigeria’s almost 75 million internet users active on one form of social media platform or the other. The Nigerian social media space has been a vibrant one for more than a decade with wide-ranging conversations by (mainly young) Nigerians from topics ranging from entertainment to sports and to a large extent politics.
Social media has become the major forum for conversations about politics and has increasingly become a tool for political action and getting the government to act on social and political issues. It has also become a means to narratives for political ends and a tool to push propaganda to a mass of Nigerians, with dire consequences. As a result, governments in Nigeria and around the continent are seeing its importance and seeking means to put it under leash.
Nwachukwu Egbunike’s most recent book, Hashtags: Social Media, Politics and Ethnicity in Nigeria (Lagos, Narrative Landscape Press), brings together his analyses and musings on online political discourse in Nigeria spanning a decade; a discourse that over time has become more concentrated on social media, especially Facebook, Twitter and, currently, WhatsApp.
Hashtags’ focus is on how ethnicity and the ethnic tensions among ethnic groups in Nigeria have shaped politics and online political discourse and how certain characteristics of social media (access, immediacy and anonymity) have contributed to stoking tensions, used as a tool to push narratives, and deploy propaganda. It also paints a picture of the features of Nigeria’s political social media space, tackling questions of how these interactions play a role in determining political outcomes. It also looks at the looming menace of authoritarian governments trying to curb online speech under different guises.
The analysis in Hashtags is wide-ranging and touches on many of the incidents that have defined and shaped online political discourse on Nigerian social media. In the first section of the book, Hashtags takes on the pressing issue of online ethnic hate speech and how it is reviving and amplifying old ethnic-related sentiments and disputes. Case in point is the online sentiments around the Biafran civil war (1967–1970) and the rise of Nnamdi Kanu and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) movement; or the conversation around the herdsmen violence and Boko Haram. Hashtags sounds a warning about online ethnic hate speech, as it could easily lead to violence. The immediacy of social media and the tendency to not fact-check information before spreading it can be a tool to deepen mistrust of other ethnicities and to foster violence.
The second section which brings together articles from the author paints a picture of the Nigerian political social media space and how it has played a role in the political discussions in the country, especially around the two most recent general elections of 2011 and 2015.
Hashtags reveals how the social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter – of the past decade have created an online community where Nigerians can discuss politics; and how people with reach and influence (overlords) and their following (voltrons) have tried to shape the conversation, many times at the behest of politicians behind the scene. Hashtags also look at initiatives by Nigerians seeking to tone down the conversation from #TrollCabal, which the author and I happen to be Emeritus Conveners, to the Fencist movement, as well as the public statement by a group of concerned Nigerian writers concerning ethnic hate speech.
In the third section, focus shifts to the pressing question of online free speech. It looks at how governments in some African countries have used the excuse of curbing ethnic hate speech as a means to gag free speech. With social media seen more and more as a tool to push or dismantle political narratives, it is not surprising that governments will have more and more interest in controlling online speech, even if it means suppressing it. The arrest of bloggers and journalists in Ethiopia (pre-October 2018) and more subtle means like the “Social Media Tax” in Uganda are very vivid instances. The recurring theme in #Hashtags is one of constant vigilance against government overreach.
#Hashtags is a highly readable book, and the themes explored in it are timely as the nation gears up for another general election and another round high stakes drama in the preceding days. Social media is going to play a larger role than ever, with more people engaging and more politicians seeing it as an important campaign platform. There is a greater need than ever to be more vigilant against the “hijack of public conversation by forces that promote division”.