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Making social media-driven activism work


A cross section of participants at the protest

With #IStandWithNigeria now in the past and Social Media Week ending last week, I have been thinking a lot about uses and effectiveness of social media for political advocacy in Nigeria. Social media lit the match of youth activism in Nigeria, from #LightUpNigeria to #OccupyNigeria protests. Young Nigerians also used social media to raise awareness on the gang rape of a young girl in Abia State University using #ABSURape. See also Mirabel Center who got supporters to help raise money to keep their Lagos-based rape crisis centre open. #BringBackOurGirls has also effectively used social media to organize and demand answers from the government concerning the whereabouts of the missing girls from Chibok, Borno State. Examples of the power of social media to galvanize people quickly around a given issue abound.

But while social media has proved to be an effective galvanizing tool, there has been little policy change as a result. The #OpenNASS campaign has led to increased awareness on the importance of transparency in the National Assembly but not to increased transparency in the National Assembly. The then-Governor of Abia State denied the girl was ever raped on his campus and the case was never pursued. #OccupyNigeria got a dubious victory if ever there was one, as prevailing wisdom now is that the fuel subsidy should have actually been removed. While great for getting politicians to walk back dodgy comments and making politicians who would rather Nigerians remain ignorant nervous, there remains a conversation as to how to use social media to drive change in a rentier state where elections often belong to the highest bidder.

Social media as a tool for activism is great in important ways, but making it work as a galvanizing force for political change will take a lot of work.

I do not buy the notion that Nigerians online are an unrealistic portrayal of Nigerians as a general matter — you’re just as likely to find unrepentant misogynists, ethnic jingoists and blind political partisanship online as you are offline — but I do believe that social media helps create echo chambers more effectively than you can ever manage offline. This means that even when you do engage in advocacy on certain issues you’re more likely to preach to the choir even without intending to. The opposition you do get is typically from trolls who are not particularly interested in what you have to say.

The flat structures of most social media movements means there is a low barrier to entry, and that anyone with a passion for the topic can join in. This can be great, as it makes it hard for people in power to target and kill these social movements, but it also means that social media movements are highly susceptible to being captured by interests beyond which they were initially meant to protect. TuFace and Enough Is Enough, for example, could not stop People’s Democratic Party from getting involved with their #IStandWithNigeria protests, for example. Scarcity of good, easy-to-find data analysis on too many issues in Nigeria also means that a lot of politics is guided by perception, not fact, and as a result movements are more likely to be guided by passion than anything else. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the ability of a social media-driven movement to dictate the agenda relies too heavily on the heat of people’s passions, which can be fickle. The fluidity of these movements also means that groups who birth social media-driven movements have to be willing to let these movements go and take on a life of their own, and die when its time has come. Once they let go, it is very, very easy to lose the narrative.

Perhaps our social media movements can learn a thing or two from those that flourished before the advent of the internet. The Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 is widely known, but what I find incredible is how the women’s groups from Owerri to Calabar were able to coordinate messaging and timing of their protests with women in different towns who spoke different languages. In the United States, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized by activists who printed out each of the hundreds of thousands of fliers by hand, and worked across different groups of black workers. In both of these examples, we see successful advocacy (the colonial tax the women were fighting was reversed, and the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. helped black Americans gain equality in the eyes of the law) but these things did not happen immediately and concessions were not made easily. Many people lost their lives and suffered greatly, but these activists knew they were in it for the long game. In the case of the Civil Rights fight especially, they had vibrant — often bitter — arguments but they had a common enemy and clear goals. For social media-driven activism to be successful, we would need to put aside childish things and not let our long memories and past hurts get in the way of building needed alliances. When the rain falls, it falls on everyone equally.

Social media activism in Nigeria will also need to build out an offline arm that is tied to issues and policy, not politicians running for elections at all levels. Keeping hashtags alive means keeping issues alive, and that requires taking the issues to those who are most affected by them — ordinary Nigerians. This definitely needs to be done online, but also in outreach wherever people form community, in churches or mosques or other such volunteer groups and in local town halls. Joining a political party is great if it works for you and you believe you will be heard, but heaven knows Nigerian politicians have enough people surrounding them already.

If this all sounds like a lot, permit me to summarize some advice in brief fashion: Pick an issue. Pick a spot. Dig.

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