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‘Social media, national security and social change: Bridging the gap for development in Africa’

By Akinwumi A. Adesina
02 November 2021   |   2:31 am
I would like to heartily congratulate Nkechi Ali-Balogun for convening the 21st NECCI PR Roundtable. For more than two decades, you have played a strong leadership role in the sphere of Public Relations in Nigeria. Congratulations!

Managing Director/Chief Executive, Financial Institution Training Centre, Chizor Malize (left); chairman, Audio Visual Rights Society of Nigeria, Mahmood Ali-Balogun; convener, NECCI PR Roundtable, Nkechi Ali-Balogun; guest speaker, Akinwunmi Adesina and President, Africa Public Relations Association, Yomi Badejo-Okusanya at the 21st Edition with the discussions on Social Media, National Security and Social Change “Bridging the Gaps for Development in Africa” in Lagos… PHOTO: FEMI ADEBESIN-KUTI

I would like to heartily congratulate Nkechi Ali-Balogun for convening the 21st NECCI PR Roundtable. For more than two decades, you have played a strong leadership role in the sphere of Public Relations in Nigeria. Congratulations!

I can see why you are so successful Nkechi: You are one very determined person. You are smart. You are creative. You are dynamic. And you are resilient, and very prayerful. It was not easy being here for me today, with several competing commitments, globally. But I decided to be here physically, in person, because I wanted to specially honor you, and all of your colleagues who work so tirelessly to brand our nation.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on the theme “Social Media, National Security and Social Change: Bridging the Gap for Development in Africa.”

Eight years ago, I did something that would change one of the ways in which I interact, first as a Minister in Nigeria, and later as President of the African Development Bank: I created my own Twitter account. Since then, I have posted close to 2,000 messages and had the privilege of engaging with more than half a million followers.

I wanted to connect with people. Social media offered me the perfect platform: to interact, to engage, to inform, to hear perspectives and to “stay connected”.

Bureaucracy and the hierarchical nature of societies, makes it easy for leaders to become far removed from those they are called to serve. A letter written to them may get to their attention, if lucky, or you may receive a computerized reply. That is no longer the case with social media. Today, leaders have no choice. They must engage.

Citizens now have social platforms to speak, vent and engage in the public sphere. Leaders, who are far from their people, no longer have a place to hide. The people are at their gates, daily, with inquiries, views, opinions, vitriol and sometimes sarcasm.

We are all in a new world of rapid social dialogue. From Twitter to Tik-Tok or any other social media platform for that matter, our lives would not be the same without them. Just a few weeks ago, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, experienced a global outage that cut off users from the platforms. By the time the services returned to normal hours later, billions of people and business users were already hyperventilating about the disconnection from their virtual worlds.

Today, billions of people have unprecedented power to communicate and transcend boundaries and barriers, right in the palm of their hands, via smart mobile phones. It is a new world and one in which citizens wield influence that was not possible just a little over 15 years ago. The ‘power in the palm’, has democratized communication and given users transformative platforms to communicate their ideas, promote goods and services, and build social, professional, and business relationships globally.

The number of social media users in Africa is rising rapidly. The estimates for 2021 are that 45 per cent of the population in northern Africa use social media, 8% in central Africa, 10 per cent in eastern Africa, 16 per cent in western Africa, and 41 per cent in southern Africa.

According to the International Finance Corporation, Africa’s Internet economy contributes close to $115 billion or about 4.5 per cent of the continent’s total gross domestic product (GDP) and could reach $180 billion, or 5.2 per cent of GDP by 2025.

There are around 40 million social media users in Nigeria today. While those are large numbers by any standard, it is still less than 20 per cent of the population. By comparison, Taiwan has a social media penetration of more than 88 per cent.

But Nigeria is catching up fast: last year, the number of users increased by a whopping 22 per cent. WhatsApp is now the most popular social media platform in the country (93 per cent), followed by Facebook (86.2 per cent) and YouTube (81.6 per cent). Twitter used to have a 61.4 per cent share of Internet users in the country, prior to the ban imposed by the Federal Government.

Today, social media has become the place where positions are claimed, disputes and discussions are led, communities are built, business is conducted, and information is shared. Its influence and reach in terms of real time communication and messaging are unprecedented. The ability to reach millions of people in an instant is already well established by the ‘twitterati,’ ‘glitterati,’ businesses, public servants, political figures, and the public alike.

In contrast to traditional media platforms of television and radio, social media platforms are participatory systems of communication. Audiences that were once simply passive consumers of whatever was available on television or radio, now have mind-boggling choices whenever and wherever they want to access online content.

Today, backseat audiences are now in the front seat, driving content, news, and information. And in many instances social media audiences have been known to break news stories even before traditional TV and radio platforms are able to do so. So, welcome to the world of “user-generated content,” whether it be Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Tik Tok, the world of media and communication has changed.

But the “network society” is not without shortcomings.
Powerful algorithms developed by social media platforms are not necessarily neutral; they control, shape and define what we see and the ideas we engage with. The psychological and addictive powers of social media are already well established by analysts. Beyond seemingly harmless “likes” resides the power of social media platforms to track preferences, behaviors and personalities. The end result is a powerful analytical tool that allows companies to market and sell your information and details, whether you recognize it or not. Therein lies the power and profitability of the business models of social media platforms.

A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center across 11 emerging economies found that many respondents were worried about the risks associated with social media and other communication technologies, even though they cited the benefits of social media in other respects. Simply put, they were concerned that social media had amplified politics in both positive and negative directions. On the one hand, making them more empowered politically and potentially more exposed to harm at the same time.

Nigeria was not included in the survey, but it is safe to assume that even here opinion is divided. Opinions about the merits or demerits of social media will be debated for ages to come. For now, young, savvy, and empowered youth have leveraged the amazing power of social media platforms to fashion together networks for information, business, and social interaction. Many influencers, or young entrepreneurs have been able to scale their businesses and break into global value chains.

On the flip side, in developed and developing economies, not all traditional gatekeepers of information and communication have been happy to lose considerable control and influence over how information and content is distributed and consumed. However, even in countries where governments have clamped down on social media platforms, users have simply masked their identities and bypassed denials of access by using Virtual Personal Networks, otherwise known as VPNs, to protect their data and online privacy.

We do not need to be reminded of the power and influence of social media, for better and for good. From Korea to Kenya, or Laos to Lagos, the innovative disruptions of social media are vividly on display.

During the #EndSARS protests last year, Twitter was banned indefinitely by the Federal Government of Nigeria and placed out of reach for most Nigerians. Support for, or the storm against the banning of a social media platform, demonstrates the very difficult dilemma governments face as they seek to strike a balance between freedom of expression and national security.

Nigeria, like many other democracies, has three arms of government: The Legislature (the power to make laws), the Executive (the power to execute and enforce laws), and the Judiciary (the power to interpret and apply laws). Respectively, they are also known as the First Estate, the Second Estate, and the Third Estate of the Realm. Traditional media, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Estate, refers to their explicit capacity for advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues.

Social media has given rise to what is now described as the “Fifth Estate”: ‘people power’, fully independent from any government control or vested interests.

Some commentators suggest that the Fifth Estate will be as important in the 21st century as the Fourth Estate has been since the 18th century.

The Fifth Estate can and should be a win for democracy and human rights protections. In many parts of the world, we see this on display all the time. Whether it be live streamed political debates or discussions on critical issues or exposes on the tragic killing of George Floyd, or corrupt law enforcement officers caught on camera soliciting bribes on highways and byways, social media continues to play a role in protecting rights and ensuring the rule of law.

But as security scholar Velichka Milina observes, the power that social media wields in facilitating the instantaneous dissemination of information, also means that fake news, watered down stories and propaganda, can also easily be passed around at lighting speed without checks and balances.

Milina argues “Power is no longer legitimized through expertise. There is a new understanding about truth, characterized by the notion that there are no traditions and no experts. The truth is moving away from expertise. The opinion of any blogger-amateur could be ‘liked’ more than that of a university professor. Whoever tells a better story gains the most trust.”

That again is the power of the platform.
Social media, depending on how it is used and who it is used by and for what purpose, has tremendous power for good or for bad. But the constant reality is that we live in a binary world of truth and misinformation.

Social media apps, as with other cyber platforms, are not immune from malicious attacks. The recent global shut down of Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram are precursors of greater risks of disruption that could even be at a much larger and systemic scale. Simply put: the private data and information of millions of users can potentially be hacked into or compromised. For individuals, businesses, and governments that depend on these platforms, vulnerability assessments and cyber security are necessary in order to protect data, privacy and information, for individuals, businesses and governments.

As technology advances, so too do the challenges to national security in the virtual space. Technology is neutral. It is the use that it is put that defines acceptable and unacceptable boundaries. Ultimately the vital question of who owns, controls and spreads information will arise. Today, the owners of social media platforms wield unprecedented power.

Concerns about social platforms stem from the powers of monopoly and the ability of the controllers of platforms to influence societies, or creators of content to use them to drive wedges in societies, cultures, and religion or create misinformation or give oxygen to fake news. Despite the many benefits of social media, because it is possible to hide identities, it is very common to have abuse of social media. If rules are not well established, and norms of conduct well enforced, misuse of social media could cause discord, unravel societies due to susceptibility to foreign influence, social engineering and cyber-attacks.

The network society cannot be ignored.
Given the power and pervasive influence of social media, every level of government must recognize the power of homegrown, or global social media platforms as strategic instruments for direct communication with the public they serve, in a way that is more consistent with the day-to-day realities of citizens. The rise of the “network society” therefore offers those in power a unique opportunity to engage in real-time meaningful dialogues with constituents, involve them in policy making and address genuine grievances, long before they become toxic.

When I look at the rapid uptake of social media by millions of mobile phone users in Nigeria, I cannot see why communication should not be at the heart of development policies and good governance. It is an excellent platform for policy makers and public officials to engage with the citizenry.

To do so, information and communication must be fact based, devoid of propaganda, short and straight to the point, informational, educational, and inspiring. Anything short of this is bound to be rejected by savvy social media users. The effective use of social media platforms therefore requires clear distinctions between political advertising and public service information and the temptation to blur the lines for political gain.

Communication for development and good governance requires innovation, creativity, and an astute understanding of the felt needs and grievances of citizens. Development and policy communication via social media also requires restraint and proactive responses, in order to avoid a firefighting approach.

In a social media world, a vacuum cannot exist. Governments must be proactive and responsible users of the space to effectively fight for the hearts and minds of those they are called to serve.

As such, social media should be utilized sensitively by governments — and not politicised. Google’s motto used to be “Don’t be Evil. Now, it is “Do the right thing.” That is exactly the point I am trying to make. Do the right thing: follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect. Social media empowers citizens to say “yes” or no” on issues. It provides the opportunity for (hopefully, but sometimes, rarely) constructive feedback, solutions, and a re-focusing of priorities.

From a national security perspective, the biggest promise of social media lies in the technological capabilities that could facilitate direct, constructive, creative, and mass political involvement.

Social media does have clear benefits for development and democracy. Whether this be rallying citizens for worthy causes; inspiring action; providing millions who were once voiceless with a voice and a platform to do so; and for providing access to information for many who were once marginalized and cut off from traditional TV broadcasts or print publications.

Social media and development have entered an exciting phase. Aside from self-advocacy and the creation of platforms for people to speak for themselves, the opportunities for wealth creation in application and content development, marketing, branding, e-commerce, and Business-to-Business opportunities are mind-boggling.

At the African Development Bank, we realize the value of social media. We are active on multiple platforms, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. Each has shown steady growth over the past four years, in terms of followers and engagement. Twitter has emerged as an important podium for us to disseminate information rapidly to a large global audience. Our Twitter follower count recently surpassed 400,000 and keeps on growing. In the past month alone, our impressions have increased by close to 35% and our mentions have gone up by 30%.

Since I was first elected as President of the African Development Bank six years ago, together with our partners, we have made a difference in the lives of 335 million people across the continent.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, the Bank moved very rapidly and launched a $10 billion Crisis Response Facility to provide support to countries to address the fiscal challenges they were facing. The Bank launched a $3 billion Fight COVID-19 social bond, the largest ever US dollar denominated social bond in world history. Such was the audacity of our response.
We provided $289 million to Nigeria to support its efforts to tackle the pandemic.
We are a ‘people-centered Bank’ – a ‘solutions Bank’ for Africa.

And our efforts are being recognized globally. In 2021, Global Finance, the globally renowned financial magazine rated the African Development Bank as the Best Multilateral Financial Institution in the world.

The African Development Bank has maintained its stellar AAA-rating by the major global credit rating agencies for the past six years.

We will keep communicating our achievements on social media. But more importantly, we will continue to use social media to win even more support for our High-5 agenda, which seeks to Light Up and Power Africa, Feed Africa, Industrialize Africa, Integrate Africa, and Improve the Quality of Life of the People of Africa.

These High 5s of the Bank are changing lives in Africa, at scale. In the past five years, the Bank helped to connect 21 million people to electricity. Over 76 million have benefitted from access to improved agricultural technologies for food security. 12 million people have received access to finance through our investee companies. 69 million people have benefitted from access to improved transportation through our investment in infrastructure. And over 50 million people have benefitted from access to improved water and sanitation.

Results matter for institutions. Results matter for businesses. Results matter for governments. And those results must be at scale that impacts on the lives of people. When the gap between the expectations of citizens and promises of governments widen, the gulf of mistrust or distrust deepens, and social media becomes an avenue in which people vent their frustration or dissatisfaction. Sometimes the platforms are used to organize collective action when the public space for social-political discourse shrinks, or democracy is threatened. The Arab Spring revolution showed the power of social media to organize for democracy, human rights and better living standards for the population.

Social media is nothing short of a revolution. It will equally play a definitive role in Africa’s transformation and economic evolution: To reap the benefits of this revolution, countries, including Nigeria, must work on the “analog complements” by strengthening regulations that ensure competition among businesses, by adapting workers’ skills to the demands of the new economy, and by holding institutions to account.

Africa has a task of titanic proportions on her hands.
That’s because an unemployed generation of young men and women is probably a nation’s greatest security risk, and not the use of social media per se. The kind of social change we would like to see is only possible, if the youth have hope, jobs, and confidence in the future.

Considering that almost 70% of Nigeria’s population is under the age of 35, the impact of development or the lack thereof, is critical to the future of Nigeria, its stability and prosperity.
But as a Bank we are optimistic.
We are working to create 25 million new jobs by 2025.
We are also investing heavily in quality infrastructure to transform the backbone of Africa’s technological revolution.

To support Nigeria, the African Development Bank is preparing investments in the country’s Digital and Creative Enterprises (i-DICE), a $500 million investment program to be co-financed with several partners.

i-Dice will promote entrepreneurship and innovation in the digital technology and creative spaces. It will help create sustainable jobs and make Nigeria a global powerhouse in these industries. This program will boost innovation, especially in the tech-enabled business and e-commerce space, where new and successful ventures are being launched in Nigeria.

The nation stands poised to be a key player in developing Africa’s technological enterprises. Start-ups run by young Africans, are already attracting millions of dollars in investment capital. Expensya, Gro Intelligence, Tyme Bank, and Flutterwave, to name a few, are well on their way to becoming billion-dollar companies.

Today, Yabacon Valley has emerged as one of the leading tech hubs in Africa with between 400 and 700 active start-ups worth over $2 billion—second only to Cape Town. Andela, a global technology start-up based in Yabacon Valley, recently attracted $24 million in funding from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Already, Nigeria is home to three unicorns – tech and tech-enabling companies with valuations exceeding US$1 billion –Paystack, Flutterwave and Interswitch. The $200 million investment by Stripe (a Silicon Valley firm) in the local payments company Paystack, and $400 million in three Fintech companies in just one week in 2019, signal the enormous potential that Nigeria has for attracting global digital commerce and financial services.

We must close the digital divide. Every Nigerian should have reliable and affordable internet access. This access will expand digital financial inclusion and wider use of social media platforms.
Social media is here to stay. It will continue to influence politics, connect people, and shape our future.

The role of leaders is to anticipate the future before it arrives and to create an enabling environment with robust infrastructure, the right policies, rules, and regulations.

By fully leveraging the power of technology, social media and communication platforms, we will create a better, more inclusive, and prosperous Nigeria.
A prosperous Nigeria, driven by a dynamic, young and savvy generation!
A peaceful Nigeria, with opportunities for all!
A more inclusive Nigeria!
A nation where all voices are heard, where all platforms are used, where decency and respect is given to all, and where security is assured for all.
Dr Adesina, President, African Development Bank Group, gave this lecture at NECCI PR Roundtable held on October 28, 2021