Gains, worries over ascendancy of social media trial
In 2012, Dr. Reuben Abati, then spokesman to former president Goodluck Jonathan, in defence of his principal, stirred a raucous controversy with an opinion piece titled: “The Jonathan they don’t know”, when he labeled the growing band of social media critics as “children of anger.”
He had opened the article thus: “‘They’ in this piece refers to all the cynics, the pestle-wielding critics, the unrelenting, self-appointed activists, the idle and idling, twittering, collective children of anger, the distracted crowd of Facebook addicts, the BBM-pinging soap opera gossips of Nigeria, who seem to be in competition among themselves to pull down President Goodluck Jonathan. The clear danger to public affairs commentary is that we have a lot of unintelligent people repeating silly clichés and too many intelligent persons wasting their talents lending relevance to thoughtless conclusions.”
But the derided “children of anger” were not deterred. In the run-up to the 2015 general elections, the cyber-warlords took over the unregulated mass communication platform to run a vigorous, no-holds barred campaign either for change, as represented by Gen. Muhammadu Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) or continuity of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
When President Buhari settled into his first term administration, the trolling on social media continued. Feeling rattled from the unending social media jibes, spokesman to President Buhari, Femi Adesina, coined his own term, shortening the “children of anger” to “wailers”, while the online influencers dishing out alternative facts were branded “hailers”.
The intense struggle between the wailers and hailers to own the social media space and spin or distort facts to their favour then led to the emergence of the ‘Fake News’ syndrome.
But while still trying to live with this reality and decipher between fake news and alternative facts, a new trend has emerged, which is the social media mob action. This new trend is gradually redefining the court of public opinion. Media trial has now been replaced by social media trial. In this space, you are proclaimed guilty until proven innocent.
The history of social media mob mentality dates back to 2013 when one Justine Sacco, a PR/Communication Executive at InterActiveCorp (IAC) in London, was getting ready to visit her family in South Africa, and before she boarded her flight, she made an insensitive joke on Twitter: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
By the time her 11-hour flight was over, she had become the world’s leading trending topic, with millions of people berating her for her racism, calling for her firing, and calling her terrible names. She was fired, and the internet cheered.
Since that time, there have been many similar situations. A person (ranging from nobody to celebrity) commits an unacceptable action (ranging from an ill-considered joke to an actual crime), and a mob of angry users rushes together in an attempt to ruin that person’s life.
This is also closely related to online shaming, a form of internet vigilantism in which targets are publicly humiliated for actions done privately or without wanting intended public broadcast using technology like social and new media.
Proponents of shaming see it as a form of online participation that allows “hacktivists” and cyber-dissidents to right injustices. Critics see it as a tool that encourages online mobs to destroy the reputation and careers of people or organizations who made perceived slights.
Many have been forced to delete tweets or bring down posts after offering an opinion on matters of public interest that seems to go against the grain. In Nigeria, several persons have been bathed in the baptism of social media mob attack, a few come out of it unscathed; others are drowned in the baptism.
Barely two weeks ago, Dr. Festus Adedayo was shot into national prominence albeit for the wrong reasons. Adedayo had just been appointed spokesperson of Senate President Ahmad Lawan when the APC mob descended on him on social media. He lost his job in hours. He was fired barely 48 hours after he was appointed Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to President of the Senate.
Before his appointment, Adedayo had gained a reputation for aiming darts and firing broadsides at chieftains of the APC in his fiery columns, which were often shared across most online platforms. Soon after his appointment was announced, most members of the APC on social media, mounted pressure on Senate President Lawan to rescind the appointment.
A press conference/protest to denounce the appointment was even staged by members of the APC youth forum, and before long, First Lady Aisha Buhari joined in on the act. Before nightfall on June 20, Adedayo had lost his job. Losing out on the appointment, he, however, vowed to remain critical of the Buhari administration.
Few days later, the online trolls or APC hailers, after achieving their aim, moved on to their next target, Lara Owoeye-Wise, newly appointed Senior Special Assistant on Electronic and New Media to the deputy senate president, Ovie Omo-Agege. She came under fire on social media following her appointment after some social media users alleged that she and Dino Melaye, senator representing Kogi West, have had an intimate relationship.
In her reaction to the protests against her appointment, she denied the allegation, saying she does not want her principal “to bear any stain by association. The umbrage against my appointment is an unfortunate showcase of sobering reality to well meaning Nigerians that there is so much we need to do on civic engagement as the future of Nigeria rests on the quality of our followership which will produce future leaders.
“I shall resist the urge to join issues on the salacious insinuation of any intimate relationship between Senator Dino Melaye and I. While there is no iota of truth in this, dissipating energy on it equates to according undue attention to sheer indiscretion from a group of people.
“By the way, Melaye represents my Senatorial district. The few interactions I have had with him were usually at public events, occasions where I muster enough honour to expand frontiers for my principal and engage in robust political cross-fertilization of ideas. Should I have worked for Senator Melaye in his political ambitions or even his party, I would have demonstrated some measure of honour to own up to it and actually turn down this appointment as I do not posses what it takes to be treacherous.”
The online trolls days later got busy when the plane seat controversy broke between Prof. Wole Soyinka and an unnamed Nigerian, as shared by Tonye Cole on his social media page. Many hailed the young man for standing on his right while others berated him for not according the Nobel laureate his due honour irrespective of his right.
That soon fizzled out when on June 28, Busola Dakolo, wife of the famous musician, Timi Dakolo, set the social media on fire with the revelation during an exclusive interview with Chude Jideonwo of YNaija TV. In the interview, she alleged that Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA), otherwise known as ‘Gucci Pastor’, raped her as a teenager in her home.
Spreading like wildfire, the story trended on all social media platforms, broke into the mainstream media and became a crusade gathering hundreds of protesters, who marched on the church’s headquarters in Abuja and its location in Lagos simultaneously on Sunday, June 30. The loud protest forced two things, first a cancellation of an annual ‘Seven Days of Glory’ prayer and fasting programme, which was to begin on Monday, July 1 with pastors from Nigeria and overseas billed to minister; and second, the stepping aside of the embattled pastor, who has now been denied by the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), from the pulpit.
Just as the COZA story was yet to drop down from the headlines and trending topics, an ancillary to COZA-gate came up, a video about a similar allegation of sexual molestation against the founder of the Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN), Prophet Temitope Joshua, began trending. Bisola Johnson made the allegation when she joined protesters to march to COZA church service in Lagos. She said she was trapped in SCOAN for 14 years before she regained her freedom.
Not long afterwards, the new story began trending with hashtags like #SayNoToRapeInTheChurch, #IStandWithBusola, #IStandWithBisola and #ChurchToo. But not wanting to be done in by the new media court of public opinion, the church immediately released a six-minute long video to discredit the claims. The video was a compilation of several clips recorded over decades showing an unstable woman described as Bisola making a series of confessions in the church.
To the relief of SCOAN, this reply was yet to gain traction when it was sidestepped by the trending topic of the moment, Senator’s Elisha Abbo, who was caught on video physically assaulting a nursing mother for merely pleading with him to “take it easy” with a shop owner in Abuja.
On all social media platforms, it is #SenatorStepDown that is the subject of discourse. It has forced an official reaction from the senate, his party and the police. Already, six petitions against the embattled Senator have garnered 38,473 signatures at the last count on Wednesday.
The petitions range from ones calling for the prosecution of Abbo, who was seen in a surveillance camera at an adult toy shop in Abuja assaulting a nursing woman, to ones calling for an end to the abuse of women and girls. Since the video went viral on Tuesday, Nigerians have filed six petitions on popular petition platform, Change.org. The petition with the highest number of signatures was started by one Daniel Adebayo.
On the ground however, armed police officers attached to the National Assembly yesterday frustrated plans by some group of women activists from protesting against Senator Abbo. The group of women activists numbering about 50 and led by Aisha Yesufu, stormed the National Assembly complex at about 11:00a.m., chanting solidarity songs. The female rights activists also demanded the arrest and prosecution of the senator for molesting a mother.
The court of public opinion is apparently on the ascendancy. So far, they have recorded major successes like the #JusticeForKolade which forced the arrest of two officers involved in the extrajudicial killing of Kolade Johnson in Lagos earlier this year and #EndSARS, leading to a slowdown in the brutality of the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
In May this year, Nigerians on social media went into frenzy at the news that Abayomi Shogunle, head of the Complaint Response Unit of the police, had been removed from the position. Shogunle’s removal came two days after making an unguarded comment on the illegal raid and rape of over 100 women by some police officers in Abuja.
Shogunle had taken to Twitter to reply those condemning the police, saying: “Those making noise on the clampdown on prostitutes in Abuja note: That prostitution is a crime under the law, is a sin under the two main religions of FCT residents; is spreading HIV & STDs; is lifeline of violent criminals; prostitutes don’t pay tax and Nigerian culture frowns on it.”
Twitter users lambasted the police and Shogunle, branding him a bigot. In a jiffy, Frank Mba, the police spokesperson, confirmed that Shogunle had been redeployed to a town in Ebonyi State, saying: “He has been removed as head of the Complaint Response Unit and redeployed to Ebonyi State as Area Commander of Nkalagu.”
Also, scholars have opined that social media helped Tunisia and Egypt spread their message to the West and overthrow their dictators by organizing protests and rallies during the Arab Spring of 2011. In Libya, the social media also helped begin the revolution. The Arab Spring was a series of pro-democracy uprisings that enveloped several largely Muslim countries, including Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain. The events in these nations began in the spring of 2011, which led to the name. However, the political and social impact of the popular uprisings remains significant today, years after many of them ended, though it is easy to forget that the large-scale political and social movements began with a single act of defiance.
On its merit, the people’s court is not inherently evil, and there are scenarios that should be argued in the public rather than cloistered in private arbitration, like complaints of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which forms element of the global #MeToo campaign.
But this court can also be exploited whereby public opinion and the social media becomes a monster. One way is the substitution of opinion for fact. When facts are unknown or complex, but a yes or no answer is required immediately, the public is driven increasingly to go with a gut instinct or opinion.
Last year, Vanguard newspaper had to publicly dissociate itself from a comment its editorial board chairman, Mr. Ocherome Nnanna, made on a social media platform, Facebook. Nnanna made what many said was a disparaging remark about the Yoruba ethnic group by calling them, “sophisticated morons” in a Facebook thread over the award of Nigeria’s highest honour to Moshood Abiola.
The statement elicited uproar and widespread condemnation, especially from the South West elements in the social media, which forced the management of Vanguard to respond to the strident calls for the head of its longest-serving member of staff. In a statement, Vanguard pledged its commitment to responsible journalism. The statement signed by Gbenga Adefaye, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, said though Nnanna made the remark in a private conversation, Vanguard had already started probing it.
“While we are carefully interrogating the veracity of the comment, with a decisive response to the author, we wish to acknowledge that the statement was made entirely as part of a private conversation. Vanguard dissociates itself totally from such unwarranted but careless, private outburst. But we also wish to stress that Nnanna’s position must always reflect a circumspect conduct that takes into cognizance the sensitive nature of our responsibility, and in particular, the need to maintain decorum and decency in all conduct and dealings, whether private or public, formal or virtual.”
Nnanna then took to his Facebook page to tender an apology to the Yoruba and Nigerians saying: “I never imagined in my wildest dream that an offhand remark could provoke an anger of volcanic dimension which has threatened my career and Vanguard Newspapers as an institution.” He begged the Yoruba people to please forgive and forget his indiscretion on his Facebook page on June 9, 2018. He has never been the same again since then.
A communication scholar, Anna Joansson, has said social media mobs would be worse for society than the people they shame or whose life is ruined if not checked. “In the vast majority of cases, the people calling for someone’s firing or punishment don’t have the full story. They have seen a single tweet, without any context, or they have seen a video covering the last 30 seconds of an interaction that lasted several minutes or longer.
“We can’t allow any kind of justice system to make a final call based on these limited pieces of information—that’s why we have an actual justice system in place. No matter how flawed that justice system is, it strives to guarantee people the right to a fair and impartial trial. There’s nothing fair or impartial about a swarm of Twitter users cherry-picking the worst in people, and using that as an excuse to launch a full-blown assault against them.
“Also, we can’t expect people to be perfect 100 per cent of the time. Imagine if you were judged for everything you have ever done or said; chances are, even the most nonjudgmental, charitable, and kind of us has a handful of statements that would qualify us for our own internet lynch mob. What if you lose your job over a dumb mistake you made nine years ago? And not a hit-and-run accident or a murder charge, but a tasteless joke you made on the internet. That’s the reality of the impossible standards we set for people,” she said.
A social media enthusiast, Olaoluwa Adeleke, said: “On Twitter, it takes less than a minute to retweet an offensive message with a short message shaming the person who wrote it. If you have access to thousands of followers, you can mobilize a small army of vocal warriors to help bring someone down. In a matter of hours, a tweet that was meant to be seen by a few dozen people can reach millions. This is a dangerous slippery slope for this generation. May we not be on the wrong end of a social media lynch mob.”
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