Social media assisted governance
Nigerian policymakers’ underestimation of the impact of social media platforms was first highlighted by the launch of GSM services in 2001, when policy failure by the Obasanjo government, led to the issuance of Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM) cards without their securitisation. Realising the folly of not monitoring the use of GSM-based platforms, Nigerian security agencies and the Nigerian Communications Commission in 2008 initiated the registration of all phone subscribers in Nigeria. The registration exercise affirmed the impact of social media platforms on governance. It also enhanced national security.
Nigeria’s governance modalities and structures at all levels are evolving. But the ever expanding scope and influence of the social media on governance is progressively perplexing. Indubitably, social media’s influence on policymaking is sidelining the mainstream media, while pushing the remit of mass communication beyond what some communication experts consider acceptable boundaries. The strength of the social media, which parallels its weaknesses, remains the anonymity it offers and its unfettered capacity to disseminate information expeditiously to many designated and involuntary receivers, via different platforms, the veracity of such information notwithstanding. Unlike mainstream media, social media is largely unregulated. We thus encounter an emerging reality: social media assisted governance. This not-always-salutary outcome, which sometimes border on rumour peddling, derives in part, from the desire of social media activists to push special interest agendas, but also from government’s tardiness or inability in handling vital policy issues in the public domain effectively. State sponsored social media activists have also contributed hugely to the devious and dubious use of the platform. Despite these pitfalls, the social media retains its redeeming values, meaning that government must devise ways of positively tapping such values, while curtailing distractive aspects of social media.
Beyond conjecturing policy intent and outcomes, the social media have occasionally ascribed incorrect policies to the Buhari government, thus compelling the Presidency to refute such claims. Two such instances mentioned afore, pertained to ministerial nominees and the assignment of their portfolios. There were others; some very sensitive. One posting falsely averred to the dual nationality of the Nigerian Senate president and another deceitfully alluded to the demise of the spouse of an incumbent governor.
Whereas “social scientists examining this agenda-setting influence of the mass media on the public usually have focused on public issues,” the scope and impact the social media on Nigeria’s electioneering, politics and governance modalities in 2015 was entirely unanticipated. Social media platform Buharimeter was set up to “address the challenges of governance” and “bridge the existing gap between the government and the governed.” Similarly, hashtags #Babagoslow and #Buharioptics were effectively used to critique the President’s policies.
Whilst the role of the media on governance has long been recognised, the impact of social media has been less so. Still, Internet and social media have their ‘nuisance value.’ The social media has emerged as an inexorable and accepted tool for monitoring and critiquing governance. This development is propitious for Nigeria; now that its governance foundry is feeble and pushing for desired governance changes requires unconventional methods. Prior to the arrival of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, Uche Nworah, a communication expert had posited that the Internet had “to some extent greatly reduced the ‘worth’ and ‘value’ of Nigerian journalists…because of the wide availability of internet bloggers and pundits.” Still, the global influence and capacity of social media is not peculiar to Nigeria. Long anticipated, McGeorge Bundy, an adviser to two U.S. Presidents had in 1968, predicted that “within this generation we shall certainly see changes in our capacity to communicate information greater than all that has happened since the intervention of the telegraph…we shall be able to put all sorts of information in all sorts of places in ways that we quite literally have not dreamed of until now.”
The upshot: social media is a new normal reality that warrants clear guidelines, considering existing policy vacuum. A range of possibilities exist, but government can’t afford a kneejerk reaction. Government should recognise and pursue several policy options. First, Government and social media activists must co-exist, pari-passu. Second, the Government must remain purposeful, true to its democratic bona fides and show its strength, albeit not coercively or physically. Third, the Government needs to augment existing information communication policies; “a more subtle task for the government is to find the right way of supporting public-service research in communication.” Fourth, Government should accept that “a residual mistrust of government is a necessary and desirable” part of any democracy. Fifth, Government shouldn’t attempt to rein in social media excesses at the risk of breaching of the Constitution. Sixth, Presidential aides handling media issues must be proactive, not reactive, in expeditiously keeping the nation informed. Finally, habitual resort to rebuttals or disavowing of presumed government policies vended in the social media will always be defeatist.
• Obaze is a strategic public policy adviser and immediate past Secretary to the Anambra State Government.