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Really, can elections be won on Nigerian Twitter? Yes

By Sam Adeoye
25 June 2022   |   4:04 am
As for the winners of Twitter, they’re in three categories. Witty people, wealthy people, and celebrity people.

Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP

As for the winners of Twitter, they’re in three categories. Witty people, wealthy people, and celebrity people.

Witty people, like the old British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, may publish — in 240 characters or less — pre-scripted and well-practised funny retorts, and they deliver them in a steady stream of quotable wisecracks, to the lovely delight of their followers. Witty people have been known to ignite hilarious Twitter trends that stay hot for days. Witty people are much liked.

Wealthy people, on the other hand, deploy their money speak to for them. An offhand reference to their newest mansion may shut down arguments, and anyone who dares to query anything they say may find themselves instantly labelled a ‘hater’ and pummelled into obscurity.

Finally, celebrities tend to have a huge following of ardent fans who would go to war on their behalf. Artistes such as Davido and Wizkid, and ex-Big Brother Naija housemate Tacha are only three Nigerian celebrities Tascha with the command of a hyperactive army of online supporters.

But if you’re all of the above — a wealthy, witty celebrity — you could choose to buy the whole of twitter and turn it into a giant fan party. Revel in the pleasure of having half of its 229 million daily active users carry you on their backs to your new perch atop the pantheon of winners, you know, like Elon Musk who appears to be making the social networking company his own shiny yo-yo.

For someone who runs four globally pivotal companies: SpaceX, Tesla, The Boring Company, and Neuralink, it makes sense that Mr Musk’s pastime can’t be anything less epic than Twitter. That’s just how mighty his visions are. Plus, nothing else guarantees you more effect over cultural and political discussion than Twitter influence.

Aside from being the world’s number one source of news headlines, Twitter is also the clearest mirror into the minds of those running the world and those who want to change how the world is being run. Scroll down your timeline and you’ll get a pretty decent reading of what’ shaking the Earth per day. Now, if you’ve got credible sway, you could move the Twitter masses to your side of the debate; you could force the authorities to look in your direction. And then, you all can have a discussion, or a debate, or a fight.

Well, most of the time, it’s a bloody fight.

Why? Because many people on Twitter, including some leaders of civil society, are there being comfortably uncivil, so much so that the app frequently feels like a never-ending, gory bar brawl that routinely drags some of your most admired people into the fray.

Case in point: Mr Babatunde Irukera, CEO of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, FCCPC. On Tuesday, Twitter splattered him with the muck from the moment’s mud fight and left him grossly sullied.

How did Mr Irukera end up in the pit, you say? Good question: he attempted to clarify, “respectfully,” why NITDA (the National Information Technology Development Agency) might indeed need to draft a “code of practice” for “interactive computer service platforms and internet intermediaries.”

His tweet had been inspired by the reflexive remark from several Twitter users that the NITDA code of practice was government carte blanche over “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.”

So, Mr Irukera said, “Respectfully, as @fccpcnigeria, we note that most platforms (including ones you identify) have defied even common regulatory written requests to provide info to prevent criminal or exploitative conduct. Accountability is crucial & most evade or resist it. It’s fair to insist on that.”

In an obvious attempt to discourage his audience from hurling invectives at him, he even prefaced his point with “respectfully.”

But did that work? Of course, not.

One user swiftly replied to the FCCPC chief: “Tunde, you disappoint yourself sha.”

Which then prompted (Baba)Tunde Irukera, now evidently incensed, to shoot back: “Maybe you, but certainly not myself,” he said. “I am clear about my views. Platforms can’t cede their space to loan sharks and remain beyond reach while the sharks exploit vulnerable Nigerians. And when we try to reach the platforms, they claim to be in San Jose and unaccountable to Nigeria.”

In real life, debates will last more than two seconds, if ever, before they devolve into unprovoked name-calling and elder abuse. On twitter, though, for many speakers to be proud of themselves, their default response to disagreements must be viciously abusive. Sometimes, these aggressors fire the first malicious shot so they can demoralise their opponent and, with a convenient straw man, distract from the main subject of the argument.

This might explain why politicians like Shehu Sani, the former senator from Kaduna State, have morphed into master Twitter jousters. They give it as well as they take it, and even if they’re not the absolute rulers of Twitter, that they insist on making their point in the face of insults could explain why they’ve continued to grow on the platform.

But they know that that’s as far as it goes. As the recent party-primary losses by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and former Senator Dino Melaye have shown, in Nigeria, Twitter relevance is most useful on Twitter. Yes, this clout may be considerably profitable for influencers when brands pay for it but Twitter, ultimately, remains a closed market where trade essentially involves those who are already inside.

Whenever business or governmental institutions have needed to translate their twitter messages beyond Twitter, they’ve had to streamline their thoughts into a single-minded message and aggressively transmit it to via more channels — other social media, radio, TV, print media, billboards, posters, and offline rallies.

And when they go this route, a demand will be made of them to speak with real people, even those who may disagree with them, with some regard.

This fact is what old-school politicians know and it’s why, while they may masterfully spar with the most impertinent smart alecks on Twitter, at times even giving them the satisfaction of being the ones to retreat in silence, they know that real politicking is a whole other kettle of fish. It is persuasive, conciliatory, deal-making, down to earth, deferential.

When analysts say elections aren’t won on Twitter, they don’t mean that the national issues are different offline. Or that the streets are a monopoly controlled by a certain kind of politician. What they mean is that the intellectually snobbish tone and haughty tactics of communication that are common there do not translate to the mass population. Plus, an incredible amount of legwork will be required.

Perhaps, someday soon, the country’s internet penetration (currently at about 51 percent), literacy level (around 61 percent), and poverty levels (projected by the World Bank to reach 42.6 percent in 2022) will shift positively, making it possible for the majority in the grassroots to not only own smartphones but also have access to fast data connections while also having the ability to engage in the language of Twitter.

In the meantime, the way to win elections on Twitter may be to rethink the mindset with which you already win arguments on Twitter.