Social Media And Political Extremism
Rev. Fr. Gerald M. Musa
The 2023 general election in Nigeria is fixed for Saturday 25lh February (Presidential and National Assembly) and Saturday 11th March (Gubernatorial and State Houses of Assembly). Notably, 18 political parties are contesting for various positions (INEC, 2022, p.3). The 2023 election is a defining moment for Nigeria as the country approaches a quarter of a century of return to democracy.
More still, the elections will also demonstrate how the country is progressing or retrogressing in the aspects of conducting a free, fair, credible, and peaceful election. Simply put, the 2023 elections will be a litmus test of the quality of Nigeria’s democracy. In modern times, the new media, and specifically social media platforms have facilitated producing, sharing, and consumption of messages for electoral campaigns. On the one hand, these new media have proved to be viable tools for social mobilization and creating political awareness; on the other hand, these media platforms are also used by political extremists who share messages that are loaded with, ethnoreligious bigotiy.
Thus, social media platforms are increasingly becoming the means for recruiting, supporting, spreading, and funding extremist political content. The propagation of extremism via social media is made even easier as users of these media share content without any obligation to disclose their identity.
Many of those who use pseudonyms operate as online thugs who act with neither a sense of restriction nor social responsibility. They use these platforms for calumny, character assassination, and to hack down their real and perceived opponents.
The term political extremism has many definitions. Broadly speaking, political extremism is an intolerant, disrespectful, and angry attitude towards other differing political views and opinions. Political extremism is guided by extreme theories, doctrines, and ideologies Extremism can be violent or non-violent, but hardly without the use of, uncivil, inflammatory, or belligerent language, hateful narratives, dehumanizing discourses, as well as aggressive and divisive rhetoric.
Extremism can be motivated by many factors such as politics, religion, ethnicity, racism, and anti-immigration (xenophobia). According to Robert F. Kennedy, “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents” (Bolino, 2012, p.577). Political extremism is an old phenomenon.
The Roman Senator Cato was a political extremist who desperately sought the destruction of Carthage. His extremism was demonstrated in the words with which he concluded every speech with the words, “Carthage must be destroyed” (Carthago delenda est). His destructive words led to the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. History shows various forms of extremisms of the past and those that are still prevalent, among which are anti-Semitism, right-wing extremism, as well as ethnic and religious militancy.
Political extremists understand politics as an aggressive competition between ideologies, ethnic groups, regions, and religions. For example, the post-election riots of 2011 were a reaction of political extremists who framed the victory of Jonathan as a triumph of the south and a loss for the north; others interpreted the election as a battle between religions, with Jonathan representing Christians and Muhammadu Buhari representing Muslims. Political extremism in Nigeria is often inextricably tied to ethnoreligious sentiments. For example, the religious and ethnic extremism demonstrated by Boko Haram and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has a political undertone.
Boko Haram’s extremism is predicated on the unrealistic dream of establishing an Islamic Government in a pluralistic country, while IPOB calls for secession from a country where they have experienced decades of marginalization and injustice.
There is ample evidence to show that banditry in the Northwest is an expression of political extremism because these bandits are connected to politicians. Tension heightens every season whenever the general elections approach because of the fear of political extremists who are prone to violence.
The famous Irish playwright and social critic George Bernard Shaw asserts that “An election is a moral horror, as bad as a battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it” (Lilleker, 2012, p. 187). The 2023 elections are going in the same direction as in the past years and politicians are repeating the same worn-out strategies of whipping ethnic and religious sentiments among the electorates.
Political extremism in Nigeria is closely mixed with religion and ethnicity because political parties and politicians pay little or no attention to the ideologies they profess. The Nigerian electorates hardly know what the manifestoes of the political parties contain, and much less the differences between the political manifestoes of the major political parties, namely: All Progressive People’s Congress (APC), the Labour Party (LP), and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
In the 24 years of the return of democracy in Nigeria, the majority of the citizens have consistently voted for persons and not for parties. Often, the Nigerian electorates consider the quality and integrity of a candidate presented by a party and not necessarily what the party stands for.
For many Nigerians, the slogan “Vote Wisely” means voting for the candidate that is geographically close to you, and one who speaks your language, and practices your religion; for those who think deeper, voting wisely implies voting for the candidate with character, competence, personality, and credibility; there are yet another category of electorates who understand voting wisely as voting for the candidate who is the highest bidder and who doles out the highest amount of money to the electorates.
Money politics and vote buying are still a common practice in Nigeria where bullion vans carrying money are stationed near polling booths and money is openly distributed to hungry voters to influence elections.
A parochial mind is likely to see the three major presidential candidates for the 2023 elections as representatives of their ethnic groups and religions with Peter Obi representing the South East, Atiku Abubakar, representing the north, and Bola Tinubu representing the South West.
Usually, ordinary citizens are made to fight over ethnic and religious differences while politicians fight over national resources. The minds of the so-called masses are manipulated to see politics as a fierce competition between ethnic groups. For example, the infamous statement by one of the presidential candidates: “It is my turn” (Emi lokan) was not so much a statement of patriotism as that of self-aggrandisement.
He was speaking not to citizens but to fellow political demagogues, who understand the political game of chess. His words represent the mindset of average Nigerian politicians who come in with selfish interests but are vested in religious and ethnic garbs.
The Greek’s classification of human beings as idiots, tribesmen, and citizens provides a yardstick with which to assess Nigeria’s politicians. For the Greeks, the idiot lacks the sense of common good and whose mind is beclouded by a primitive quest for the acquisition of wealth to the detriment of other people.
Idiots steal public funds and store them for their generations that are yet to be born and care little about the living who are languishing in abject poverty. Tribesmen, for the Greeks, are those who are nepotistic and are unable to think beyond the clans and tribes from which they originate.
A tribesman politician would only appoint, promote, employ, favour, or give a contract to people who belong to his region and ethnic group. A citizen is a person who has a balanced notion of the common good and has an inclusive vision. In the Nigerian context,
“A citizen is interested in promoting projects that benefit all. Unlike the idiot, he is a respecter of the law. He does not drive above specified speed limits, he does not misappropriate public funds, he does not abuse his office’, he does not cheat in an examination, he does not use substandard materials to execute contracts for which he has been paid inflated bills for, he does not make laws to benefit him and his situation at the detriment of others.
A citizen speaks up when things are going wrong, [does] not consider only people from his tribe for appointments, and does not litter the environment even when no one is watching. A citizen is equipped with knowledge and skills to live a life of civility and contribute towards the development of the society he lives in” (Agbo, 2021, par. 13).
The elections will be proof of our political values 24 years after the return of democracy. The elections will show if we can differentiate between the candidates who are idiots, tribesmen, and citizens. The votes will also provide a window to assess the level of awareness of the electorates on whether they are idiots, tribesmen, or citizens.
Social Media in the Season of Electioneering
Decades ago, traditional media such as radio, television, and newspapers were used by politicians to campaign ahead of elections. In the current digital era, new media have become megaphones that are accessible not only to the rich but to ordinary citizens. Several communication theories can be used to support the use of social media platforms for electioneering or other political purposes. Some of these theories include the Uses and Gratification Theory (UGT) which explains how people use media to satisfy their specific needs and aspirations; another theory that is compatible with the use of social media is technological determinism. This theory establishes the relationship between technology (medium) and the message.
The proponent of this theory, Marshall McLuhan describes the medium as the message because the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 1964, p.9). Furthermore, the power of the phone, personal blogs, and social media platforms brought about the concept of Citizen Journalism because the digital phone is a tool with which to gather messages, take photos, as well as share video and audio messages.
Another concept of communication that supports the use of social media as a vital instrument for politics is Strategic Communication. Strategic communication aims at social change or behavioural change and influencing polities.
Social media, also known as Social Networking Sites (SNS) or interactive technologies are versatile applications for social interaction through text, audio, video, and images. Through these applications, users can receive, produce and share messages (Musa, 2021, pp.301-302).
Social media have become indispensable instruments in modern politics as they provide people with the opportunity to air their views and exercise their freedom of speech (Alegu & Magu, 2020. p.4). Social media can be used constructively for peace building processes and narratives and they can be used for the spreading of disinformation. According to a report given by Google, the estimated number of active internet users in January 2022 is 109 million and the most active social media
platforms in Nigeria are WhatsApp (91.9%); Facebook (86.4%); Instagram (77.9%); Face book Messenger (71.2%) (Dazang, 2022). In the year 2014, the year before the 2015 general elections StatCounter GlobalStats reported that Facebook had the highest number of social media users in Nigeria with an estimated 85%, 12% used Twitter and less than 3% used other social media platforms. (Adelakun, 2018, p. 19).
Compared to the 2022 statistics there is a slight increase in the percentage of Facebook users and an exponential rise in the use of other social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger. The 2022 statistics show that WhatsApp is the dominant Social Media platform in Nigeria.
Social media have been used constructively and strategically during elections to counter voters’ apathy and mobilise citizens to vote and raise awareness about the importance of voting. Here are some striking voting captions and quotes found on Instagram (Bain, 2020): “Shaping tomorrow by voting today”; “Vote for change”; “Be the change you wish to see in the world”; “I’m voting for a better future”; “My vote, my choice”; “If you don’t vote you lose the right to complain”; “Every vote counts”; “Your vote is your voice”; “Vote like your life depends on it”.
In addition, social media served as the watchdog during the last general elections in Nigeria as some electorates exposed electoral fraud where underaged children lined up to vote, and in another case where party agents were captured on camera distributing money to influence voters. The images and videos were shared on WhatsApp and Facebook platforms (Apuke & Tunka, p.4).
However, political extremists have taken advantage of social media to share and spread potentially harmful message in the season of electioneering. Studies show that
“Extremist movements are aware of the, often marginalized, position they hold in the mainstream media. Therefore, they opt to legitimize their goals, methods, and tactics through the internet, allowing [them] to control the content of the message.
The internet allows [them] to control their image, paint a respectable picture of the movement, and reach a broad audience. By drawing attention to the barbarity of others, supporters can be attracted and passive sympathizers can be pursued into action” (Pauwels et al, 2014, pp. 55-56).
These political extremists transmit harmful messages constructed in various ways: as manipulated political memes, dehumanizing messages to ridicule political opponents, spreading disinformation (fake news), propagating and reinforcing conspiracy theories, manipulating images and events that happened in other countries and presenting them as what happened in Nigeria; bringing past stories and presenting them as current stories just to ignite conflicts.
The document on the national action plan for preventing and countering violent extremism identifies social media influencers as one of the core constituencies to focus on in the prevention of violent extremism (Agbakwuru, 2022, par. 4). Idayat Hassan, the Director of the Centre for Democracy Development (CDD), West Africa, observes how disinformation in social media is threatening national cohesion and reinforcing the Nigerian identity politics (Annan Commission, 2022). Thus, social media has become a battleground for political conflicts that are disguised as ethnoreligious conflicts.
There are yet those who use their social media platforms to post and share unauthorised election results.
During the 2015 election some social media political activists had come out with conclusive results of the elections even before the elections were conducted in some parts of the country (Guardian Nigeria, 2015, pars. 1 &2). Such unauthorized results by party stalwarts are likely to foment trouble and riots if they are not in sync with the final results released by the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Political parties use social media to emphasize their popularity by using Bots. These are automated social media accounts which are like ghost accounts on social media to establish an exaggerated number of followers of a political candidate.
The Centre for Journalists Innovation and Development (CJID) discovered that the major candidates for the presidential election’ had hundreds of thousands of followers with fake social media accounts (Luckscheiter. 2022, pars. 13- 16).
Social media are also used by foreign powers to influence elections. There are cases of international interference in elections in Africa and other parts of the world. Some Western countries have an interest in who wins the elections. Some interference comes by way of offering help to conduct the elections for African countries. In some situations, these powerful countries set ethnic groups and religions against themselves (Razak, 2012, pp. 7-8). In 2015 the People’s Democratic Party accused foreign powers of supporting the All-Progressive Congress and in 2019 the All Progressive Congress accused the same foreign powers of helping the People’s Democratic Party to win the election (Falana, 2019, par. 4).
There was alleged foreign interference through Facebook in the 2016 United States elections. To avoid similar occurrences, the Facebook company came out with a policy not to permit “foreign electoral advertisement” ahead of the 2019 elections in Nigeria.
Social media gives political extremists opportunities to live in what is known as Echo Chamber. This is a situation where people continue to receive the same kind of messages that confirm their ideologies and mindsets. Social media users usually share messages with people who share their opinions, beliefs, values, and ideologies and so the messages go around like a vicious circle within the group.
This implies that political extremists are likely to share messages with ideologically homogenous people. Facebook and Twitter are among the social media platforms that use centralized algorithms to create an echo chamber. They do this by curating the activities of socks’ media users and suggesting platforms or users that have similar content. Therefore, a political extremist whose activity is creating, sharing, liking, and commenting on extremists’ messages is likely to find suggestions from friends who do the same.
Recommendations and Conclusion
The following recommendations aim at mitigating political extremism through social media and establishing a culture of peace building during and after elections. First, dangerous and violent political extremism can be countered by every citizen who has a portable device. Counter- messaging means producing messages that counteract extremists’ ideologies.
Patriotic citizens who have access to social media can cultivate the habit of debunking false information and messages that exacerbate identity politics and ethnoreligious hatred.
Besides, Group platforms can establish rules and regulations that prohibit the sharing of messages that promote political extremism; thirdly, social media users can Cross-check the veracity of the information before sharing. Besides social media users can exercise some restraint by not sharing negative, and dangerous information that is not verified, especially about political opponents.
Needless to add that social media users are at liberty to leave or dissociate themselves from platforms that have toxic and divisive, and extremist political views.
Users of social media platforms can take advantage of the buttons provided by social media companies which enable users to send reports about dangerous or inappropriate messages.
One of the ways of raising awareness about political extremism is by organizing workshops like this. The 2023 general elections are defining moments in the history of Nigeria and we are all stakeholders to ensure that it is credible, just, and peaceful.