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How Far Can Social Media Impact 2023 Polls?

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July 31, (THEWILL) – A group of youths that had gathered at a popular newsstand, close to the pedestrian bridge at Ele-epo Bus Stop flanking a large market on the busy Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, were discussing the trending political issue of the day last Wednesday.

Their discussion centered on the activities of the two major political parties in the country, the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

The reason was because newspaper reports covered the activities of the two parties. Even when somebody tried to interject with a reference to Labour Party (LP), the discussion, which turned heated and abusive at a point, managed to stay on the two parties.

“Obi kolo ibi kokon (meaning literally that Peter Obi, the LP presidential candidate, is going nowhere)”, one youth whom others constantly called Ekuse, said rather dismissively in reply to another youth who said something about the LP. Visibly scornful, he even ignored the reporter’s question to prove his statement.

“Open your eyes and do not wait until it happens,” an obvious LP supporter replied and walked away, perhaps sensing trouble from the menacing glance of others who brooked no interruption of the trend of their discussion, which went on for the next 30 minutes, dwelling on how, why and what of the fortunes of their preferred candidates on the platforms of the two major parties.

Assessing their engagement, an Executive Director of an NGO dealing with the electoral processes of the forthcoming 2023 poll, told THEWILL on the condition of anonymity: “Visibility and presence are essential to political marketing and the media has a major role to play in conveying these qualities to their readers through their reportage.”

According to him, although the media has since gone digital and news coverage has gone digital, traditional media still holds sway among many Nigerians, particularly radio, which is cheap to buy and portable to carry from place to place, even on android phones.

Explaining further, he said: “Nonetheless, social media influence on politics has attracted much attention because the LP and supporters of its presidential candidate, Peter Obi, are deploying it effectively. The majority of those spreading the Obidient gospel are youths who form a major demographic in the voting population. How far they can go in the 2023 polls is another question, but it is not going to be business as usual as the LP candidate is seen as a fresh face from those of the two major parties. Even if Obi does not win the presidency but manages to get, say 5million votes, he would have made the impact to give people the courage that they can make a change in the future.”

He added that the impression that the Obidient Movement is the only one dependent on use of social media for political mobilisation for 2023 election is incorrect.

According to him, groups for the two other candidates Abubakar Atiku of the PDP and Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu are also active on social media, some as far back as 2013.

Pro-Tinubu groups have been active since 2019. The Tinubu Media Team created the ‘Arewa Youth Progressive Alliance (AYPA) for the propagation of Tinubu candidacy in 2023; Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu – located in Kano, Lagos and Ibadan, was created on September 30, 2020.

The Tinubu Support Organisation (TSO) Bola Tinubu 2023,” as well as The Young Professionals for Tinubu Presidency – created on October 28, 2019.

For Atiku, a group with different names consists of ‘Atiku for President 2023,’ created on February 9, 2013, but the name was last changed on March 16, 2021.

Another prominent pro-Atiku group is known as ‘Atiku Abubakar is Coming Next Year’ created on November 19, 2021.

Atiku Youths Campaign Group, created on November 1, 2021 and Atiku Abubakar Campaign Group Organisation, which was founded on September 17, 2020.

Lending credence to his summation is the low coverage, penetration and usage of social media by the majority of Nigerians. Unlike what happens in the developed world like the U.S.A where ex-President Barack Obama deployed it to maximum use to cause an upset in the 2000 presidential election, and his successor Donald Trump prided himself as the most social media friendly president in American history, Internet penetration in Nigeria is still very low.

But the comparison pales when it is considered that an African country like Egypt used it to mobilise support during the 2011 Arab Spring that led to the collapse of the 40-year old regime of late President Hosni Mubarak.

Also, during last month’s presidential election in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos’ son, Marcos Jr, deployed it to woo the youths with shallow memories of the dictatorship and oppression under his father’s government, which fell to the peoples’ revolution in 1986.

March Oyinchi, a former Information Assistant with the United States Information Service (USIS), who is now a digital marketing consultant, explained it to the THEWILL, thus: “It is true that Internet penetration in Nigeria is low, considering the country’s population of about 200 million. It is still largely an urban affair. Some of these countries you mentioned comparatively have lower populations. But more important is the fact that they have taken care of other variables like electricity supply (where Egypt power generation capacity recorded 59,063 megawatts for its 100 million population), which make it possible for service providers to extend their facilities at low costs. In Nigeria, it is not the people but the system that makes Internet penetration an issue.”

In Nigeria, according to research, Facebook is the most popular social media platform, among Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp and Telegram, You Tune and Tik Tok, for example, though WhatsApp and Instagram belong to Facebook to make it the leading social media platform globally.

Even so, at 36 million subscribers as at 2022, which represents 18 per cent of the Nigerian population, Facebook is still far below the number in the country when compared to countries like Egypt with 56.2 million users among its 100 million population and the Philippines with 91 million subscribers among its 106 population. In the Philippines, for example, fabricated stories were posted in 514 Facebook groups and viewed more than 89 million times.

Oyinchi, who now leads one of the approved coalitions for Peter Obi, CPO, admits this. Using his own group, Movement for Change Worldwide as an example, he said they have penetrated much of the South. “Our major headache is the North. We have been finding it hard to get real canvassers to work for us up North.”

That challenge, he quickly submitted, is only a political challenge and not necessarily a true picture of what social media would do in 2023.

According to him, social media has 60 per cent coverage in the country, more than the traditional media of radio, television and newspaper combined. “But sadly social media has little presence of boomers, those above 50 years. This has created the impression that nothing significant is happening on social media.

Considering that social media information reaches far too many people almost immediately than traditional media, its impact cannot be underestimated in any election year, especially in a country like ours where many are yearning for change.

Luka Binniyat, spokesperson for 160 ethnic groups in the political Middle Belt, consisting of most Christian and animist populations in 19 states in the North, supports Oyinchi’s findings though in a way that confirms our investigation about the sway of primordial sentiments on the electorate.

He confided in THEWILL that the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the APC has made the group to re-strategise ahead of the 2023 elections.

“The decision of the APC to choose a Muslim-Muslim ticket has made us to rethink our strategy considering the marginalization and oppression we have gone through on the basis of religion. We are considering the Obi ticket, though the various groups are yet to take a decision in that regard. We can mobilise 15 to 20 million voters across the Middle Belt, comprising Christian populations in 15 of the 19 states in the North.”

This convergence of hard politics and social media power being used by the political parties may go a long way to create the desired impact in the 2023 election.

On this, Oyinchi said: “Parties will mobilise, send messages and instructions through social media. Everything immediately flows from top to bottom. Where there is no coverage, physical meetings can then be convened by those who have access to the messages. In any case, do not forget that APC used social media to good effect in 2015. So it has been confirmed that social media can have an impact on elections in our country.”

If data on the recently concluded Continuous Voter Registration exercise is factored into the equation, then the 60 per cent of youthful electorate is up for grabs by the parties through social media because many of them are showing concern about the present circumstances like their counterparts in the Philippines, Egypt and the developed countries.