Social Media: Saving the Medium and the Message

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The renowned father of linguistics Noam Chomsky speaks about the control of mass perception and behavior via information control in his famous work, “The Manufacturing of Consent.” In this work, he illustrates how systems of power often find ways to moderate the range of conversations possible by controlling the outlets of information that help the average citizen build their context of reality. Looking at America, for example, the concept of the right and left wing has been so developed that one can look at any large media corporation and label it “Liberal” or “Conservative” media, as if to say no one person can, for example, be pro-gay marriage and anti-abortion at the same time. You have to choose one tribe and stick to all the opinions associated with the media mouthpieces that speak for the “side.”

In Nigeria, like most African countries, the notion of philosophy-based politics doesn’t even exist. APC, PDP, AAC, YP, and whatever other alphabet you can group together to form a political party make no promise of an ethos. Rather, they are focused strictly on a battle of popularity, seamlessly switching positions on issues to appease voters every four years. Naturally, this sort of popularity contest requires a stranglehold on information because it means that at any moment, a new candidate can arise and capture the imagination of the public, as was seen in the last election with a relatively unpopular Peter Obi running under an even more unpopular Labour Party.

For many years now, it has been nearly impossible to break the stranglehold on information because the ruling parties fund and control so many media organizations with cash or sanctions to bend them to their will. And then came social media. For the first time, Nigerians began to experience decentralized media where anyone’s voice could hold sway on public opinion. Unlike the old media landscape where anyone could be vilified or even completely erased with reduced airtime, social media granted citizens a front-row seat to the opinions and personalities of every candidate, and it took the debate outside of the normal scope characterized by parties spending all their time discrediting competing parties. All of a sudden, issue-based politics appeared in Nigeria to rival the popularity contest that often saw candidates performing acts like street hawking as a way to gather votes by appearing “relatable.”

A Nigerian politician performing poverty for popularity

Before the emergence of Peter Obi, the power of social media to break the homogeneity of controlled narratives was already showing its teeth in the Jonathan era, where his successor (Muhammadu Buhari) hired the infamous Cambridge Analytica group to reach Nigerians fast turning away from traditional media thanks to exhaustion and a lack of faith in their objectivity. The success of this first campaign proved something to the democratic oligarchs – there was a new media in town, and it was more powerful than anything anyone could imagine because it was directly interactive.

To fully understand this power, we must look at the work of Marshal Mcluhan, aptly summarized by his quote “the medium is the message.” In this assertion, he points out how the form information appears in affects the consumer’s understanding and contextualization. For example, in the age of books and newspapers, you could read some text and the only way to react was to somehow write your own text and publish it for or against the opinion you had digested. This form of dialectic largely kept the marketplace of ideas restricted to people with access to publishers. In the age of social media, you are reading the news, reading comments of others about the news, and then reacting with your own comments, all in real time. This means it has become easier to call out fake news or biased opinions. For a more detailed explanation of this concept, please enjoy the Nerdwriter video below.

With smartphone penetration on the rise in Nigeria and a youthful population coming to dominate the country through Muhammadu Buhari’s eight years in power, it isn’t very difficult to see the risk being posed by social media to legacy media and those that hope to control the narrative to frame public perception, even when it is couched as an attempt to stop disinformation. There is also the amplifying power of social influencers who tend to inhabit the creative space across platforms. Unlike traditional media where only a central figure can be corrupted to align the whole, it will take a lot to reach every single influencer. And unlike the faceless heads of big media companies, influencers are constantly exposed and can face serious backlash from their followers if thought to be compromised.

Needless to say, with all this in mind, TASCK was quick to slip on our superhero cape and war gauntlets to fight against this bill. Considering that Singapore (one of the least rated countries for press restriction) and China (a communist one-party nation) are the leaders in the social media restriction proverbial “WhatsApp Group” – this was really a no-brainer. Within 24 hours, support to shelve this bill garnered over 90,000 signatures thanks to the efforts of many civil society groups sending a clear message to the Senate that the people were not a party to this bill that clearly exposed individuals to unwarranted arrests because really, who gets to define truth and what is ultimately disinformation in a country where even political wars are regularly a battle of propaganda?

Some not-so-free nations when it comes to digital

We believe not just in the freedom of speech of every Nigerian, but also the freedom to criticize state actors without the fear of disappearing into a dark room for questioning. At the height of the social media tension with the state in the ENDSARS protest, a blanket ban on Twitter (now X) platform, branded as an enemy of the state, took effect with the NCC blacklisting the URL and all other forms of access. This military-style dictatorial tactics came as little surprise as the head of state was an ex-military general, but it was certainly a new low in the Nigerian freedom of speech narrative.

Let the bird sing, better yet, let it fly too…

While X (formerly Twitter) is now back online, we would like to urge Nigerians to remain vigilant in protecting this sacred right of democracy, lest our voices be lost to the void via digital blackouts. At TASCK, we remain dedicated to speaking out against such civil rights infringements, and if you would like to be a part of these conversations, you should definitely consider registering for this year’s Ignite Conference.

Register today to be a part of the Ignite Conference here

Nuel Umahi
Nuel Umahi

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