How Social Media Is Used For Election Campaigns in Africa

Social media, governance and politics increasingly go hand in hand these days. In Nigeria, politicians are joining the online community in droves to communicate with their audiences. They are quick to tell you that though the online community does not necessarily vote, they are a key demographic who shape and influence perception.

The only problem with this, is that social media users on the continent are typically a small portion of the population, middle class –and educated. Elitist is often the label thrown on politicians who are involved in extensive engagement with the online constituency as the offline majority feel they are excluded from conversations about their welfare and policies that affect them.

Whilst Twitter and Facebook are still some of the fastest ways for politicians to connect with their audiences, they are also an instant way to get ‘feedback-mobbed’. An important lesson is know your topic and audience; if you tweet or write something on any social media platform, be able to explain or defend it if need be.

Nigerian public officials are learning this lesson on a daily basis. On the 5th of July 2014, a special adviser to a public official in his support for the German football team enthusiastically tweeted ‘Hail Hilter’ (Heil Hitler). In a post-1949 world, a swastika is not a fashion accessory and Third Riech sympathizers are not viewed favorably, so you can imagine the backlash. In another society this comment could have sparked a diplomatic row.

Nigeria’s former President, Goodluck Jonathan and his cabinet were the poster kids of social media, with his 2011 campaign being launched on Facebook.

Facebook Goodluck Jonathan

However, social media was also used to critique (and sometimes fiercely comment on) his governance, the cabinet and the First Lady with memes and parody accounts. Interestingly he also enjoyed strong support from advocates as they recorded his before and after Jonathan successes often on social media.

Nigeria 1st Lady

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is another a social media anomaly who infamously holds the record of being the first Head of State to personally engage in a twitter feud with a journalist- Guardian UK writer Ian Birrell. Whilst loved by many, he is also accused of strong-arming the opposition; leaving him with a reputation of being both sides of a coin.

Evidence of this can be found on almost every online platform. In 2013, New York Times writer Jefferey Gettleman profiled Kagame in his piece ‘The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman’. He described him as someone who wasn’t used to confrontational questions and was a bit taken a back ‘by how quickly he flipped from friendly to imperious’. Kagame is an interesting case study of the growing use of social media by high profile politicians; he may not engage often but when he does, you’re sure it’s him. Twitter feud aside, Birell found it admirable that ‘a leader engaged so personally with him through a new form of communication’.

What you say online remains online. This is crucial to remember for any online activity, even if deleted immediately, thousands may have already seen and documented it.

The internet never forgets.

A recent example is when Nigeria’s Defense Minister on a lazy Sunday afternoon tweeted “Cold beer 4 dis hot sun” ; a simple enough tweet as it were, but one which invited a barge of disapproving comments and heckling. It was deleted soon after, with a statement following alleging the account had been hacked.

Elections are not won by social media or are they?

India reportedly has 103 million social media users from a population of over 815 million people; 93 million are on Facebook and 33 million on Twitter. These numbers however represent mainly a middle class, just like Nigeria. Indian politicians are aware of these statistics and took advantage of it in their campaign strategies earlier this year.

Political party Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) even urged online supporters to donate a tweet or Facebook status to them. The 2014 election was described as India’s first social media election by CNN.

According to them, President Modi’s BJP party hired social media experts to work on the campaign with the underlying premise that

“Some campaigns are not just for promotions, but to create conversations.”

In Nigeria, this rings true if the June 21st 2014 Ekiti elections are anything to go by. John Kayode Fayemi (JKF) was the popular candidate on social media; known as a thoroughbred intellectual with sound policies and ideas on moving the state forward. For months preceding the election, the online Nigerian community were kept updated about his activities and engaged with him personally in the run up to the election. Even I found myself participating in debates and conversations about Ekiti, keenly waiting for the results. However, when Ekiti decided, the victor was Ayo Fayose, a former governor who was apparently the preferred choice of non-social media users. Jokes about stomach infrastructure soon followed with JKF being called an elitist and Fayose, the man with the ‘common touch’ who understood the real needs of the people (in this case, branded bags of rice).

It would be an over exaggeration to attribute JKF’s failure to his focus on social media but it does beg the question of the influence it wields offline.
At last check, most major players in the Nigerian political arena and government officials have some form of a social media footprint. With a little over 200 days left to the 2015 elections, dozens of accounts which have had little activity are beginning to come out of dormancy.

Social media consulting is the new black and with credentials such as being part of a US President’s social media team being bandied around, the world will find out soon enough if social media has a significant impact or only plays a supporting role in deciding who Nigeria’s next president will be.

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