There is an increasing emphasis on the role of history in Nigeria, not only as a knowledge bank for the next generation; but to aid the present generation in understanding her realities and to be able to predict the future. The danger however, is the tendency for these narratives to limit it’s focus to pre and immediate post-colonial histories almost neglecting that history is a continuous process. In a society that is susceptible to collective amnesia, Hashtags has emerged to remind us of our very recent past. The book speaks to perennial issues in Nigeria such as ethnocentrism, political activism, insecurity and free speech. However, it does this through the prisms of the social media; an emergent phenomenon that is speedily reconfiguring the socio-economic and political space of not only Nigeria, but the rest of the world.
Written by Nwachukwu Egbunike, a political communications scholar from the University of Ibadan, Hashtags is a product of the author’s ethnographic immersion within the social media community and a collection of his real-time reflections on Nigerian realities.
The 142-page book therefore serves as a lens through which one can understand the thoughts of an average Nigerian tweep (twitter person) and netizen (citizen of the internet). Though the book is rooted in research and theoretical postulations, Egbunike adopts simple language in communicating his findings and takes the reader on a journey that calls to mind some critical events that are now part of Nigerian history. These include the influence of the social media on the 2015 election campaigns, insecurities in the Nigeria’s North-East, the abduction of Chibok girls, Nigeria’s triumph over the Ebola crisis among others.
Central to Hashtags is the reality that identity politics and messiah-complex largely define conversations within the Nigerian public sphere. The author re-emphasises the way ethno-religious leaders have built political capital by exploiting the major fault lines of the country; religion and ethnicity. This has eventually elevated some of these leaders (as was exemplified in the case of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafran Movement) to the status of messiahs in the eyes of their followers. The same issue is also playing out in the religious houses as some ‘men of God’ who, in the words of Tochukwu Okwuanya, have become gods of men have started anointing their perceived political messiahs in view of the 2019 general elections. Nwachukwu reminds us of the events that preceded the 2015 general elections as well as the dangers of believing that a single individual is the messiah that will solve all the challenges of the nation.
Perhaps the new men of powers highlighted in Hashtags are the Politico-Twitterati (Twitter Overlords with large followership) whom the author described as active partisan politicians. These individuals ride on the messiah-complex and herd mentality of their Voltrons (uncritical social media followers) to either oppose or promote the interests of the government depending on who their respective paymasters are. While the politico-twitterati of the opposition adopts disruptive narratives thriving essentially on rumours, the establishment politico-twitterati offer confutative narratives; existing only to debunk actions, imagined and real, of the opposition. Above all, these new agenda setters and news framers adopt different strategies including ad hominem attacks to drive public opinion towards their interests and inadvertently establishing a dangerous cycle of hate speeches within the social media community.
Reflecting on the author’s views on Free Speech and Free Spite reminds me of a debate in my Philosophy class regarding hate speech questioning the point at which limiting free speech becomes either a tool for protecting the society or abusing it. Asides highlighting the dangers of hate speech, Egbunike focuses on promoting free speech and shows how the African blogosphere (an online network or community of writers and readers of blogs) adopted the virtual pen in combatting the sword that suppresses free speech. Whether one identifies with the libertarian argument that free speech is an essential precondition for human life and for democracy, supports J.S. Mill’s Harm Principle or identifies with Joel Feinberg’s Offense Principle; it is important that a line is drawn between free speech and hate speech. This is important because, hate speech is an abuse of the freedom of free speech with the capacity to create negative ripple effects within the society.
Asides the role played by ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ in driving hate speech on social media in Nigeria; the book highlights how narratives and memories of the past encourage offensive language within the Nigerian public sphere. Events of the past and stories (factual and non-factual) related to them are often the basis for most of the social media wars. This is worsened by the growing mass of frustrated citizenry, forced to live with failed promises by the political class and crushed hopes. Findings from a personal study on the IPOB movement in south-eastern Nigeria corroborate this as the stories that are spread by the leadership of the group (principally through the social media), encourage her followers (largely made up of aggrieved Nigerians abroad and young people who are disillusioned with their socio-economic conditions); to demonise and even verbally attack whoever does not align with their views on social media.
Also, the high rate of postism, clickism, resharism, retweetism and other isms on social media supports the opinion of the author on the danger of immediacy (a false sense that societal challenges can be trumped through activism on social media). Netizens and ‘Blogotivists’ need to come to terms with the reality that most societal problems are physical and should resist the temptation to be stuck in their elitist and comfort zone behind the screens. For the change we desire within the society to materialise, the conversation must include the average person on the streets, who are not yet part of the internet community. Moreover, it is important that before we post, re-share or re-tweet anything on the internet, we pause and ponder the likely effects on the society.
Hashtags also reminds us of the positive role that social media has played in our history. The author re-tells the story of our heroine of the Ebola crisis, Dr Ameyo Adadevoh and how hashtags such as #EbolaFreeNigeria and #EbolaAlerts were used, not only to sensitise people on the Ebola scourge but also to prevent the spread of panic and false information within the country. The book also highlights the positives of the social media in campaigning for the release of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls abducted by Boko haram insurgents, as well as the Zone 9 bloggers incarcerated by the Ethiopian government in 2014. The ‘Troll Cabal’, a group that is apolitical and uses satire to objectively engage political issues and the political twitterati is also one of the creations of the social media which was highlighted in the book.
I have reservations about some views shared within the book such as: everything was viewed from the prisms of us versus them during the military (the National Democratic Coalition struggle against General Sani Abacha trumped ethno-religious differences); identity politics took root in Nigeria at independence (identity was already a strong determinant of Nigerian politics during colonial era) and the author’s suggestion that 2015 general elections was the turning point of the role of social media in Nigerian politics (the 2012 OccupyNigeria protests which was largely influenced by the social media fits that profile better). Also, the author recommended that we shelve ideology-based politics to accept ethno-religious power sharing as our template. I wonder if this will not result in further micro-polarisation of the country and encourage politics just for the sake of it and not development. While I agree that political ideologies should not be too abstract or externally imposed, I strongly suggest that politicians clearly state their economic/development ideology ab initio.
Nonetheless, Nwachukwu Egbunike has not only given us a food for thought as we count down to the 2019 general elections, but strategically alerts us to protect free speech and to guard against the conflict entrepreneurs and social media overlords. He reminds us to have the courage to identify the pitfalls of the past, recognise them and move on; and that social media conversations should be subjected to constant scrutiny to avoid becoming harbingers of fake news and propaganda, as it happened during the 2015 general elections.
I sign off by imploring everyone to realise that the gadgets we carry have become the greatest weapon of the 21st century. A simple post on Instagram or Facebook; a tweet on Twitter or a status update on WhatsApp can work for or against the society. Let’s use them cautiously.
Tobechukwu is an Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG) Scholar at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.