We live in increasingly interesting times as technology experiences a continued growth never before seen in the previous 2 decades. Not primarily in terms of hardware development and creation, rather we have seen an increased evolution in the development of social and interactive technology. It makes me wonder how far away we are from literally becoming a global village (some say we already are). Inevitably, Social Media is presenting a new challenge for old and traditional structures, norms and regiments in today’s environment, creating totally different pathways for information dissemination and accessibility, it has happened so fast people can barely keep up. Gone are the days when being able to connect with public figures was almost impossible or it was through a maze of protocols and hurdles, now all that needs to happen is for both parties to have a Facebook or twitter account, while breaking news is revealed and spreads first on twitter before reaching other conventional forms of media and communication i.e. the strike in Pakistan that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden.
In the ensuing years after the introduction of these multiple platforms most developed countries and western governments have embraced social media as a means to create a point of interaction and information dissemination to the citizenry while Political figures have capitalized on the broad spread of platforms and users to reach out to potential voters and donors, creating pages and twitter accounts where Q & A sessions can be held in real time while regular news updates about activities and scheduled visits can easily be posted. As time goes by more and more people are joining the social media community and are finding interesting ways to make it work to their benefit.
In Nigeria where over 60 million people are connected to the internet with more than 60% of that number being active social media users the figure becomes hard to ignore. It rather becomes essential for any organization to fully maximize the potential these numbers have to offer. On one hand the business community has wasted no time in seizing the vast opportunities presented by these new innovations, creating new and refreshing products as well as creative marketing campaigns to bring in new customers and long term clients. One of such is the Facebook initiative that allows a customer open a bank account via the platform or the new customer care twitter handle being utilized by a GSM operator to engage clients and respond to complaints and inquiries.
In a country where statistics claim 70% of the population live below the poverty line and wide spread unemployment, one is not surprised at how keen the people are to gather any new information about the government activities, pieces of information that could possibly lead to new opportunities or simply, employment. This is largely one of the several reasons people are signed up on social media yet in response to this the government has been mostly lukewarm in embracing these new platforms. Apart from the YouWin and Sure-P programs which are being run by the Ministry of Finance most other government ministries and parastatals have shown little interest in engaging with Nigerians on most social media channels. A little effort was initially made by a handful of them via Facebook but ultimately their Facebook pages have become a mere window shop for lack of a better description.
In a somewhat ‘love lost’ kind of manner, hearing the president refer to social media users as ‘the social media people’ during his recent media chat was somewhat uncomfortable considering how much campaign efforts have been poured into multiple platforms over the recent weeks of feverish campaigning. Unlike the 2011 elections, campaign managers have finally seen the importance these platforms will play in deciding what direction the elections results swing towards. They realize that hand in hand with an effective media campaign their messages can be heard and their candidates properly sold to the populace.
Going by the events of Occupy Nigeria several years ago and the efforts to raise awareness for the missing Chibok girls amongst other campaigns mainly carried out via social media, it is now beholden on government bodies and ministries to seize this new estate of information despite its seeming lack of form and boundaries.
As the Social media Landscape report by Africa Practice stated; “In Nigeria around one in seven of all 7 stories may originate from social media. While audiences in Nigeria seek verified news from newspapers, the traditional notions of what it means to be a source are rapidly expanding to encompass sourcing through engagement.” The report while making a case for assessing social media impact further pointed out how brand recognition, accountability and civic engagement can be further enhanced via social media. These are important tools and functions government bodies and ministries must embrace in order to be seen as ready and active in this new information age. With increased visibility and a clear accountability approach in the eyes of the citizenry, government bodies and ministries can become poster boys and reference points for entire administrations as a whole.
Negative aspects of social media will always come into play. Internet trolls and opposition members are prone to equally exploit these platforms to frustrate initiatives and ridicule honest efforts at making a difference. Inexperienced users have inadvertently become embroiled in mudslinging owing from these constant taunts which is undeniably negative press and attention. It should be noted that there are easy ways to handle these digital miscreants without recourse to insults or negative campaigning; the focus should always be on the issue or subject at hand rather than the opposition or the troll. A lack of response from the well meaning party usually ends in a loss of interest from these trouble makers. Like almost all mediums of communication created, not everyone uses them for the best of intentions but everyone wants to exploit them to their own benefit. Understanding this basic fact introduces a bigger picture perspective to viewing social media as well; the bad eggs will always exist. A typical example is the unfortunate Justine Sacco of the “I pray I don’t get AIDS..I’m white..” tweet fame. She is one to first admit that her tweet was both in poor taste and grossly misinterpreted but one thing she made sure she did after her 11 hour flight from the USA to Africa was not engage the people who called her out on twitter and just as she imagined it the whole story was old news within days.
The above paragraph helps to highlight the aspects of social media often talked about the most, ignoring the well meaning larger body, users who on a day to day basis interact positively with themselves and reach out to new people and organizations to create lasting and positive relationships. There are social observers and advocates who have made immense differences in communities and individual lives across the world through the use of a mobile device and access to the internet. These are the people government bodies and ministries should focus on and emulate because with so little they are able to achieve so much. Social media users are not mere users, they are the news makers and the news writers of today.
Maybe there are hidden agendas or it is just a clear case of not understanding how the platforms work but government, policy makers and public officials need to be more open to ‘The social media people’. Day by day their influence grows not merely because of their incessant lambasting of perceived government ineptitude but because of their growing reach and influence. From Facebook to twitter to Pintrest and Blogger, the chatter is never ending, the questions keep being asked and the desire for answers has never been more pressing; where are the chibok girls? What happened in Baga? What is going on in the NNPC? Etc. and as the election days come ever closer ‘The social media people’ stare at their screens, be it laptops, tablets, smart phones or desktops, constantly interacting and seeking new information, discussing earnestly with their colleagues and complete strangers. There exists a vacuum that desires to be filled with more information so that they can make better decisions when they head to the polls to cast their ballots because let us not forget, ‘The social media people’ by an exceeding number make up the electorate.