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Nigerians look to social media amid information scarcity ahead of election

Citizen-journalists, election monitors harness reach of Twitter and Facebook to promote transparency

LAGOS, Nigeria — One of Nigeria's most widely read news sources, SaharaReporters, operates from New York and relies heavily on reporting by citizen-journalists in Nigeria. Still, it has found itself the target of billionaires, politicians and Boko Haram. “If we were in Nigeria, basically, in the last nine years, I don't think I would be talking to you right now,” said Omoyele Sowore, SaharaReporters’ founder and editor-in-chief.

Several multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuits have been brought against Sowore since the site's founding, most recently a $5 million suit filed with the New York Supreme Court by a Nigerian government minister. The site has experienced repeated cyberattacks and was named as a target by Boko Haram in a 2012 video.

Nigeria’s press freedom is stifled by both government oppression of journalists and armed groups operating in the country’s northeast. Nigeria ranked 112th out of 180 on the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, and there have been several reports of arrests and harassment of local journalists. And in the lead-up to this year's national elections, which have since been postponed to March 28 because of instability in the northeast, press freedom groups reported a backlog of visas for foreign press. The Nigerian government did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.

But as traditional media coverage has been tamped down in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, social media and websites like SaharaReporters are buzzing, enabling news outlets to reach out to their audience for information and eyewitness accounts and letting citizens report news that formal outlets may be afraid to air.

SaharaReporters — which made its name in 2009 as the first source to identify the underwear bomber, a Nigerian man who tried to blow up a U.S.-bound flight with explosives concealed in his underwear, through crowdsourcing on social media — is now one of the fastest-growing websites in Nigeria because of social media. The site's content is pushed out through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram, and video content is produced for YouTube. According to social analytics tracker Socialbakers’ February report, the site is the third-most-popular Nigerian media source on Facebook and is gaining followers rapidly, jumping from 1,079,885 likes when the report came out to nearly 1.5 million at time of publication.

Sowore grew up in Nigeria and was given political asylum in the United States in 1999 after allegedly being persecuted and tortured by police for anti-government activism. He launched the site in 2006 while living in New Jersey, with the aim of keeping a check on government corruption and malfeasance in his homeland, relying on evidence-backed reports from Nigerian expatriates and local reporters. He moved the offices to New York in 2008.

“Because of the notoriety of the site, politicians and police frequently return our calls,” says Sowore. “They say to us, ‘We hate you — but this is what we know.’”

Journalists gathered in Lagos in February for a social media conference.
Skyler Reid

“It is not possible for one government to suppress the social media of Nigeria. Even if we don't have Internet, we will find a way to reach the Web,” said Nnenna Nwakanma, the Africa regional coordinator for the U.S.-based World Wide Web Foundation, at a social media conference in Lagos in February. She was at the conference to discuss implementing a bill of rights for freedom of online expression and communication in Nigeria.

“Social media is creating a new generation of Nigerians who have neither power nor money but have influence. And this is what the old stock are afraid of,” she said after a panel discussion, during which her criticisms of government infringement on free speech were met with applause.

“Whatever trends on Twitter trends on traditional media. And whatever trends on traditional media trends in the policy space. So we are looking at a shift in paradigm, in which social media becomes a definer of social discourse.”

Despite the rapid growth of social platforms, Nigeria lags much of the world on Internet access and social media usage per capita. According to We Are Social, a London-based social media communications agency, Facebook penetration in Nigeria was only at 6 percent as of January 2014, accounting for 11.2 million users. However, increased mobile phone usage has been a catalyst for increased social media adoption, and in January of this year Nigeria was among the eight countries where Facebook Lite — a stripped-down version of the Facebook phone app designed for mobile users in emerging markets — was rolled out. Mobile penetration in Nigeria has reached 65 percent of the population, accounting for the most users among African countries.

The push toward mobile and social distribution networks has disrupted a system in which the government could largely control the message. Local reporters say that government offices are frequently unresponsive to press inquiries and that reporters who challenge government positions are harassed.

In February 2015, Nigerian website The Nation Online reported that Department of State Security officers broke into the home of Tife Owolabi, a Reuters correspondent. “The DSS men stormed my apartment on Saturday to conduct a search and claimed it was based on an order from Abuja. The DSS men claimed that I am unpatriotic, owing to my job and relationship with the Thomas Reuters,” he reportedly said.

According to a dispatch from Reporters Without Borders, the editor of the weekly newspaper Tentacle was arrested on Jan. 14, after months of harassment for publishing an article, “20 threats against Jonathan’s re-election survey,” referring to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan. The editor was reportedly held for two weeks by state security, despite a court ruling ordering his release.

The same Reporters Without Borders article noted the lack of communication by the Nigerian government about the ongoing crisis in the north, where Boko Haram has devastated cities and towns. Before the recent military campaigns launched against the armed group, the government was largely silent on the crisis. Jonathan was widely criticized for condemning the attacks on France’s Charlie Hebdo magazine in January without addressing reports that more than 2,000 people were killed by Boko Haram in the city of Baga several days earlier. While his silence continued, Nigerians began expressing their frustrations on Twitter using the hashtag #BagaTogether.

The military eventually acknowledged the attacks but only confirmed 150 deaths.

With hundreds of thousands of Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram and a swath of the north under threat by the group inaccessible to press and nongovernmental organizations, Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is turning to social media to provide a check on the legitimacy of the upcoming national elections, which were delayed from their original date of Feb. 14.

“A lot of the conversations around the election happen in real time. People want to hear what's going on, tuning to radio, listening to television, so on, trolling the Internet trying to find out what’s going on with the elections,” said Amara Nwankpa, the director of public policy initiatives for the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, a Nigerian public service and governance group.

The foundation is one of several partners working with the INEC to expand election oversight, utilizing 10,000 trained election observers around the country and a social media campaign, complete with a push for awareness on Twitter (using the hashtag #NigeriaDecides) and Facebook. It’s the first use of Facebook in Africa to engage voters.

The trained election monitors will monitor social media posts, primarily on Twitter and Facebook, for information about problems at polling stations and then follow up if necessary.

“On election day we’ll see a lot of reporting. That will be the story of this election,” says Fatu Ogwuche, a new-media consultant for the INEC.

While social media has grown throughout Nigeria as an alternative platform for circumventing the imposition on information, it is a far cry from freedom of expression. Gbenga Sesan, the executive director of communications technology training company Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, experienced this firsthand on May 5, 2014, when the State Security Service, Nigeria’s intelligence agency, called on his office. He was at home when his office called to say agents were there to see him.

To ensure as many people as possible knew, he immediately sent out a message on Twitter, saying, “The office just told me someone from SSS is waiting with a letter for me:) I’ll know content in a bit. All we’re saying: #BringBackOurGirls.”

He was later told that the experience was spurred by a tweet in which he said people should hack the hashtag for the 2014 World Economic Forum to draw attention to the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. The forum was being held in Nigeria that year, which Sesan objected to because it would distract from the still missing Chibok girls abducted by Boko Haram.

“Social media is a platform where you can be the news, you can make the news, you can report the news all at the same time. So it empowers a new generation of individuals,” said Sesan. Three days after his two-hour meeting with the SSS, he received an award for social entrepreneur of the year at the World Economic Forum.

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