If elections are conducted on the social media, it would be safe to say that Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) has already won it – and by miles too. This is a known fact. Even the most hardcore of the Goodluck Jonathan supporters won’t tell you otherwise. The retired general’s support on the social media is nothing short of massive, far overshadowing that of Mr. President whose social media performance in the run-up to the poll leaves much to be desired.

Right from the onset, the tactics and strategies employed by his social media campaign handlers have been reactionary, defensive, timid and uninventive. The APC have all the while been having a field day, until recently at least. The evidence is there for all to see, from Twitter to Facebook and from blogs to internet forums. Beyond what the eyes can see, there are statistics to back it up.

A Nigeria-based management consulting firm, Sterling & Greenback, recently conducted a Twitter-based sentiment analysis to determine the attitude of Nigerians towards the two leading parties in the upcoming elections. Unsurprisingly, the ruling People’s Democratic Party trailed the opposition All Progressives Congress in many indices. According to their figures, the PDP had a national penetration of 1.82%, while the APC’s was 15.98%.

Be that as it may, elections are not conducted on the social media, neither is social media popularity a reliable pointer to or reflection of the support a candidate or a party enjoys. In more advanced countries where the internet penetration is up to at least 80%, it could be a reliable barometer to gauge this, but this doesn’t hold true in a developing country like Nigeria.

At the last count, the internet population of Nigeria stood at about 65 million, a measly 36% in a country of nearly 180 million people. In France, for instance, the total population, according to official estimates is about 67 million, while the population of people who have access to the internet over there is about 56 million, giving it an internet penetration of 84%.

In the United Kingdom, the figures are identical. The entire population of the country is put at 64 million, while the internet population is about 55 million, giving it a penetration of 86%. In the United States, the population is estimated to be 320 million, while the internet population is 280 million, giving it an internet penetration of 88%.

We are far behind here in Nigeria. The internet population is still low, though it has been improving tremendously over the past few years, having increased from 30.9 million in 2009 to where it currently is, but that is still not enough.

It is also pertinent for me to mention here that internet population does not equate to social media population. It is not everybody that has access to the internet that makes use of the social media. The social media is distinct from the internet, though it is subsumed under it.

Going by the definition given by Merriam-Webster, social media is a “form of electronic communication (as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (as videos).” The Oxford Dictionaries gives an even more direct definition, describing it as “websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking.”

These definitions therefore limit the scope of the social media to social networks (like Facebook and LinkedIn), blogs (like Sahara Reporters), microblogs (like Twitter), media sharing websites (like YouTube and Instagram), bookmarking websites (like Reddit), social news websites (like StumbleUpon), wikis (like Wikipedia), message boards (like Nairaland), podcasts (downloadable audio programs) and virtual worlds (like multiplayer online gaming). Other internet services like emails – though very powerful in information dissemination – and internet banking do not qualify as social media.

At the last count (in 2013), Facebook – the most popular social network in Nigeria – had a mere 11 million users within the country. This would currently be in the range of 12-13 million. The microblogging website Twitter follows closely with about 6 million active users, while the other social media sites account for another 6 million. These figures may overlap; someone can maintain accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media sites at the same time. With all that accounted for, the number of social media users in Nigeria may not be more than 20 million.

A good number of the 20 million or so Nigerians who have access to the social media are below the age of 18, so they cannot vote. They will be mere onlookers and spectators in the real electoral process. Some others are above 18, but they have no Permanent Voters Cards. No PVC means no voting, unless INEC says otherwise. Also, some of those Nigerians who flood our social media space and spray comments here and there do not even reside in Nigeria. They are often the most vocal, but they will eventually be monitoring the situation from afar.

Some would argue that the social media echoes the sentiments of Nigerians. However, in it, everybody is responsible for his or her own opinions and cannot be said to be speaking for others. In France, the UK and the US, the social media will be an adequate tool to measure and sample the feelings of the entire population, but the same cannot be said over here. 20 million Nigerians cannot be said to be speaking the mind of 160 million others.

The market woman in Lagos state has a PVC, but has no interest in the social media so her political inclinations and sentiments are not known. The businessman in Onitsha is so immersed in his electronics business that he barely has time for the trappings of the social media. When he uses it, he only comes there to read news stories, read the comments and leave. He doesn’t drop his own comment or engage with the community so his opinions are not sampled. Likewise the farmer in the village armed with his PVC and the PVC-clad pensioner in the city who doesn’t understand or use the internet.

In essence, it is dangerous to rely on the social media when predicting electoral fortunes in Nigeria – only 20 million of us actively use it. Those who already have the social media in their pockets should not relax and believe that victory is theirs. The social media is only one of the several battles that make up the contest. There are other more important battles to be won, including those that happen behind the scenes which are not reported in the pages of newspapers, in blogs or on social networks.

That notwithstanding, I’m not totally dismissing the impact or importance of the social media in the electoral process. The social media is integral to the 21st century politics and advocacy. It has come to say. As a social media aficionado myself, I’m well aware of its possibilities. Needless to say, it helps to shape people’s opinions and any message sent to the social media can be delivered to millions at home and abroad within a few hours. Its importance cannot be overemphasized, but it should not be the focal point of an electioneering process.

Mr. Chinedu Rylan George wrote in via [email protected]

He tweets from @ChineduRylan


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