Although Nigeria has a long history of ethnic and religious polarization, the 2023 general elections have triggered the rise of a new set of ethnic nationalists who are now radicalizing an entire generation. Sadly, these dangerous ethnic nationalists have discovered an effective means of propagating their agenda, spreading propaganda, and fuelling extremism, as a means of retaining political power for their paymasters. That tool is social media. What they do not realize, or perhaps choose to ignore, is that their exploitation of social media is accelerating the potential for violent conflict.
In 2012, a group of Buddhist ultranationalists, led by deeply polarizing figures like Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist Monk, took to Facebook to target Muslims throughout Myanmar. They used social media to spread misinformation and fake news that blamed Muslims for local violence and all sorts of criminality. In many instances, they described Muslims as invaders of their region and that they posed a threat to the Buddhist majority. Expectedly, violence broke out within months of this vicious campaign leading to the killings of several Muslims with at least 8,000 of them displaced. By January 2018, at least 24,000 Rohingya Muslims had been killed and 18,000 of their women and children brutally raped.
Barbra Walter, a Professor of Political Science explained how societies fracture, how social media amplifies the schism, and how such fractures lead to violence. “For a society to fracture along identity lines,’ she argued, “you need mouthpieces, people who are willing to make discriminatory appeals and pursue discriminatory policies in the name of a particular group. Harnessing the power of the media which they often control, they work to convince citizens that they are under threat from an out-group and must band together to counter the threat.”
This feeling of being threatened creates a we versus them mentality that radicalizes moderates to take extreme positions and make violent confrontations against an outgroup permissible. Once a group is made to believe that they are superior, the tendency to view others as expendables, or as canon fodders necessary to maintain their status becomes a reasonable consideration.
In Nigeria, what used to be a platform for healthy banter and exchange of ideas, particularly X, has degenerated into a platform for spreading hate and ethnic dog whistling. Charlatans and ethnic entrepreneurs who before now had no audience, have suddenly gained traction, amassed huge following, and have become the leading voices in a senseless battle for ethnic supremacy. The result is heightened polarization and mutual distrust among citizens of various ethnic groups. If this pattern persists, violent confrontation will become inevitable.
While this phenomenon is driven by reckless politicians who promote identity politics at the expense of ideas and principles, this piece seeks to focus on how social media is an accelerant and why the misguided activities on these platforms would inadvertently lead to violent conflict. It will also appear that those in authority are ignorant of the dangers posed by the activities of these ethnic nationalists on social media and the need to act urgently.
Why Is Social Media Dangerous?
Barbra Walter also notes that “As social media penetrated countries and gained a large share of people’s attention, a clear pattern emerged; ethic factions grew, social divisions widened, resentment at immigrants increased, and violence began to increase.” Hence, she concluded that open unregulated social media platforms turned out to be the perfect accelerant for the conditions that lead to war.
The business model of social media platforms is to keep audiences hooked and engaged for long periods. However, various studies by researchers have revealed that what people like the most is fear over calm and outrage over empathy. People are far more likely to get reactions for their posts by being provocative than by being sensitive. This is why every now and then, we see people make provocative posts on their page, and when you check their history, you’ll notice that they once were on the opposite side of that incendiary view. Such individuals learned quickly that it is far easier to go viral by offending people’s sensibilities than by showing empathy. In other words, what keeps people engaged, as Professor Barbra concludes, is exactly the information that leads them toward anger, resentment, and violence.
To avoid a full-blown conflict, the most aggressive and brazen voices on social media must be drowned out. We risk the rise of extremist groups and the worst of ethnic nationalism if we allow these peddlers of hate and misinformation unfettered access to the internet. Without further delay, the government should enlist the support of these social media companies to go beyond sharing community notes on misleading posts, to outrightly deactivating accounts that spread hate and bigotry.
More importantly, it is imperative to consider legislation that makes it unlawful for any person to publish or share content that portrays criminality, depravity, or lack of virtue of a group of citizens, of any tribe or religion that exposes them to ridicule or contempt.
Finally, we must encourage politics of ideas and not of identity. Those who seek to occupy office must be made to campaign on their value proposition and not the ethnic group that they represent.