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Social media and violent and non-violent mobilisation in Nigeria: What role for mediation?

Inter-communal conflict, insecurity, insurgency and state-instigated violence are common in Nigeria. Today, social media plays many roles in these phenomena, influencing and instigating violent conflict even as it presents opportunities to those seeking to bring about peace.

Social media is not only highly accessible, requiring only a mobile phone and a platform account, but is also relatively anonymous, and so has a wide appeal among diverse actors for many reasons. It is a powerful tool for citizen-led social activism such as the #ENDSARS protests against police brutality in October 2020. But as Velomahanina Razakamaharavo has observed, writing on the implications of emerging technologies on peace and security in Africa, ‘despite their so-called decentralised, emancipatory, and empowering aspects, social media allow and facilitate the exploitation of vulnerabilities and very often target what is anchored within people: feelings, identities, the historical past, attachment to loved ones, anger, and frustration’.

Nigeria’s inter-communal conflicts have been inflamed by online hate speech, while armed groups such as Boko Haram have used it to propagate disinformation. As catalysts for mobilisation of good or ill, social media companies have come into confrontation with the Nigerian government, which has sometimes responded with internet shutdowns and bans, actions that are themselves inherently political and play further into conflict dynamics.

This article looks at social media as catalyst for violent conflict, but also as a potential tool for analysis and engagement by mediators and peacemakers working with communities and conflict parties.

Violent and non-violent mobilisation

In Nigeria, social media platforms have increasingly become the locus of struggles between the authority of the state and the mobilising power of non-state networks, whether violent insurgents or non-violent citizens exercising their democratic rights. Two contrasting examples of violent and non-violent mobilisation are Boko Haram’s use of social media and the #ENDSARS campaign.

Boko Haram has used mainstream media since 2009, contacting journalists to publish its written and recorded propaganda. But in 2014 it began systematic use of social media platforms including YouTube, Twitter (now called X), Telegram and Facebook. Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), which began as a Boko Haram faction, even opened its own Arabic Twitter account @Al Urwah al-Wuthqa. Broadly speaking, Boko Haram and ISWAP use social media to claim responsibility for attacks, or dispute information shared by the Nigerian military. Boko Haram has used social media to update cell members, sympathisers and supporters on its strategy. It also employs social media to spread propaganda about life in captured territories, chronicling the application of Sharia law and its vision of an Islamic dynasty where women dress in hijabs, offenders are flogged or beheaded, and captured soldiers are shot. All of these are aimed at demonstrating its dominance in captured territories and instilling fear in the Nigerian population. These groups also use social media to build connections with international networks of Islamist extremists.

Protesters gather in Lagos for the one year anniversary of #EndSars, a protest movement against police brutality, on 20 October 2021. Social media helped to establish #EndSars as the most important youth-led movement Nigeria had seen in a long time.
Protesters gather in Lagos for the one year anniversary of #EndSars, a protest movement against police brutality, on 20 October 2021. Social media helped to establish #EndSars as the most important youth-led movement Nigeria had seen in a long time. © Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

During the #ENDSARS protests in October 2020, social media and digital technologies assumed an unprecedented role, helping establish it as the most important youth-led movement Nigeria had seen in a long time. A video of an attack by the Nigerian police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), on a male victim sparked online and offline protests against police brutality and garnered over 28 million tweets with the #ENDSARS hashtag in the first weekend it circulated. When the protests moved to the streets, Twitter was used to map the locations where people would converge, for example at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. Information on the movements of law enforcement agents was also shared by protesters on social media. A ‘tight fist’ emoji draped in the colours of Nigeria’s flag circulated on Twitter and remains a key symbol of the #ENDSARS movement. Social media also provided an invaluable record of the offences committed by the police. When protesters were beaten and teargassed by the police, videos and photos posted to social media contradicted the government’s denials.

Social media was used to draw the attention of international celebrities, politicians, diplomats, media corporations and others, embarrassing the Nigerian government into paying attention to the protesters and their demands. At one point, social media was one of the only sources of information about the protests as the traditional media was not reporting on them. Social media was used by organisations such as the Feminist Coalition to crowdfund about US$400,000 for the protesters for food, water, legal representation and medical services. Importantly, social media obscured the ethnic, religious, class and social divides among protesters. In a country whose politics is characterised by identity-based alliances, #ENDSARS protesters bridged societal divisions to present a united front against police brutality.

Government responses

The Nigerian government has reacted strongly to the catalysing impacts of social media and has attempted to regulate its use through legislation such as the upgraded Defamatory and Offensive Publications Act (1966), the Cyber Crimes Prohibition and Prevention Act (2015), and the Anti-Social Media Bill of 2019.

During and after the #EndSARS protests, the government used social media to target protest leaders and supporters, imposing international travel bans on some, and freezing financial assets of others. Social media platforms’ (real and perceived) non-neutrality exacerbated tensions in some instances. Twitter, for example, facilitated funding and created the logo for the #EndSARS protests, while Instagram took down certain posts of protesters. Twitter was banned for seven months in Nigeria between June 2021 and January 2022 following the platform’s deletion of a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari that had been reported by Twitter users as violating rules of the site. However, it is widely believed that the platform’s wider role during the protests was a bigger factor in the ban.

In response to the use of social media by Boko Haram, the Nigerian government shut down internet access in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe (BAY) states, which Boko Haram reacted to by bombing telecommunications base stations. More Boko Haram attacks followed when telecom providers began to help trace calls linked to insurgent activities in the BAY states. Social media has also been appropriated by the government as a ‘comeback and retort’ tool, as both the government and its military apparatus employed platform pages to debunk Boko Haram’s victory claims, counter the insurgents’ propaganda, and position the Nigerian government as winning its war on terrorism.

Social media as a tool and subject for peacemaking

While social media is a complicating factor for mediators in many respects, its impact on violent and non-violent mobilisation in Nigeria also demonstrates both its potential utility to mediation and the need to mediate its use in conflict resolution processes. To date, neither of these dimensions has been fully explored.

One of the most obvious benefits of social media is the opportunity it presents to gain a more nuanced understanding of how a conflict is unfolding. Through analysis of echo chamber trends and hashtags, mediators can assess the boiling points of online exchanges, intergroup and community-based tensions, heightened emotional vulnerabilities, the use of hate speech fake news, and seek to ‘buffer’ them before they develop into offline chaos – for instance mediators could identify inconsistencies in narratives or point out the circulation of incorrect or fake news.

Mediators need to understand the distinct parameters of the social media ecosystem in which they are working and how social media mobilises in such conflict settings.
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To do this effectively, mediators need to understand the distinct parameters of the social media ecosystem in which they are working and how social media mobilises in such conflict settings. In Nigeria, social media analysis would include exploring the saturation and popularity of various social media platforms in different regions and demographic distributions of the country. Millions of people across Nigeria still do not have access to social media due to electricity, illiteracy or ‘data poverty’. But, across the country, the vibrancy of ‘X’, as a tool for political expression is second to none, while Facebook, which has been found to host much unverified and unsubstantiated information, is particularly popular with middle-aged and elderly users. Other factors include levels of digital literacy, the gender distribution of social media users, patriarchal, conservative and hegemonic hierarchies surrounding societal interactions, language, cultural norms, power distribution, gerontocratic tendencies (which played a prominent role in the #EndSARS protests), as well as indices like income distribution.

Meanwhile, social media analytics can both deepen understanding of conflict actors and redirect the focus of public conversation. In the case of Boko Haram, for example, in addition to informing analysis of the insurgent group’s internal dynamics, social media has given a platform to actors that have well-established links with it and in communities where Boko Haram recruits, with the potential to serve as opinion shapers and influencers for changing terrorist narratives. Twitter and other networks have also helped broaden the conversation from an exclusive focus on Boko Haram’s atrocities, to the human rights abuses and extra judicial killings also committed by the Nigerian military. Video footage of killings, beatings and maiming perpetrated by security forces against suspected Boko Haram extremists became widespread on social media networks. Some of the victims were communities directly affected by Boko Haram, and who constituted important stakeholders in ensuing mediation engagements with the armed group.

Mediating social media in Plateau State

The Nigerian government could have made better use of social media to understand what needed mediation, and it also missed an opportunity to mediate or regulate the use of social media. Codes of conduct offer one means to do this when social mobilisation or conflict are fuelled by interactions on social media. In July 2021, for example, the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) supported three ethnic communities (Bache, Irigwe and Fulani) in Plateau State to reach the first social media agreement of its kind on how to tackle online hate speech, images of violence and misinformation at their source. The conflict which prompted this initiative had been catalysed by online rumour sharing, misinformation, spread of violence-inducing graphic images, as well the use of inflammatory derogatory language among conflict actors.

The three groups had been involved in a decade-long conflict that had spilled over to the online space through younger generations. HD brought together ten youths who are active social media users and micro-influencers from the three ethnic communities to discuss the impact of social media on conflict in their community.

Over the course of three months, this group held weekly dialogue sessions to discuss the link between online and offline conflict in Bassa. Key online harms discussed included hate speech, sharing unconfirmed reports about attacks, and posting gory images and videos. After each session, participants discussed concrete actions they could take to reduce these harms. HD also created a Facebook group for the wider community in Bassa to follow updates from the dialogue and engage them in the process, asking for inputs on how to minimise social media risks to conflict and sharing videos of the dialogue sessions. The suggested solutions that dialogue participants raised, along with inputs from the Facebook group, helped form the final agreement. An in-person drafting process with the signatories over several days helped ensure that all parties agreed with the text of the final agreement, which included clauses on violent content, unconfirmed reports, hate speech, inciting content, viral content, and fake accounts.

Following the agreement’s signing, the parties established a monitoring body to ensure that it was adhered to. It found that repeat violations most commonly came from the two most influential signatories in the Bache and Irigwe groups. These two signatories were also official publicity officers for their communities, tasked with sharing reports and statements related to the conflict situation. Their communities expected statements of anger and strong condemnation. However, HD’s training in conflict-sensitive messaging, along with Facebook comments from other signatories reminding them of their responsibilities resulted in a change of tone and a reduction in online tension.

Mediating social media use is preferable to internet shutdowns, as the Nigerian government did in the case of Twitter, or other acts of internet censorship which might further alienate conflict parties. As the experience in Plateau State demonstrates, conflict actors can come together and agree on positive commitments to peace.