Arts and Books

Social Media Influencers and the Rising Dangers of Cash-and-Carry Activism

According to recent reports, the social media accounts of over fifteen top influencers in Nigeria became inaccessible as Twitter users noticed their suspension on 6 April 2021. It was revealed that they were part of the Venezuelan government campaign deployed on social media to sway public opinion and prevent authorities in Cape Verde from extraditing one Alex Saab to the US. A good number of Nigerian social media influencers were involved.

The popularity and strength of the EndSARS campaign, which made it a top trending issue for weeks all over the world, catapulted Nigerian influencers to the top half of influencers league globally.

It was alleged that Nigerian influencers were approached and offered $2,000 for each extensive fresh tweet and ₦5,000 for each retweet generated: a mixed payment in hard and local currencies. Internationally, this fee might look small, but converted to the Naira, the influencers saw it as a windfall.

How Nigerian social media influencers went as far as trending the hashtag of a rich Venezuelan fugitive to obstruct justice reveals the increasing dangers of using social media to support negative policies across the world.

It was learnt that many other accounts outside Nigeria were also suspended indefinitely for involvement in the globally coordinated online campaign. Some of the suspended Nigerian accounts include @Mbah and Bisi, JustKelechi @Yucee_ @Divineze @ogaKnowledge, @AimThaMachine_, @UgwunnaEjikem @FestusGreen, @CO_Chiamaka, and @Anambra_girl.

Overtime, analysts and pundits have harped on the dangers of social media, and the need to curtail some of its excesses and loose ends in form of regulation. This is given the fact that it has now been subjected to various obnoxious uses. The issue in discourse confirms the concerns. It has now become a regular practice wherein social media influencers are used as tools in ignoble causes.

Prior to the advent of the internet, protesters and activists were sponsored to influence public opinion and put pressure on governments. This method, to some extent, still holds forth in this modern dispensation. However, the global social media platforms now give people, even those with no ethics or decorum, a louder voice to operate.

As one public observer opined, social media has made the business of “Activists for Hire” more lucrative. The unusual geometric increase in the bank accounts balance of major EndSARS influencers showed clear financial sponsorship.

It in fact goes beyond the political space as it is said that some banks have been deploying these cash-and-carry social media influencers to de-market and destroy the image of other banks for the purpose of “stealing” their customers.

In an earlier development, Twitter suspended accounts of some social media influencers few weeks before the 2019 general elections. Some of them were Badmus Hakeem (Tweets @Bhadoosky), Jokunle (@Jokunle), Ani Nomso (@ani_nomso), Shawnife (@Shawnife_), Official Bmax (@OfficialBmax), Uche Kush (@UcheKush_), Lazy Writa (@LazyWrita), etc. The bulk of these influencers were paid to sway public opinion and trend false information about certain candidates.

Unscrupulous social media influencers are the bane of society and it is important that their activities are checked. They get paid to tweet. They do this at the expense of the larger society. Many of them whose accounts got suspended knew little or nothing about Alex Saab. They never bothered to check the circumstances surrounding the online campaign. As far as the money looks good, they took part and ensured that the hashtag trends.

Meanwhile, Alex Saab is a Venezuelan-Lebanese businessman who is closely linked to the Venezuelan Government. His private jet stopped over in Cape Verde to refuel but he was detained due to an Interpol red notice. The US Government had declared him wanted on huge money laundering charges.

Alex Saab is really a Colombian citizen. He had been accused of running illicit fuel and gold trading schemes to help Nicolás Maduro’s government evade international sanctions. Washington wants him to face justice in the US and is preparing an extradition request for the Cape Verdean authorities, but the Maduro regime in Venezuela wants to influence both the government of Cape Verde and its population to obstruct Alex Saab’s extradition.

U.S. prosecutors had earlier indicted Saab in 2019 after he allegedly helped Nicolás Maduro and other high-level Venezuelan officials launder hundreds of millions of dollars in corruption proceeds.

According to the Center for International and Strategic Studies, it describes Saab’s case as an illustration of how pervasive corruption has become in Venezuela while the country experiences an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.

The Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro has persistently been accused of turning a blind eye to or engaging actively in corruption for both the personal enrichment of himself, associates, and state officials, and as part of sanction-dodging efforts. It is noteworthy that the country ranks 173rd out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Two of the president’s closest confidants—Tarek El Aissami and Diosdado Cabello—have been implicated in a massive drug trafficking operation known as the Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles). That cartel involves at least 123 current and former senior regime officials who have held various posts in the executive branch, the armed forces, municipal governments, the judiciary, and the legislative branch.

Alex Saab’s dealings with the Venezuelan government go as far back as 2011, following his deal with Hugo Chavez’s administration concerning various construction projects. Through his own Fondo Global de Construcción, it was alleged that he engaged in money laundering and overbilling; exporting a value of only $3 million despite receiving $159 million from a Venezuelan firm to sell prefabricated homes.

Saab’s company in Hong Kong, Group Grand Ltd, signed a contract with the regional government of Táchira state in Venezuela for the supply of food boxes as part of Venezuela’s Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción (CLAP) programme. The programme was ostensibly meant to provide subsidised food to poor Venezuelans. However, allegations again emerged that Saab’s company was engaging in overbilling and massive diversion of funds. According to the Associated Press, on one occasion Group Grand charged the Venezuelan food ministries more than double the 2017 market price for a transaction of powdered milk.

It is believed that these activities have been lucrative for Maduro and other officials, catapulting Saab to a high-level membership within the regime. This is the same Alex Saab that Nigerian influencers were trending his hashtag on Twitter.

As a matter of fact, some of the tensions unsettling Nigeria are usually necessitated by these top influencers. Fake news and propaganda that have almost turned the country upside down, were promoted by them. Twitter has been the most efficient tool in these treacherous campaigns.

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Even though it is an online platform, Twitter still exists within political spaces; hence it is not supposed to be used for anything illegal. It is against the rules at Twitter to coordinate and sponsor a hashtag. Hashtags must grow organically. Anyone that manipulates any hashtag can be suspended and this is the key reason many Nigerian influencers are often suspended.

Conversely, Twitter owner, Jack Dorsey has been a culprit. When the same influencers were aggressively tweeting and retweeting the #EndSARS protests, he was supporting it ignorantly, which led to the breakdown of law and order, and the violence that greeted private and public-owned properties. The same Jack Dorsey banned Trump when he saw the same scenario playing out because he knew Congress will sanction him once they investigate and find his company as an accomplice.

Regrettably, some youths of this nation, who are supposed to be leaders of tomorrow, have become social media tools in negative politicking. Sometimes they get their fingers burnt like the current Venezuela debacle. All these underline the reason the world should come together to tackle the threat of negative information on social media.

Andy Charles