Recently, Twitter suspended the accounts of some prominent Nigerian influencers for spearheading a social media campaign to obstruct justice. The viral news exposed how many of them were deployed to sway public opinion in defence of a rich Venezuelan fugitive.
Findings show that the online campaign actually took off in October but became prominent in January when Nigerian influencers were involved. As Financial Times reported, a group of accounts from October “tweeted extensively about Saab”, but as of January, “the primary driver of that increase appears to be the deployment of Nigeria-based social media influencers.”
The influencers had received a five-page briefing document about the #FreeAlexSaab campaign. The document had the letterhead of Digital Good Governance for Africa (DIGA).
The letterhead document by DIGA outlined a social media campaign that would recruit influencers in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal to promote the #FreeAlexSaab hash tag.
According to the document, “The influencers are expected to use the hashtags #FreeAlexSaab and tag prominent Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Senegalese handles which will be provided to the influencer.”
The influencers were required to engage with replies to their posts and tag @wakandanomics for additional details. The twitter account had the photo of DIGA’s co-owner, Christian Elemele before it was later removed, when the whole issue was exposed.
As at 20 January 2021, the hashtag #FreeAlexSaab gained traction with several Nigerians tagging the same accounts, and tweeting the same content and pictures with the aim to generate public outcry in support of Alex Saab’s case.
As tweets intensified in March, the Court of Justice of ECOWAS, based in Abuja, Nigeria, ruled in Saab’s favour. However, the case was transferred to Cape Verde.
Meanwhile, 40 Nigerian influencers who have more than one million followers were said to have been recruited in the #FreeAlexSaab campaign. Omojuwa Japheth, popular Nigerian social media influencer was listed in the DIGA document as one of the people to be recruited.
Although Omojuwa Japheth said neither he nor his PR company was involved in the campaign, some Nigerian influencers who wanted to maintain anonymity stated that Omojuwa’s company was paid to tweet about Saab, share the articles relating to the case, and tag some accounts in their tweets.
According to them, participants were added to a group on Whatsapp to be directed on what to post, tweets to engage, and accounts to tag. This is further corroborated by the campaign brief that influencers should “be added to whatsapp groups to better synchronise the timing of tweets.”
One of those accounts is @fernand47588665. Investigative analysis revealed that the account was created in January, with no profile picture, had 10 followers, and rarely tweets, yet by March it had been tagged in more than 5,000 tweets about Saab.
More so, popular Nigerian actress, Tonto Dikeh who has over 1.5 million followers, was said to have posted on 23 March 2021 in an already deleted tweet which read: “I want to give someone who urgently needs N25,000. Please tell me what you will like to buy if I gift this to you. Pls add #FreeAlexSaab to your replies and you may be my next winner.”
Tonto Dikeh pointed out that she didn’t know anything about the paid campaign or tweet and gave the hint that ber account could have been hacked.
Two journalists were equally involved. Initial reports had it that one of the campaigners was a journalist from TheCable. It was however revealed that it was a freelance contributor to TheCable.
Needless to say, these revelations show a worrisome development in the Nigerian influencer industry. Ordinarily, social platforms provide a service that allows people to stay connected with family and friends, discover what is going on in the world, and share, as well as express what matters to them.
In Nigeria that has a teeming youth population, a lot of people are active on social media. Facebook alone has over 27 million Nigerian users as the number is expected to reach 43.53 million users by 2025.
But a lot of things have invaded the social space. The monetisation and susceptibility of the social platforms have made it easier for people to be “misled”.
Some Nigerian politicians are equally taking advantage of the media space to employ the services of social media influencers to sway public opinion in tandem with their whims and caprices.
Similarly, these influencers have mastered the art of using social media to delude their numerous followers. While some of them actually get paid or little pecks from the business relationship, a lot of them sell their soul for as little as a picture with a top government official to put on social media or just for a follow back.
Even so, it is heartrending that these social media influencers have been able to sway their followers, most of whom have no idea that it’s all business.
As analysts opine, social media and the internet will always be veritable and potent tools during elections, and somehow, will be used to push agendas.
The suspension of the accounts of some top social media influencers ahead of the 2019 elections and the promotion of viral hashtags like #RestInPeaceAPC, #AtikuMyVal, #RejectBuhari, #AtikuIsBetter which made top 10 Nigerian trending topics on different days, confirms the election-charged hashtag theory and politically motivated machinations and propaganda on the media space.
Japheth Omojuwa would ordinarily be roped in this regard for his role in Nigeria’s media politics. He earns an eye popping income from tweeting and commenting mostly about political issues.
Politically, he was involved in the #OccupyNigeria campaign as he was a staunch critic of the Jonathan-led government which he never hid his disavowal for.
During the campaign, right up until the last few days, influencers such as journalist Tolu Ogunlesi and Japheth Omojuwa were tweeting intermittently for what seemed like 24 hours.
Good numbers of Nigerians spurred by messages they saw via Omojuwa’s twitter account were moved to take action that had impact which was felt nationally.
Since then Omojuwa and a host of other social media entrepreneurs have had a growing influence on Nigeria’s media politics. Although Twitter suspended the accounts of some social media influencers ahead of the 2019 general elections, the Alpha Reach owner was not affected.
It is however worthy to note that when Twitter suspects financial inducement of any type, such accounts are suspended. But account suspensions, which are mostly temporary, cannot address the widespread manipulations of Twitter and other social media platforms by influencers. Some other form of discipline might be necessary to restore sanity to the digital media.