If there is anything to be learnt from the Federal Government’s debacle on Twitter, it is the sanctity of the role of a media aide, especially the new media. A president’s image-maker online must be presidential.
The FG’s banter with Twitter culminated in an indefinite suspension on Saturday morning. Nigerians in the country no longer have access to the American microblogging service. But this whole crisis could have easily been avoided had the presidency not committed a major gaffe.
In a tweet on Tuesday, President Buhari made threats to secessionists in the South-East, noting that between 1967 and 1970 most of those “misbehaving” by burning electoral offices were maybe too young to understand the gravity. According to him, their activities are likely headed towards war; hence, it was proactive to stop them beforehand with force.
“Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand,” he had said. Although something drastic had to be done to clamp down on growing insecurity in the region, Buhari’s tone could have been censored by his aides. If indeed those were his words.
As expected, the tweet attracted widespread condemnation, with many Nigerians criticising the president, especially for referring to the civil war in which millions of Nigerians, mostly of Igbo extraction, were killed. Some called on Twitter to suspend his account, claiming the president’s tweet “expresses intentions of self-harm or suicide,” as stated on Twitter’s usage policy. The social service obliged, deleting the message, stressing that the post violated its rules. Facebook followed suit.
“In line with our global policies, we’ve removed a post from President Buhari’s Facebook page for violating our Community Standards against inciting violence. We remove any content, from individuals or organisations that violate our policies on Facebook,” said a Facebook spokesperson.
The FG responded with an indefinite ban, citing “persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” Authorities alleged that the social service showed sympathy for the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra and other groups threatening the nation’s democracy.
Twitter’s influence in modern-day governance can not be overemphasised. Government officials and agencies turn to the medium to engage their followers. With over 300 million daily active users between age 35 and 65, it is easy to see why.
Twitter attracts users who seek to connect with others and discover new things daily. For those at public agencies, it provides an excellent platform to quickly publish messages to the community, local media, vendors and partners in real-time. Like other platforms, Twitter’s algorithm favours timeliness of posts.
According to Statista, it is the fifth most used app in Nigeria. It accounts for over 61 per cent of the country’s internet users. This puts the nation way ahead of its contemporaries in Africa. But just like a handful of world leaders, the service has been wrongly used by the Buhari administration.
Before his account was permanently suspended on January 8, some tweets from Donald Trump’s account had been deleted about the US November presidential election. He had reiterated the false claim that the election was stolen and encouraged his supporters to remember that day going forward.
“These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” he tweeted. “Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!”
Although Twitter later took down the tweet, the deed was already done as it planted a seed of discord in the hearts of his supporters, culminating in the Capitol riot. Trump’s ally, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, has been sanctioned too.
Two tweets from Bolsonaro were deleted after they contained false or misleading information about Covid-19. In one of them, he praised the use of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine for treating the virus and encouraged an end to social distancing and isolation measures in the country. Brazil ultimately became one of the worst-hit nations.
Venezuela President Nicola Maduro’s tweet, in which he publicly recommended a ‘natural brew’ as a potential cure for coronavirus, was also removed by the tech giant from its platform. Twitter also removed one tweet from Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s English account and suspended new posts on it. In each case, misinformation resulted in negative chain reactions in the public and polity.
Hence, President Buhari’s media team, led by his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, must rise to the occasion and not further worsen the tension across the nation. The least expected from the president at a time like this is hope. Nigerians must be made to realise in their tweets that a united nation is still possible
These days, though, the presidential aides are seen as politicians, representing some political interests. Their engagements on sensitive issues are very callous. When they issue press releases, it stirs up more controversies and eventually worsened the situation.
“It is the dawn of a new era. God bless Nigeria!” Buhari’s first tweet as president on May 29 2015 read. Hasn’t it been so?