The emergence of the Internet and later Web 2.0 have been given many people opportunity to have their voice heard on issues of national importance. Individual and group accounts on social and professional networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have been adopted and still being used to organise deliberative discourses on socioeconomic and political issues throughout the world. Nigeria is not an exemption in this regard.
Since 2000 that the country has been witnessing massive deployment of the Internet, citizens have used and still using the sites to discuss issues and needs. During subsidy removal by the former administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, Facebook and other social networking sites were used to organise people for physical protests in Lagos, Port-Harcourt and other main cities. We have also experienced how the sites were used to discuss the abduction of the Chibok Girls and other national issues in the last decade.
While discussing on various online communities, especially comment section of national newspapers’ websites and social media accounts, checks reveal that people used varied words and languages to represent their views or feelings about the issues. At times, participants were friendly. In other situations, they were hostile. Being friendly or hostile, however, depends on the point of discourse. When the two situations occur while engaging on a specific issue, scholars and experts have linked the occurrence to high level of distrust and unmet expectations of the participants by concerned people or governments (local, state or federal).
Why the Research?
These insights and others facilitate study of Nigerians’ reactions to two critical issues that divided the country along the ethnicity trajectory in 2016. The study was carried out in collaboration with a University don. Our main intention was to understand how Nigerians used the comment sections of selected Nigerian online newspapers to interact and discuss issues of agitation for secession and farmers-herders crises with a view to determining how the issues got the citizens to speak up or to stay silent. Speaking up was defined as the readers’ provision of relevant examples and evidences in support of the issues commented on, while staying silent was defined as readers’ deviation from the issues and stipulation of irrelevant examples and evidences in support of their arguments.
By Exonyms, specific words used by readers while commenting which portrayed the three dominant ethnic groups— Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo—positively and negatively—were examined. Endonyms indicates self-designation created by the readers to establish dominance of one ethnic group over the other in line with the issues being discussed. Hostile was defined as intimidating situation which occurred among the readers while replying one another. Friendly and neutral signified mutual situation that existed during readers’ conversation on the two issues.
Majority of the readers were found to be highly hostile towards other readers outside their ethnic groups while negotiating separation issues, but less hostile on the insecurity issues. To create fear of dominance, words within Exonyms classification were predominantly used by the readers while interacting among themselves on the insecurity issues.
To evoke a sense marginalization, words within Endonyms category were employed by the readers to discuss issues of agitation for secession. The participants, despite their diverse ethnic groups, were less hostile to one another while reacting to news stories about the farmers-herders crisis, which could compromise the nation’s security.
However, the readers were more hostile in their engagement of the issues of agitation for secession, which had ethnic-inclination. These results indicate that Nigerian government should pay critical attention to the dynamics of the virtual community in its quest to ensure national peace and unity.