The EU Election Observation Mission released a report showing more social media activity during Nigeria’s 2023 elections. TechCabal interviewed campaign strategists to understand the social media strategies used by candidates, the costs, and how that might change in the future.

While the actors on the Nigerian political scene may remain unchanged for years, the country’s politics adapts quickly. For instance, in 2015, social media was a big force in Nigeria’s presidential election campaigns. And a new report from the EU Election Observation shows that 2023 saw social media play an even more pivotal role in electioneering. Candidates and their supporters used social media to shape narratives and boost the appeal of their messaging to a wide audience. 

Social media use of candidates
Image source: The EU Election Observation Mission

Yet the correlation between social media activities and election outcomes remains tenuous. While the All Progressives Congress (APC) won the presidential election, its candidate made fewer social media posts compared to that of the other major parties; the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Labour Party (LP), and New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP). Despite how compelling social media conversations may be, only a fraction of Nigerians take part in social media discourse. Statista and the EU report show that only 31.6 million of 221 million Nigerians use social media platforms, and most of these users are young. This explains why youths make up 71% of the 12 million Nigerians who applied for voter cards last year.

How much did social media matter?

It takes a small army of social media professionals to give candidates and parties a voice on online; social media advisors and consultants are at the top of the pile but they all work with content creators and influencers.  ”The candidates and their parties have separate social media advisors and consultants. Some consultants come with their own teams and campaign plan. But they all work in silos—independent of others,” Ayobami Adekojo, a strategist who worked for PDP said. Another strategist, Akin Adewale, who worked for APC, told TechCabal that these plans are based on the candidates’ strengths, weaknesses, allegations against him and his good deeds.

And while social media was abuzz with election campaigns and discussions, it got little attention in most campaign budgets. Ayobami told TechCabal, “Only a drop of PDP’s budget went to social media.”  Adeshina Ayomide, a  member of the APC Campaign Council in the United Kingdom, said APC’s campaign budget was about ₦1.5 billion.  “Most of it went to traditional media—television, radio, and print media —while only about ₦200 million went to social media channels,” he said. 

But Ayobami noted that this will significantly increase in the future considering the success of the Labour Party’s campaign. The party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, came third. It was the first time a third-force candidate showed such potential. He received the most votes in online polls including one by Bloomberg. Strategists link his performance to his party’s social media campaign.

How presidential candidates used social media

Of all the 18 presidential candidates, nine used social media. An analysis of 1,089 posts by the presidential candidates showed that they mostly used Facebook and Twitter. Their posts included videos of campaign rallies, press statements, encouragement, manifestoes and smear campaigns. There were also accounts dedicated to promoting parties and candidates. The EU report identified 946 of them and found that the accounts of these supporters saw higher activity than those of the candidates. For example, Labour Party supporter Aisha Yesufu posted an average of 22 videos per week on YouTube and had about 5,619,278 views. This is much more than Labour Party did.

Social media activities of candidate and support groups.
Image source: The EU Election Observation Mission

Parties often paid to increase the reach of their messaging. From January till the middle of March, Nigerian political parties paid Meta ₦28,784,369 to advertise political content on Facebook and Instagram. They also paid influencers on TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Even though only 0.04% of the country’s total internet users are on Twitter, political parties employed influencers on Twitter the most. “This is because Twitter has more real-time audience and the algorithm of the platform makes it easier for news to spread quickly,” Akin Akinwale explained to TechCabal. PR professional Adeshina Ayomide, who also worked with APC says it is also because other platforms are mostly for entertainment and do not have political influencers like Twitter does.

Social media ad spend during election
Image source: The EU Election Observation Mission

These strategists pay influencers to post content pre-crafted by content creators and narrative shapers. Toyosi Godwin, who has 111,800 followers confirmed this. He told TechCabal that most of the time influencers are approached with pre-written tweets which they post upon payment of the agreed fee.  “Even when the influencer writes the post by themself, the contractor must edit it before they can share it with their followers,” he added. 

The influencer’s fee depends on their follower count and Twitter influencers typically charged between ₦25,000 – ₦50,000 per tweet. While popular Facebook and Instagram bloggers like Tundeednut, Linda Ikeji, and YinkaTNT charge ₦1 million or more per post. Even though it is popular and lucrative, Influencers often claim that they do not dabble in the pay-for-tweet venture. Toyosi told TechCabal that he turns down such offers because he values personal freedom and public integrity more. Adeshina, who has over 14,000 Twitter followers said, “Influencers like me in APC received a monthly stipend of around ₦100,000. But it is purely to support our work rather than serve as a fee for our services. We were not directly remunerated for the work we undertook.”

Image source: The EU Election Observation Mission

Challenges of social media campaigns

Influencers often suffer online harassment for the posts they make about candidates. They get attacked by people who suspect that they were paid to make the posts. “Opposition campaigns use troll farms,” Ayobami who has worked on PDP campaigns told TechCabal.  There are WhatsApp and Twitter groups of people that have used several accounts to attack posts about their opposition. 

When these social media sweatshops are not bullying people, they are spreading misinformation. Adewale who was involved with the APC campaign said he makes sure to stay away from making weighty allegations about candidates. But there are often several strategists working for the same party.  Because they operate in silos, each one may use any method they see fit without interference, even if they are unethical. Ayobami who has worked extensively on PDP campaigns told TechCabal, “I make sure to not cross ethical lines. But I am aware that some people involved in my party’s campaign do.” 

The way forward

The power of social media in narrative shaping is transforming the electoral landscape in significant ways. The strategists TechCabal spoke to agree that social media will become a fiercer battleground in the next election. “The way going forward is simple. If you do not invest in your online campaign, your detractors will undermine your achievements,” Adewale told TechCabal. 

“Thirty percent of our loss was because we underrated the role of social media in the election. We underestimated how much damage it would cost our campaign. But that will not be the case in the next election,” Badmus Bukola, a PDP party member told TechCabal. 

It has become increasingly necessary to control online narratives during grassroots campaigns. The symbiotic relationship between social media and Nigerian politics continues to evolve. From what we hear, it is not slowing down anytime soon.

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