Political Participation in the Twittersphere and the Nigerian 2015 and 2019 Presidential Elections: A Cultural Underpinning

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This thesis explores the ongoing debate about the use of social media as tools of participatory democracy and aims to provide a better understanding of their applicability within a distinctly African context. Specifically, it investigates the role of Twitter as a new tool of political participation in the Nigerian cultural context. It presents the argument that while social media are valuable tools of political participation, the culture in Nigeria’s diverse society, including the culture of economic dependency, exerts as much – or more – influence on political participation among the country’s citizens. The study employed a connective ethnographic methodology, juxtaposing netnographic data collection on Twitter with offline interviews and observations of 24 participants, including seven key informants. This use of qualitative methods is significant because Twitter-based studies are predominantly quantitative. In a society imbued with culture such as Nigeria’s, a qualitative approach was necessary to excavate underlying factors that influence political communication in the (digital) public sphere. The purpose of using the connective approach was to understand the extent to which online political participation influences offline political activities such as voting. The findings show that Twitter’s contribution to democratisation in Nigeria is not autonomous. Rather, it is inter-dependent on other long-standing factors, such as societal culture and economic power. This finding supports the initial thesis of the study. It argues that Twitter fulfils a distinctive purpose of the public sphere in that it creates a space for critical reasoning that facilitates political change. While this constitutes its elitist status, however, it also makes the microblog a more valuable medium for political discourse than other social media platforms. The evidence also shows that Twitter offers anonymity, which safeguards users from facing repercussions because of their political views. This is a useful finding in present-day Nigerian society where the government imposes punitive measures on online and offline dissidence. Furthermore, observations of the communication patterns of the three major ethnic groups in the country showed that ethnicity as culture exerts a significant influence on the communication patterns of Nigerians, both online and offline. These findings contribute to the methodological broadening of Twitter-based studies. In conclusion, the current study supports the call by non-Western researchers for the contextualisation of social media and political studies within societies as opposed to the common superimposition of findings from Western studies to non-Western contexts. Furthermore, it calls for further research that utilises a comparative approach to explore commonalities and evaluate contrasts by applying diverse cultural lenses. It also proposes that a similar study should be undertaken on platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp, whose userbases are more representative of the Nigerian population. Finally, a mixed-methods study could excavate other themes that influence political participation that have not been explored here.
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