The Catalytic Role of Social media in Governance

The term social media refers to the internet-based Social networking websites developed specifically to help people share their views and stay in touch with friends, relatives, acquaintances and well wishers.

It proved to be a better channel of faster dissemination of news, information, entertainment and education than through traditional channels because it fulfills the critical requirement for news-timeliness. Because the news passes through trusted channels, it is more easily accepted and spread even faster and wider for greater impact. Since the spread is not limited by borders, its far and wide impact ensures that desired words and actions more quickly become form and therefore an indispensable tool for change and development adopted by governments the world over, (Nworisara,2012).

The Social Media contributed in no small way to the evolution, entrenchment and sustenance of the Restoration Agenda of Governor Henry Seriake Dickson in Bayelsa State Nigeria. This is achieved by helping to mobilize popular opinion into roadmaps as well as helping to pre- test policies that would drive public participation for critical action. The Social Media has been consciously deployed at every stage: planning, campaign, election and in governance after the elections. Passing through these stages, social media has also evolved to the sophistication we know it today. Social Media can be said to be merely a reaction to the frustration of writers whose works were often unpublished and often doctored because the traditional media has a selective gate-keeping role that decides what news captures the fancy of the editorial board.

Tracing back just a bit you will realize that what you call Social Media today started off perhaps as the “guerrilla press” but this time only updated by technology. Mushrooming of newspapers was no answer since the many newspapers emerging and disappearing were not yet open enough to abandon their centralized gatekeeper function. What was the essence of breaking away in the first place? It was not enough just to establish your own press; people wanted a more democratic, less cumbersome and less costly way of expressing their opinions, of determining what the news should be. Do not remind me here about the then emergent; more interactive Electronic medium and all that talk about deregulation. Well, with coming of electronic medium, people could share their opinions it is true, but it was the heavily regulated type- licensed by government especially the post-military Nigerian experience. It did not quench peoples taste for transparency and accountability. It was the coming of the internet that brought home the much-needed freedom via true opinion diversity as well as interactivity and it would be cost effective. From Yahoo, Google groups managed by the knowledgeable then phenomena of the traditional media adopting and utilizing the tools of the internet to drive the news in what is known as online media. Many writers trooped to belong and publish their views quicker. To extend the advantages of interactivity of users, the social media evolved in its kind according to peculiar needs of designers: Facebook, Twitters, Google+; Badou; Myspace, Tumbir, etc.

Before this time, most people experimented in Yahoo groups trying to reach mass audiences on discussion of mutual interest and even divergent opinions. The most famous groupings in the Niger Delta are the pan Ijaw nation Yahoo group which incidentally exists until this day. Of course there were others on national scale. The Ijawnation yahoo group evoked fierce and frank discourse between a segment of people of the Ijaw Ethnic nationality which helped to define the political landscape and major policy decisions of government. It was still not open enough, critics would offer. As the political battle for the soul of Bayelsa State became drawn, the Online Media had conspired to black out our views. We sought alternative ways of staying afloat in the cash crunch. We discovered that we could build a critical audience elsewhere that is cheaper and allowed us air our views unregulated by the incumbent government. Using Facebook was a decision made by members of the Niger Delta Integrity Group to counter the growing influence of Yahoo groups with their closed membership.

The decision was also to save money in publicity and to counter the overbearing influence of the so called “Western Nigerian Press” over the online and print media.

At a time of utmost insecurity for the political opposition within the geography of Bayelsa State, especially preceding the April 2011 PDP primaries when the dreaded police outfit Famou-tangbe turned into a kind of unheard of Gestapo, the Social Media still then a novelty, proved to be the safest un-localized forum for open dissent. At that time the opposition had to contend itself with outside bases-Abuja and Port Harcourt. With the well known incumbency factor in Nigerian politics, not many could stick out their necks to be counted on the side of the Restoration Movement led by the Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson of the House of Representatives. Although reluctant at first to join the fray, his voice of reason gradually became vociferous and compelling. Enough is enough, he insisted. Many did not believe what looked like a “Divine Mandate” because the incumbency factor appeared impregnable and the opposition in derision dismissed the “Abuja threat” as “not on ground”. However, the triumph of reason began a slow but steady build-up fuelled by groups on Yahoo and Facebook until it had gained a critical mass inside, erupting into a massive mandate for the then two time Member of the House of Representatives, Hon Henry Seriake Dickson, to secure a landslide victory at the governorship polls; thereby sweeping away tyranny and steadily opening a new vista for social Media engagement in African governance, perhaps the first of its Kind in Sub- Saharan Africa.

Before dwelling on the metamorphosis of Bayelsa State into a veritable revolution in all aspects of life in just 365 days, let us briefly consider the catalytic role of the Social Media for they moved in tandem. It may be clear to all that the greatest achievement of the Bayelsa State government is in the entrenchment of a new political culture of transparency and accountability in a novel open government concept in Africa. Everything the government thought, planned and executed was on the cyber space for the world to see. Recounting is therefore easy for anyone. Recall for a moment the secret days of the Gestapo like police known as Famou-tangbe, when militant generals occupied choice abodes in the Government House and cultists built their covens in offices under the canopy of rumor mills. It was not really as apparent as we know it now with the power of hindsight; some persons, like this writer who came close to the then government were not even aware of the extent of rot. Gun battles, bombings, piracy etc were the order of the day.

Now contrast it with today when monthly transparency briefing belie the hourly and minute by minute briefing from the Bayelsa Social Media a vibrant body made up of individuals and groups working in synergy to scrutinize and make available to the world every thought, action of the restoration government form several perspectives from the inside, sideways, outside and from the opposition so that you can be guaranteed to have the whole picture already. The whole idea is to give a very vibrant populace who historically detest injustice from the heroic days of Isaac Boro down to the exploits of Saro-Wiwa the Ijaw nation has always desired freedom of expression as a basic demand. The Restoration Government, desirous of creating a Jerusalem for the Ijaw nation in Bayelsa State could do no less than grant this demand and the social media turns out as the mobilizing catalyst and the vehicle for transparency and perpetual dialogue as well as subtle education for the people whose name meant “Truth”.

During the election, the social media as superintended by the Niger Delta Integrity Group NDIG were involved in mobilizing and encouraging groups to emerge on Facebook while also monitoring the election on the cyberspace. After the swearing in of Governor Henry Seriake Dickson,the NDIG partnered with the Office of the Senior Special Assistant to the Governor of Bayelsa State on Research & Social Media Hon. John Idumange to bring together the groups and individuals into a formidable body and to say thank you for a wonderful campaign on May2,2012. With the formation of two exploratory Committees on technical the other general, it was decided to put up modalities to engage the government we helped into power. Recommendation was that a body be formed out of all the groups and individuals cooperating on cyberspace to help realize the restoration agenda via the promotion of transparency and good governance in the state.

By May 14, 2012, government showed her commitment by sponsoring social media representatives to the first New Media and Governance Conference in Africa held in Abuja 12-14 2012. The conference was a further training ground for the social media as well as providing opportunity for interaction and sharing of experiences as well as getting proficient with emergent tools of online journalism. We discovered that we were faring even better than so many and we were probably the first to think of coming together in a team for good governance anywhere.

Encouraged by the experience, the two committees representatives met in Abuja and came up with the name Bayelsa New Media team. The technical group was mandated to open a facebook pages, blogs and webpages for this official mouthpiece and members agreed to cooperate with the effort their bid to key into the restoration Agenda while feeding back both the government and stakeholders all over the world.

The success of this move led to the decision of government to formally inaugurate the Bayelsa New Media team in Yenagoa to afford it more credibility. On July 7, the BNMT was inaugurated with this writer as Chairman of the Central Coordinating Committee. It was a delicate duty coordinating the various groups and individuals with varying objectives of being on the cyberspace and gradually guiding them to a purpose. If you pushed too hard on discipline you lost the creativity of the disparate units and you may lose on cyber followership, if you let them run riot you lose on synergy as far as the Restoration Agenda was concerned. So the Aristotelian mean became the panacea.

The government watched closely our progress until it became important to help the BNMT overcome some of its most urgent logistic and proximity issues leading to the inauguration of an earlier engaged seven man Bayelsa Social media committee by Governor Dickson who was represented by the Secretary to the Government of Bayelsa State, in October 2012. The mandate was to bridge the information gap between the State government, the citizens and her cyber publics.

The first task of the Committee was to visit the MDAs to keep itself abreast of developments and forge synergy. With this process came the need to gather data of their activities which helped government adjust policies and prioritize others. It turns out that the visits provided the catalyst for harder work of staff and MDA evaluation of its policies when the transparency light of the social media is beamed on them. It was also a wakeup call to everyone prospective investors, local and global development partners, as well as the civil society Organizations and the public. The work of the Social Media inventorization of flood damages incident index blazed the trail for Government to form a more robust Committee to complete the exercise.

Today there is a post flood committee to manage the outpouring of donations from well wishers and to tackle the tough job of rehabilitation. In the same way our visits to MDAs formed the basis for an enlarged media committee to tour the MDAs to witness their project and programmes for the last one year, a huge success because it exposed so much that could not have been apparent otherwise. Now the Social Media is determined to train representatives of all MDAs on hands-on Social Media appreciation and basic skills with basic journalism and ethical training in a forth coming event designed to turn Bayelsa truly into an open government. By teaching such basic skills we aim at empowering public officers to send their confidential e-mails themselves, manage their blogs and facebook pages instead of depending on their secretaries and thereby circumventing the official secrets act for such categories of letters.

Verily, social media has reduced the awkward phenomenon of rumour mongering and this is achieved by providing official information in a timely manner to the right audience. In so doing, the social media infrastructure allow people to dissipate violent aspects of their nature on logic rather than allow them to bottle-up for long and we achieve this by providing to almost every shade of persons according to their nature and disposition someone who can in trust, communicate information to them and answer their questions in trust.

With a very cerebral university teacher as the saddle and a visionary Governor who appreciates the dynamics of information management, Bayelsa State under Governor Henry Seriake Dickson has evolved the most sophisticated cyber infrastructure in Nigeria. The media team parades very courageous persons who uphold the tenets of truth, objectivity and fairness in their reportage, while effectively managing information to promote good governance in the State.

In 365 days, the restoration government has witnessed phenomenal growth of peace, transparency and good governance side by side with an exponential expansion of the social media community. Now, we find a mix of social media groups and one trend is becoming very clear: both supporters and the opposition are in agreement that a new Bayelsa is emerging from the debris of the unedifying past. The entire gamut of governance architecture is now being reconfigured in favour of aggressive development. It is the testimony of a revolution never before seen in sub- Saharan Africa.

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Articles by Nwokedi Nworisara