This chapter examines the incidence of online ethnocentric hate speech among
young Nigerian Twitter users. The impetus for the analysis is drawn from
#Igbo hashtag tweets which trended on Twitter between 29 and 31 March
2015. These tweets were subjected to both content and semantic analyses,
with the analyses revealing a very alarming level of hate speech on Twitter.
The social dangers of such observed phenomenon are discussed and the
paper ends with some recommendations on strategies to reduce the incidence
of this socially damaging reality.
Participatory democratic culture is founded on the indelible rights of
citizens to freely express their opinions and to keep tabs on governance (Fung
and Wright, 2001). But conversation spaces have long expanded from physical
spheres like newspaper stands, beer parlors and/or bukas to digitally
mediated online public spaces. Nigeria is the most active African country as
relating to political conversations on Twitter, followed by South Africa,
Ethiopia, Burundi and Egypt (Portlands.com, 2016). However,
Online Ethnocentric Hate Speech and Nigerian Youths
Nwachukwu Egbunike and Noel Ihebuzor
2 New Media and Society
Nigeria’s vibrant digital sphere is fraught with vile speech (Egbunike,
Tubosun, Ikheloa et al, 2017). Scholars of communication and sociology are
asking questions and querying this growing incidence of hate speech on social
media while trying to devise a conceptual framework to explain its rise.
Whilst Uses and Gratification (what do you mean by this? – revise
sentence) may have an appeal, its utility is constrained by the very fact that
the questions that drive it – why people use a media, what they seek to gain
by using them and what benefits – social, ideational, emotional, etc., flow to
persons who choose to tune into particular programmes (Folarin, 2005:91,
McQuail, 2005:424) are not directly relevant to the issue of why persons
choose to engage in hate speech. In U&G theory, the listener, information
recipient is active in the choice of programmes to tune into, but in the incidence
under study – engaging in hate speeches, a greater level of activity is involved
– the listener is active in creating, spreading and accentuating hatred and
social cleavages in society. Explanation for engaging in hate speeches must
then be sought in stronger theories which blend some elements of imitation,
social modeling with pieces of deviant gratification from inflicting hate on
others. The possibility of immediate interactivity with like minded persons
and getting feedback from them which Twitter offers then serves as
instrumental reinforcement for one who chooses to go down this sad road of
media mediated hate. Three other features of Twitter – the non-physical
proximity of persons involved in Twitter exchanges, the immediacy of
messaging and the relative anonymity of Tweeps make it more suitable as a
vehicle for hate tweets than traditional media. (Either re-work entire
paragraph or delete unnecessary sentences to make better sense)
In the absence of a single coherent conceptual framework, the paper
will explore the following six concepts – devious gratification, interactivity,
social modeling, imitation, non-physical proximity of tweeps, the relative
anonymity of source which twitter allows and immediacy of messaging, to
help the researchers understand how Twitter was hijacked to become an
instrument of hate messaging within two days in the period leading up to the
2015 elections in Nigeria.
Nwachukwu Egbunike and Noel Ihebuzor 3
What is hate speech?
Hate speech is a particular form of offensive language that makes use of
stereotypes to express an ideology of hate (Warner and Hirschberg, 2012).
Nockleby (2000) defines hate speech as “any communication that disparages
a person or a group on the basis of some characteristic such as race, color,
ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or other
characteristic.” Disparaging other ethnic groups so as to prove the superiority
of one’s ethnicity constitutes hate speech (Warner and Hirschberg, 2012).
Hate speech is any expression that causes harm to or denigrates a person
(Boeckmann and Turipin-Petrosino, 2010). The intent to hurt is inherent in
any conceptualization of hate speech. Hate speech is characterized by “a
difference that compels the speaker to draw a sharp distinction between ‘us’
and ‘them’. Based on these differences, members of outside groups are
delegitimized, demonized or depicted as inferior” (Vollhardt, Coutin, Staub,
Weiss and Deflander, 2007).
The matter of hate speech versus freedom of expression has been a
growing question for social media scholars. This is because suppressing hate
speech in either offline or online spaces is most times impracticable; except
when they are enforced by force, and this may lead to another problem: an
atmosphere of incivility and social tensions (Massaro, 1991). Besides, it is
impossible to implement such a ban on online hate speech due to the
ubiquitous nature of social media. Thus, addressing the root causes of offline
hate speech will solve the problem of online manifestations. This is because
social media, a force multiplier of offline hate speech (Daniels, 2008), is a
neutral media but certainly not an innocent one (Makinen and Kuira, 2008).
This does not mean, however that propagators of online hate speech
should be allowed to propagate their animus unhindered. Because the
“fundamental right of freedom of speech is being used to disseminate hate
speech, which goes contrary to the right itself and the spirit of the Constitution
that enshrines it… Freedom of speech, though sacrosanct, is not absolute”
(Egbunike, Tubosun, Ikheloa et al, 2017:10). Thus online hate speech
propagators must be investigated and brought to book offline (Tsesis, 2001).
4 New Media and Society
Hate speech leads to hate crimes and/or genocide
Hate speech is no game. History has shown that many hate crimes and/or
genocide are usually a result of unhindered incendiary speech, for instance,
the ethnic tensions in Zambia (Bates, 1970 and Jega, 2007) and ethnic animus
in post-apartheid South Africa (Welch, 1996). The horrors of the Rwandan
ethnic genocide are still fresh (Ilibagiza and Erwin, 2006), as are the ethnic
wars of Burundi and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Vollhardt
et al, 2007).
There is thus a relationship between hate speech and the resultant hate
crimes or genocide. According to a classification by Stanton (1998), genocide
has eight stages: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization,
polarization, preparation, extermination and denial. Although these eight
stages may not occur necessarily in a liner procession, they are intricately
related and can only be aborted if hate speech is prevented.
The categorization of people into “us” and “them” through ethnicity,
religion or nationality is the first stage that can lead to genocide. The second
stage is symbolization of the classified group, for instance; the Jews were
symbolized with the Star of David during the Nazi holocaust. Then comes
the third stage, the dehumanization of the classified and symbolized group
which is usually achieved by equating the “other” as non-human. For example,
words like “rats” and “cockroaches” are employed to dehumanize and most
importantly impugn guilt when these “non-humans” are exterminated. The
fourth stage of genocide is the organization for action. Arms are imported,
militias are trained and plans are perfected for genocidal killings. Polarization
marks the fifth stage, with vocal extremists amplifying hate messages. There
is also a deliberate attempt to silence moderate voices who seek to attenuate
the hate propaganda of the vocal extremists. The sixth and seventh stages of
preparation and extermination go hand in hand with blood-shed of untold
proportions. The last stage, denial, is ironic because the perpetuators of
genocide do not stop at killing the ‘rats’ or ‘cockroaches’. They attempt to
hide their hideous crimes by digging mass graves to bury their victims or
burning their corpses.
Utterances by various youth militias in Nigeria (the Niger Delta and the
Arewa Youths) portend grave consequences for the country if unchecked.
Nwachukwu Egbunike and Noel Ihebuzor 5
Their speeches are ridden with hate, transcending the notion of freedom of
expression. Sure individuals in a society are allowed rights to freedom of
expression, but should there not be a limit to such freedoms? Should there
not be a limit to such freedoms, especially when we realize that extreme,
unrestricted expression of such a right could undermine the very basis of
democracy? Certainly, not all views are right and the challenge in democracies
is to create and implement policies that discourage the conveyance of racist
views and ideologies.
The intensity of such vile and otherwise non-constructive speech is a
testament to the persisting, divisive nature of the Nigerian State and the fact
that after 57 years of independence as a nation, a deep sense of national
identity is yet to emerge. Thus Nigeria remains an ethnic fault line state, with
over 250 ethnic groups and 500 languages, desperately in search of ways and
means to effectively overcome the centripetal pulls of ethnicism and the
pursuit of ethnolinguistic agendas at the expense of a truly national one.
Combine this with the religious conflicts that have bedeviled the nation since
independence (Irobi, 2005; Je’adayibe and Kudu, 2010) and one comes to
the sad and disturbing conclusion that Nigerian has been made more volatile
since return to democratic rule in 1999 (Ochonu, 2014).
Decades of military dictatorship suppressed free speech and engendered
peace through and draconian laws (Kukah, 1993; Jega, 2007; Kukah, 2012),
though it was a peace of the graveyard. The 28 years of military intervention
in fact aggravated ethnic divides by bringing ethnic rivalry to the forefront of
national life. Everything, including communication and our choice of symbols,
metaphors and metonyms for communication, became politicized and rather
than seek common ground, communication was used to accentuate and seek
differences, to demonize the other in an emerging Manichean and simplistic
world where all was viewed from the prism of us versus them (Egbunike,
Like any communications tool, social media can be a purveyor of both
the good and the ugly. It has also been demonstrated to be something of an
“echo chamber” (FutureTense.com, 2010), a space where individuals connect
and associate primarily with people similar to themselves. The influence of
young Nigerian online “overlords” (Ihebuzor, 2012) who can influence the
opinions and actions of their numerous followers on topical issues, has
6 New Media and Society
transformed social media into a very effective amplifier of hate speech, and
the ability of users to remain anonymous exacerbates this.
Based on the above literature review and theoretical foundation, the paper
explored the following research questions:
1. What was the nature of the tweets from the #Igbo hashtag?
2. What was the dominant form of tweets from the #Igbo hashtag?
3. What causes Nigerian youth to engage in hate speech?
4. What can be done to rid Nigerian youth of this plague?
A quantitative and qualitative content analysis of #Igbo tweets which trended
on Twitter between 29 and 31 March 2015 was used for this study.
Justifications for using Twitter are as follows: the 140 letter length limit of
Twitter meant the researchers did not need to dig too deeply into lengthy
discourse to unearth hate comments; using hashtags has the advantage of
easily aggregating similar tweets; and Twitter is the medium of choice for
politically active persons whose tweets form the body of this investigation.
The use of tweets (in particular) and data from other social media platforms
in political communication research has gained universal acceptance. For
instance, tweets were employed to determine ‘influential’ twitter users in
Norway (Moe, 2012) and were also used in the Egyptian Arab Spring
(Papacharissi and Oliveira, 2012; Douai and Moussa, 2013). Research on
Kenya’s ‘War on Terror’ (Omanga and Chepngetich-Omanga, 2013) and
Somalia’s terrorist group al-Shabaab was achieved through a study of their
narrative on Twitter. Thus the use of a Twitter hashtag in this study is not
only consistent with other studies about Nigerian politics and Twitter (Ifukor,
2010; Egbunike and Olorunnisola, 2015), but also with the global conversa-
tion that seeks to empirically understand the influence of this microblogging
site on politics.
Nwachukwu Egbunike and Noel Ihebuzor 7
Unit of Analysis
The unit of analysis for this investigation were tweets from the #Igbo search
on Twitter between 29 and 31 March 2015. Tweets included in this sample
are those that contained statements about an ethnic group.
The tweets that featured on the twitter handle for the period under
consideration yielded a total of 650 tweets. To qualify for selection, tweets
had to meet a certain criteria: they had to contain statements about an ethnic
group. Such statements could be at various levels of explicitness: emotive,
negative and contain elements of stereotyping. They also had to contain
elements of generalization. Thus, ‘Igbo’ tweets which were not related to the
subject matter – for instance, tweets that were merely posting election results,
advertisements from African Magic announcing a new Igbo movie series
and/or tweets describing an Igbo event or word, etc., – were excluded from
A purposive sampling procedure was employed to select tweets that
met the criteria stipulated above. This purposive sampling pruned the number
to the 250 explicit (hate and neutral) #Igbo tweets that were content analyzed.
Coding and Analysis
For the analysis, a coding sheet was used and a two-step sorting criteria was
adopted. Furthermore, these tweets were sorted on the basis of explicitness.
Two content categories of hate and neutral were used to explain how explicit
the tweets were. Hate speech was further categorized into the following:
hostile (A), derogatory (B), inciting (C), blaming (D), and mocking (E). A-E
was explicit hate speech while F was explicit neutral speech. Both qualitative
and quantitative analyses were applied to the body of data.
To establish inter-coder reliability for the two trained research assistants,
Holsti’s (1969) formula for calculating the reliability of nominal data in terms
of percentage of agreement was employed. The inter-coder reliability index
8 New Media and Society
was 0.58. We identified the hate and neutral speech embedded in the samples
using a deductive approach (de Vreese, 2005).
Table 1 shows the nature of tweets that followed the 2015 Nigerian presidential
elections (first research question). The table also shows that the dominant
tweets were hate tweets in the post election period (second research question).
It is instructive that three content categories – B, D and E mirror distorted
perceptions that originate from and reinforce ethnic stereotypes. Derogatory
(B) recorded the highest percentage of hate tweets (45.6%), followed by
Mocking (E) with 19.6% and the third was Blaming (D) with 15.2%.
Table 1: Showing explicit hate and neutral Igbo tweets
In addition to these numbers (Table 1), the qualitative data – the tweets
themselves – were also thematically analyzed. The emerging themes are
Derogatory hate tweets (B)
The denigrating speeches were diverse. Hollowman (@Quadry_mohammed):
Nwachukwu Egbunike and Noel Ihebuzor 9
“that one no get sense, omo Igbo oshi” (omo Igbo means Igbo child, while
oshi (doesn’t ole mean thief in Yoruba?) means thief in Yoruba language).
Others like Gihan Mbelu (@gihan11) said: “Game, set & match. My hashtag
#countryofmorons now changes to #SouthEastofMorons. I’m Igbo I’m
allowed to say this. #Nigeriadecides.” Others derogatory tweets used were
‘blood suckers’, ‘mumu’ (Nigerian Pidgin expression for a fool) and ‘ram’.
These are shown in these series of tweets – Anas danlami Hassan (@minasco)
said: “I’m looking for my Igbo friends… blood suckers” while Ayo (@Ayo_O)
tweeted: “Foooooooools they think it’s only Igbo states that remain
hahahaaha.” Oga Boss (@desmag1) said that: “This apc man gets brain pass
that mumu Igbo man wey dey chat (sic)” while Usman Jega (@feelman04)
called @Waynerooneyx “useless Igbo ram… U better accept and let GMB
change ur life…Oloshi”. But IG:Official_prinze01 (@Official_Prinze) gave
the last order: “All this Igbo should shut up and understand Nigeria
RSK (@ilz_RAZAQ) was triumphant: “Shout out to the Igbo peeps
that used to think they own Nigeria…” This outburst may be connected to
the fear that Lagos State (in the South-West region) was overrun by Igbos
votes. This tweet by Nig-Uni-Scholarships (@9jascholarship) is revealing:
“APC Loses Six Rep Seats in Lagos as Igbo Political Clout Grows…” Thus,
it was not surprising to find insults like these from Burnt Dodo (@toluzbaba):
“APC to PDP Lagos State result go close…Igbo people just wan sly us for
this town sha…” Sly is a Nigerian Pidgin expression that can mean deceivers
Mocking hate tweets (E)
The mocking tweets took various forms. Ayo (@Ayo_O) said: “all these PDP
people that are shouting as if its only Igbo states that remain in Nigeria…
where are they ooo” in apparent reference to the PDP getting block votes
from South East Igbo states while Fiddle (@Coonfiddy) said: “Igbo ppl r
retweeting results from the East only!” That explains why “the Igbo ppl are
in soup” said IG (@fhunshore). Chimdi Auric lw (@Cuppee_10) emphasized
regret of Igbo’s who did not vote: “I’ve said to my friend IGBO people who
didn’t turn up must be regretting. Not because they want gej but cause they
don’t want GMB.”
10 New Media and Society
These two Twitter users were contemptuous on what Buhari’s win will
mean for Igbos. Ahmad (@sllmshady796): “NEPA will start selecting houses
before giving light. Any Igbo house don enter missed call announcement
GMB.” Ume Ifeanyi (@UmeifeanyiUme) said: “If Buhari wins it means it
will not be easy for the Igbo nation to taste presidency.” On the other hand,
Mondlu (@MDGunner) said that Igbos gave “Jonathan false hope and make
it look like a light battle…” while Naseer (@Benzemanaas) tweeted at
“@AJENews IGBO’S been peeping and not tweeting!! Where are they!!
Other taunting tweets were directed at the “Igbo” professor and INEC
returning officer for Rivers State. Some are reproduced below:
#Naigeria2015 (@HayzedZino): We don’t want Igbo Made
Professor again in our country… #comedy professor live in
Collation Center in Abuja.
Mr.Right (@itz_hameed): this man na igbo made prof
Adamu A. Bello (@abk012): Another Igbo made Prof.
Shahid (@Shidox_xx): This Igbo man brings life to the
Blaming hate tweets (D)
Early elections results placed both contenders in a tight race. This might
have been the reason for the blame tweets. YNN3B (@Bennie10469)
condemned Igbos for their excessive love for money: “Igbo people, 4 say
una dey stay home nw una go fit vot 4 GEJ, but money wey una dey find no
allow una fit vote 4 am. Na wah ooo” (Igbo people, if you stayed at home,
now you could have voted for GEJ, but your love for money would not allow
you vote for him…). The Shah of Iran (@AMG_Rozay) echoed similar views
as YNN3B: “The pride the Igbo man was known for is gone. Now they just
take money from the highest bidder and vote. Smh.” Others examples are
Donald Ekanem (@Don_Kane): My former hood in Surulere
is filled with Igbo boys. They gats no chill in their aversion
Nwachukwu Egbunike and Noel Ihebuzor 11
Ayoola (@ace_loaf): Lagos did fair considering the number
of Igbo people over there.
George Adedolapo (@GEORGEADEDOLAPO): Lagos was
a close call! Chai! All the Igbo people in Lagos.
The above data have not only provided answers for both the first and
second research questions but will serve as a foundation for the discussion
of the findings. The next section is instructive.
Discussion of Findings
Hate speech was present in analyzed tweets and they were manifested in
several ways – derision, taunting, derogation; mocking, insulting, hurtful.
The findings are a potentially ominous sign for a multi-ethnic country like
The first and second research questions showed the predominance of
ethnic hate speech after the presidential elections in Nigeria. However, the
third (what makes Nigerian youths to engage in hate speech) research question
will be discussed in the paragraphs below.
Frustrated young people have been identified as “drivers of social media
hate speech” (Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation, 2016:3).
The rate of unemployment in Nigeria has increased considerably from 10.4
percent in 2015 to 14.2 percent in the last quarter of 2016 (Trading Economics,
2017). The youth are the most hit: “That 19.70 per cent of the nation’s labour
force is idle is bad enough. But worse and extremely dangerous is the fact
that more than 50 per cent of that army of idle citizens is peopled by those
between the ages of 15 and 35. When broken down, the NBS figures revealed
quite clearly that out of a total youth labour force of 38.2 million, representing
48.7 per cent of the total labour force of 78.48 million in Nigeria, some 15.2
million of them were either unemployed or underemployed in the first quarter
of 2016. This represented a youth unemployment rate of 42.24 per cent”
Considering that hate speech thrives on ‘us’ against ‘them’ narratives,
these unemployed youths must vent their anger against anyone or group of
people who they perceive are responsible for their pathetic condition. The
12 New Media and Society
divisive politics of Nigeria in 2015 employed symbols to sell their candidates.
Social media amplified the categorization of the incumbent president
Goodluck Jonathan as “clueless”, “corrupt” and an “ineffectual buffoon”.
Thus, these young people were made to understand that anyone who voted
Jonathan was an enemy. As the election results came in however, it became
evident that the South-east and South-south voted massively for Jonathan.
This might explain why Nigerian youths engaged in hate speech during the
period under review as shown in the derogatory, mocking, deriding #Igbo
tweets that were content analyzed. Nonetheless, this does not entirely justify
the hate tweets because the North (East, Central and West) also voted
massively for the then opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari
(Independent National Electoral Commission, 2015). Therefore, it means
that there are other factors besides unemployed frustrated youths that might
have influenced the hate speech on twitter.
It is instructive to emphasise the role of influencers on Twitter as a
micro blogging site. Influencers are twitter users who have large followings
and can thus act as agenda setters. Twitter influencers played this role during
the Arab Spring uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt (Douai and Moussa, 2013).
In Nigerian twitter, these influencers are called overlords. These overlords
exert great influence on their followers who in turn wish to gain the attention
of the overlord by retweeting and/or mentioning him/her in their tweets.
Moreover, Nigerian overlords are “agenda setters, news framers, experts on
all matters, and final social arbiters whose views, judgments and solutions
must always prevail” (Egbunike, January 9, 2013). Some overlords also
pretended to be social activists, while they were actually paid political agents
whose main aim was to “unseat the PDP in 2015” (Ihebuzor, June 14, 2012).
Their followers, unaware of their overlord’s agendas, amplified their ethnic
hate speech ridiculing the Igbos for voting Jonathan.
The fourth research question (what can be done to rid Nigerian youth of
this plague-use a different word - sounds a little overdramatic) will be
addressed with education. Hate speech denigrates the other with the intent to
hurt (Boeckmann and Turipin-Petrosino, 2010). Nigerian youth who engaged
in ethnic hate speech probably lack understanding of the potential consequence
of their actions. They may have thought it was just a game or an assetion of
their right to free speech. Sadly, history has shown that hate speech results in
Nwachukwu Egbunike and Noel Ihebuzor 13
ravaging sectarian conflicts. The 1994 Rwandan genocide resulted in the
massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus by an extremist Hutu-led
government. Nigeria also fought a bitter civil war from 1967 to 1970, between
the secessionist Biafra and the Nigerian armed forces.
The war has ended but the scars are yet to heal. Besides the civil war,
Nigeria since independence has had a long history of ethnocentric and
religious clashes. (Michel, 1997; Anugwom, 2000; Irobi, 2005; Boer, 2004;
Yusuf, 2007; Boer, 2008; Boer, 2009; Galadima, 2010; Je’adayibe and Kudu,
2010). Without these historical contexts, most Nigerian youths may be unable
to fully appreciate the problem with spewing hate tweets or the eventual
consequences. The solution, we believe, therefore lies in reinstating history
as part of the curriculum of secondary schools in Nigeria. That way the youth
can learn that freedom of speech is not equal to freedom to hate. This will go
a long way in ending the plague of ethnic hate.
Although these tweets became predominant after the 2015 elections,
they point to a deeper problem; the divisive ethnic fragmentation of Nigerian
society. Social media is only a force multiplier of offline hate, as Daniels
(2008) states. As such, the source of ethnic hate speech has to be traced back
offline. The role of ethnic political entrepreneurs cannot be overemphasized.
As stated earlier, the country is currently witnessing a resurgence of vile
ethnic speech, with one ethnic pitched against the other (Egbunike, Tubosun,
Ikheloa et al, 2017). Nigerian youth will be better helped to see that behind
the ethnocentric politics resides a singular mission of power grabbing.
Politicians will therefore use anyone as a pawn in order to achieve their
ambition. The youths should be educated on their antics and therefore more
prepared to counter them.
One major solution to the menace of hate tweets is to train Nigerian
youths to become more critical of received information/opinion and to acquire
the essentials of critical thinking. This will equip the learners with the
cognitive, affective and psychomotor skills needed to engage the world. As
such, the youth will possess the discerning ability essential to detecting and/
or preventing the reign of extremism. Critical thinking is important for both
online and offline engagement of Nigerian youths. It will allow our young
ones to appreciate history and comprehend that political discussions are
merely matters of opinion and one can agree to disagree with others amicably.
14 New Media and Society
Ethnic hate speech is vile and evil and should be resisted by all people of
goodwill. This is because the effects of (online and offline) hate speech have
the potential to escalate into full-blown ethnic war. Although digital media
has been a platform for good, people who wish to sow the seed of discord
can also hijack it. Young Nigerians who have been rendered unemployed
can be easily enticed into spreading hate, which can heat up the political
space. Civic education and history will help to curtail hate speech as they
will arm the youth with historical perspective of the evils of ethnic hate
speech, in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
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