How digital media shapes public opinion about environmental sustainability in Nigeria

Photo showing a hill of waste in a community in Ogun state, Nigeria. Image by Yemi Festus on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

By Iretomiwa Adio

With Nigeria grappling with various environmental challenges, the role of digital media in shaping public discourse and attitudes toward environmental sustainability has become increasingly important.

Digital media platforms, such as social media and online news sites, have emerged as powerful catalysts for raising awareness and mobilizing communities. The digital media landscape in Nigeria has played a significant role in bringing pressing issues to the forefront including, frequent oil spillages in the Niger Delta to oil theft and illegal bunkering in surrounding states. It has become a vital conduit for disseminating information and initiating conversations on these important matters.

While these digital media platforms have the power to shape public opinion positively, they also have the potential to withhold information from the masses, thus presenting a flipside to the coin. These platforms can provide wide reach, mobilize communities, and inform them about social and environmental movements, but they can also inadvertently contribute to a self-informing cycle where already-informed communities receive redundant information. Consequently, the wider public may not receive the necessary and useful information needed to drive change, let alone fully understand the issues at hand. 

The paper entitled “Environmental Challenges Awareness in Nigeria: A Review,” published last year in the African Journal of Environment and Natural Science Research offers an insightful examination of the environmental challenges in Nigeria, including pollution, poor sanitation, and deforestation. It emphasizes the importance of heightened awareness and proactive measures to effectively tackle these pressing issues. 

Another concern is that the current climate in Nigeria regarding environmental issues and sustainability is far from being a priority for citizens. As stated in a blog post by Edidiong Daniel in The Eco Writer, there seems to be a lack of inherent concern for environmental sustainability among Nigerians. We are not adequately informed about the impact of our actions on the environment, nor do we fully grasp its significance.

Although platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook can effectively bring attention to these pressing environmental-related issues, they often remain limited to mere hashtags or Twitter threads. The issue, therefore, lies not in the platforms we utilize to share information but rather in how effectively we employ them to foster public dialogue and engagement among Nigerians regarding these critical matters.

For instance, the 2015 documentary, “Nowhere to Run: Nigeria's Climate and Environmental Crisis,” sheds light on the extensive damage inflicted on the Ogoni community due to years of indiscriminate dumping of crude oil. This thought-provoking documentary, produced by The Shehu Musa Yar'Adua Foundation and hosted by Ken Wiwa, son of the renowned environmental activist and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, aimed to highlight the impact of climate change and environmental degradation, posing significant challenges to national development amidst Nigeria's rapidly growing population. While the documentary effectively conveyed the realities we face, it, unfortunately, did not gain substantial traction in terms of views and discussions on social media. On YouTube, it currently has only 21,000 views, a stark contrast to the 31.60 million subscribers in Nigeria alone (roughly twice the population of New York). In such a scenario, digital media played a role in informing and raising environmental awareness. However, in most cases, viral topics such as socio-economic trends, political news, and entertainment tend to dominate the platforms, overshadowing subjects like climate change and sustainability. Consequently, these crucial topics receive significantly lower views than necessary, highlighting the challenge of capturing public attention on pressing environmental issues.

This is also not always the case. An example that stands in contrast to the previous situation is the Clean Nigeria Campaign, launched in 2018 with the objective of eliminating open defecation in the country by 2025. Their reports indicate that as of 2018, 47 million Nigerians engaged in open defecation, leading to over 100,000 child deaths annually, with more than 90 percent of these deaths linked to unclean water, as reported by UNICEF.

The campaign effectively utilized a combination of digital media platforms, community collaborations, and conversations on social media. It prioritized proper education about the problem while emphasizing that it is a collective issue that requires everyone's efforts to address. As a result, in October 2022, Jigawa state was declared the first open defecation-free state in the country. This achievement significantly reduced the cholera rate in communities and decreased infant mortality.

The primary distinction between these two movements is not their significance, but rather the efficiency with which digital media was employed to influence public opinion regarding the value we place on the environment. While the former movement effectively spread information and produced a documentary focusing on relevant themes, it struggled to initiate a discourse that extended beyond that. A successful digital campaign should foster dialogues that flourish in real-world settings, transcending its primary medium. In contrast, the latter campaign took the initiative beyond internet platforms, engaging with the affected communities at a grassroots level and sparking real-life change in the process.

In addition, some journalists are concerned about the information reaching the public and whether it aligns with Nigerians’ views on environmental sustainability. In a paper by Nigerian journalist Evelyn Tagbo, it was found that fewer than 0.1 percent of articles published by two Nigerian newspapers over two three-month periods addressed climate change. The study also concluded that the significant gap between the public's understanding of climate change and the actual impacts of the changing climate in the region remains a critical problem.

The public discourse on the environment and climate change can be greatly aided by our utilization of digital media platforms. However, it is crucial that we possess a profound understanding not only of how to use these platforms effectively but also of the significant role they play in shaping public opinion on environmental matters. Education is key in learning how to leverage these platforms to convey messages in a compelling manner. It is essential to recognize the importance of going beyond the realm of hashtags, Twitter threads, and Facebook posts, and actively working towards implementing tangible and meaningful change in our societies.

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