How Social Media Activism is Helping #EndSARS

Tech is the new activist tool

Key Takeaways

  • Through the power of social media, the #EndSARS movement (a social movement and series of mass protests against police brutality in Nigeria) has garnered international interest in an often overlooked part of the Global South.
  • The youth are the key players in the social media-based activism and their internet savvy is on pace to shift the possibilities for movement building.
  • Social media has long been a force for community organizing for causes under historically repressive governmental regimes.
A woman wearing an "END SARS" protective face mask speaks with the police outside the Nigerian Consulate during a demonstration on October 21, 2020 in London, England.
Leon Neal / Getty Images 

Social media has become the dominating tool for activists, and the explosive international intrigue around the Nigeria-based #EndSARS movement illustrates that its ability to connect international audiences is as salient as its capacity to activate domestic interests. SARS stands for, in this case, Nigeria's secret police, the now-dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

The #EndSARS movement is a youth-led resistance to SARS, which has been accused by citizens of engaging in extrajudicial abuses including theft, assault, rape, torture, and murder.

Originally started in 2017, it gained international recognition on Oct. 3 after a video captured SARS officials killing a man in Nigeria’s Delta state region, sparking tens of thousands of protestors to act. Social media has been the tool used by protesters during subsequent deadly clashes with police officials as legacy media outlets fumble their commitments.   

"The traditional media, the TV stations and radio stations here, are biased. They show you what wasn’t actually going on. With social media, we were able to show what was going on with the movement in the country and the abuses," 22-year-old Nigerian activist Ndochukwu Arum, who declined to give his last name, said in an interview with Lifewire.

"Before, if people overseas want to see what’s going on, they would check the TV stations with their own satellites and see what the government wants them to see."

Laying the Groundwork for Social Media Activism

Media corruption is commonplace in Nigeria where brown-envelope journalism (the act of providing payment, often in a brown envelope, to select journalists to publish positive stories or kill negative stories) persists. This silencing of dissent and shady journalistic ethics causes younger audiences to search for the kind of authenticity often found on social media. 

Aside from journalistic bribery, radio and television stations in Nigeria are under a directive to promote the state per its broadcast regulatory body. 

Demonstrators at the candlelight procession to remember victims of SARS and those assaulted by Nigeria Police gather at Trafalgar Square on October 18, 2020 in London, England.
Joseph Okpako / Getty Images 

In the midst of the #EndSARS movement, the National Broadcasting Commission released new guidelines to curtail the publishing of negative material, saying sources that "embarrass individuals, organizations, government, or cause disaffection" should be restrained.

The directive suggests broadcasts "have a duty to promote the corporate existence of Nigeria and the socio-economic well-being of the Nigerian State."

One of the unique features of social media is its ability to democratize access and attention. Legacy media outlets have been the gatekeepers to what is considered newsworthy, but through social media, people have progressively been able to make those decisions for themselves on a much grander scale.

The democratizing power of social media allows for a spotlight to be shone on repressive institutions across the world. From the success of the Black Lives Matter movement and #EndSARS to the pro-democracy uprisings in the early 2010s known as the Arab Spring, the influence of social media has shaped entire countries.

"With social media, we were able to show what was going on with the movement in the country and the abuses."

The Youth Own Digital

Social media becoming the primary tool of activism is not by accident. Globally, young people have found refuge in social media both as a way to connect to an increasingly global culture, as well as a platform to make their voices heard and organize. 

Youth-led movements are not new. Historically, they have been popular components of civil rights struggles both domestically and abroad. Social media does provide unique access to truly adult-free spaces removed from institutional sponsors as youths use their savvy to build resource repositories, hashtags, community protests, and even meme-filled campaigns of subversion.  

Abimbola Olabisi is a 23-year-old social media influencer and entrepreneur in Nigeria who says he has been one of many victims of extortion and harassment attempts by SARS officials in the Lagos area. Through his platform on Twitter, he was able to connect to organizers on the ground and amplify their voices to his 378,000 followers.

"I was involved in a few of the demonstrations as well as disbursement of some funds raised online in order to aid online protesters with data to encourage them to focus on the #EndSARS tag. And the distribution of certain food items and drinks," he said.

Demonstrators remember victims of SARS and those assaulted by Nigeria Police as they gather at Trafalgar Square on October 18, 2020 in London, England.
Joseph Okpako / Getty Images 

Apart from organizing, social media has allowed people from around the world to aggregate resources to specific people and groups to aid in protest movements from the comfort of their LED screen otherwise far removed from the uprising. 

A negative, however, is revolving door trending topics that cause a quickened sense of fatigue as users hop on the next trend. Still, Arum thinks it is incumbent on organizers to channel that attention when necessary and continue the fight. Activism dies on social media requiring on-the-ground organizers to keep the pressure on.

"We’re going to fight to abolish a lot of laws the older generation has put out there to keep ruling. We’re going to make sure to secure ourselves for a better Nigeria, a better Africa and a better world," he said. "So, the next generation that comes will see what we did and that we did it for them and ourselves through the organizing power of social media outlets paving a new way for us to move forward."

Update 11/17/20: We updated the text to earlier reflect the definition of the Nigerian #EndSARS movement in contrast to the respiratory disease, SARS.