Around 3 p.m. on October 12, Ademola Ojabodu, the manager of a well-known musician, was arrested while out protesting the brutality of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Authorities transferred him to a Lagos police station — one that is known for harsh treatment of its inmates — and accused him of armed robbery and the murder of a police officer.
When word of his arrest reached lawyer Tola Onayemi, he knew the only way to prove Ojabodu’s innocence was to produce incontrovertible evidence that the music manager had been peacefully protesting and was arrested on false charges. To find that, Onayemi turned to social media, where demonstrators had uploaded photos and videos that, while grainy and at times graphic, contradicted the police’s claims. He told Rest of World that he presented two videos of the incident, each from a different vantage point, to the relevant authorities. Just before midnight, Ojabodu was freed.
That same day, two women named Treasure Chiamaka Nduka and Felicia Okpara were seen being dragged away by the police from a different protest in a video captured by onlookers. Once the footage went viral, lawyers took the proof of their innocence to officers, securing Nduka and Okpara’s release.
“The videos provided a way to time stamp, geo tag, and verify the incidents that were said to have occurred,” said Onayemi, who belongs to End SARS Legal Aid, a response network of 800 volunteer lawyers across the country who have been getting arrested protesters out of jail since the protests began. Onayemi said members of the legal aid team culled together the videos that ultimately got Ojabodu out of jail.
“There’s a way to know whether news is true. It’s verification across platforms,” he added, pointing out that less than five minutes after the women were arrested, he was in touch with Nduka’s brother.
These cases show how crucial social media has been in the #EndSARS protests, not only to raise awareness of the protesters’ plight to those outside of Nigeria but to counter misinformation from authorities and get innocent people out of jail.
Onayemi said that, in both cases, the arrest of protesters unfolded in three stages. First, the police denied they had made any arrests in the first place. Then, they admitted to the arrests but demanded the names of the protesters the lawyers sought to get released. The last stage involved the police threatening to arraign the individuals in court. But the lawyers were able to counter the police’s claims, due to the evidence they received on social media, and avoid the last stage of the ordeal, he said.
“The videos helped,” he said, “discredit all of that.”
Eight days after Ojabodu’s arrest, the Nigerian army was again captured on video, this time shooting at unarmed protesters gathered at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on October 20, singing the national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag. A popular DJ named Obianuju Catherine Udeh, widely known as DJ Switch, was at the scene and spoke on Instagram about the horrors that unfolded , to her more than 900,000 followers.
The army immediately dismissed the videos as fake news and denied allegations of their involvement in the shooting, despite multiple eyewitness accounts. The military spokesman claimed the videos were photoshopped. The Lagos state governor insisted nobody died that night, despite an investigation from Amnesty International that recorded at least 10 deaths. And to close the loop on the government’s attempt to control the narrative, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which regulates broadcasters across the country, released guidelines warning TV and radio stations not to embarrass the government and to avoid sharing the same videos that had already proliferated on the internet.
But after pressure by the protesters on social media and unyielding questions from the foreign press (which is exempt from NBC’s edicts), the governor admitted to the deaths. The army has also walked back its statements, saying officers were present but continuing to insist they did not shoot civilians.
While all of that was happening in the traditional media sphere, youth-led digital publications became a valuable resource during the protests. Digital outlets like Zikoko, which trafficks in memes and viral social media content; Stears, a business publication; and TechCabal provided an unvarnished account of events.
Zikoko covered the protests through its civic-focused vertical, Citizen, where reporters debunked misinformation online and “chose to see facts with clear evidence instead of attempting to appeal to any side or faction,” Ope Adedeji, the site’s editor at large, told Rest of World.
Adedeji said Zikoko specifically targeted an audience that lacked access to verified information about the protests, especially older people who tend to rely on traditional media. Zikoko produced videos to educate older people about the protests, and Adedeji said they reached “more audiences than initially speculated across different states.”
Fu’ad Lawal is the editor-in-chief at Zikoko, and he said the outlet was able to cover the protests more objectively because they were not bound by NBC’s restrictive mandates. But with that freedom came the risk, he said, of being arrested by security forces in what has been called one of the most dangerous and unsafe countries in West Africa for journalists.Lawal said they had concerns about their reporters going missing, and so they set up protocols for regular check-ins and location sharing, extra security measures that lots of other Nigerian protesters have been relying on to protect them from the police.