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Forty million Twitter users in Nigeria? How pollster’s flawed figure became fact

In reporting the Nigerian government’s suspension of Twitter, major media outlets have said 39.6 million of the country’s people use the site. But the number doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

This article is more than 2 years old

  • The news of the Nigerian government banning popular microblogging site Twitter has swept the world, with many outlets frequently reporting that the country has 40 million Twitter users.

  • The figure comes from 2019 research by a pollster in the country. But experts have questioned the survey’s methods.

  • Publicly available data shows the number is nearer three million.

Nigeria has been in the global spotlight after its government indefinitely suspended Twitter in early June. 

The suspension came days after Twitter removed a tweet by president Muhammadu Buhari for what it said was a violation of its rules. 

Nigerian officials deny the platform’s suspension was due to the deletion,   citing national security concerns instead. A minister has also said that the US social media company is not registered to do business in the country.  

Buhari has approved a government team to negotiate with Twitter after the company reportedly wrote to him seeking a resolution, officials said.

As the fallout continues, the country has been counting the cost, with various estimates of losses being made. One number has been particularly prominent in the debate: that Twitter has 40 million users in Nigeria. 

This was widely reported by national dailies, with the number also found in coverage by international media such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle and AFP. US network CNN gave the number as “more than 39 million” as did Samantha Power, a prominent American diplomat. 

But does the widely used number stand up to scrutiny?

Survey of 1,000 phone-owning Nigerians 

Nearly all the reporting attributes the figure to NOI Polls, a survey company based in Nigeria. In October 2019, NOI interviewed 1,000 phone-owning Nigerians aged 18 and up.  Twitter logo

They were randomly selected across the country based on what was described as the “2016 National Population Census”. This may refer to population estimates from that year – Nigeria’s last census was in 2006

One of the survey questions was: “Do you have a Twitter account?”

About 20% of respondents said yes. This share was then applied to the National Population Commission’s 2018 estimate of Nigeria’s population as 198 million, leading to a figure of 39.6 million. 

The pollster concluded that “39.6 million Nigerians have a Twitter account”.  The survey has some other rather unclear conclusions about the platform, such as that 11% of respondents use Twitter the most, and 2% have it as their “most preferred”.  

Survey sample a ‘fraction of Nigeria’s population’ 

But the poll’s conclusion was faulty, Dr Isiaka Olarewaju, a statistician, told Africa Check. He was previously the head of household statistics at the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).   

“Going by the methodology, they cannot say 39.6 million Nigerians use Twitter. They sampled adults, 18 years and older, which is a fraction of Nigeria’s population,” Olarewaju said.

“It is wrong to apply the 20% to the entire population. Also, it needs to be narrowed down to social media users.”

Kayode Ayinde, a professor of statistics at the Federal University of Technology at Akure in southwest Nigeria, also faulted the poll’s methodology and conclusion. 

Ayinde told Africa Check that the possibility of having a Twitter account depended on many factors, including literacy, poverty and access to the internet. 

Social media use also varied across the country, he said. “You are more likely to find Twitter users in southern cities like Lagos and Port Harcourt than in the north. So interviewing 1,000 phone-owning adults randomly is wrong.”

Nearly half the population under 18 

It’s not statistically sound to use the result of a biased sample to generalise for an entire population, Mbe Nja, a statistics professor at the University of Calabar in southern Nigeria, told Africa Check.

“The approach is wrong because it assumes that all Nigerians have equal access and are equally likely to have a Twitter account. And this is not true,” he said. 

“For it to be applicable to the entire population, all Nigerians must have equal opportunity to participate in the survey. Many people in Nigeria don’t have phones and a large part of our population is younger than 18.” 

According to NBS data, nearly half of Nigeria’s population is below the age of 18. 

The data, from 2016, is categorised in five-year age groups. There are 80.89 million people aged from under one to 14 years old, making up 41.83% of the country’s estimated population of 193.39 million.  

The next age group, 15 to 19, totals 20.52 million. The data isn’t broken down to specific ages. 

You have to be at least 13 to open a Twitter account.

21.3 million? 24 million? 39.6 million? 

We asked NOI Polls about the criticism of its estimate. Chidi Akubue, the firm’s business head of polling, cited 2018 data from the population commission to give the country’s adult population as 51.7%. This was 106,592,109 people aged 18 and over, he said.

The 2019 NOI survey report claims 20% of Nigerians have a Twitter account.  “This figure represents about 21.3 million adult Nigerians (18+) based on the sampling frame of the survey,” Akubue said, “and not 39.6 million, which represents the total population, including the population that was not included in the survey.”

He also sent us a condensed and “updated” copy of the 2019 report. This gave the number of Nigerians with a Twitter account as 24 million – much less than 39.6 million.  

The revised number is now on NOI’s website, but with no note about the update – and its conclusion keeps the old figure. 

The updated report also narrowed the respondents to “1,000 randomly selected phone-owning female Nigerians aged 18 years and above”. The original report does not say the sample was only female.  

Number could be as low as 3 million 

And the new figure of 24 million is still not supported by other data we found. Before 2019, Twitter reported on its global monthly active users, with the last reported figure being an average of 326 million for July to September 2018. The company now reports on “monetisable daily active usage” (mDAU).

We asked Twitter about how many users it had in Nigeria. “We do not disclose such information externally,” spokesperson Gareth Field told Africa Check.

Others have tried to estimate the number of Twitter users. Research firm Statista puts the world’s monthly active users at 353 million in January 2021. Most – 69.3 million – are in the US. 

Nigeria is not in Statista’s list of the top 20 countries ranked by Twitter users. Malaysia is 20th, with 3.4 million active users. This indicates that Nigeria may have fewer users than that.  

Statista’s data is sourced from Twitter itself, as well as third party companies such as DataReportal, We Are Social and social media management firm Hootsuite

In a 2021 digital report, Hootsuite estimates that Nigeria has 33 million active social media users. Twitter is ranked as the country’s sixth most used platform, behind WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook Messenger.

The report says a Twitter ad in Nigeria has a potential audience of 3.05 million people. But it adds that audience figures “may not represent unique individuals or match the active user base”.

Hootsuite says its data is sourced from several third party providers, including GlobalWebIndex, GSMA Intelligence, Statcounter, Alexa, and Statista.

Conclusion: No data supports widespread claim that Nigeria has 40 million Twitter users

As Nigerians debate their government’s June 2021 Twitter suspension, media houses have claimed that 40 million people in the country – Africa’s most populous – use the service. 

The number can be traced to an October 2019 survey by NOI Polls. But statisticians have faulted the survey’s methods. 

Available data indicates that there are around 3 million Twitter users in Nigeria.

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