Activists protesting police brutality by the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) demonstrate in Parliament Square in London, England, on October 21, 2020. SARS has been accused of extrajudicial killings, extortion and torture, prompting demonstrations across Nigeria that have seen at least 56 people killed by Nigerian security forces in recent weeks, according to human rights group Amnesty International. The dead include at least 12 at two locations in Lagos - Lekki and Alausa - on Tuesday, it said, among some 38 people killed yesterday across the country as a whole. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
On Tuesday evening, as people moved online to stand in solidarity with peaceful #EndSars protesters who were attacked by heavily armed Nigerian security operatives at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, Facebook and Instagram moved to flag users’ posts as fake.
“I got a notification from Facebook that what I wrote is not entirely true, that they did their fact-checking,” Nuel Okwudili told The Continent.
Photos, graphics and graphic images of the casualties and the ruins left at the tollgate— after protesters flouting a curfew order by the state government were subjected to a shooting spree — flooded the internet.
Fact-checking exercises were done indiscriminately — posts from pop star Rihanna on Facebook and Instagram also suffered the same fate.
Emeka Obi “posted the Nigerian flag covered in blood” on his Instagram story but saw it “classed it as false information and I saw several other accounts with similar issues”. Obi and Okwudili confirmed the visibility of their posts was hindered. The former said he usually has “60 — 90 story views but this particular one had just 19”.
Even messages as benign as “Pray for Nigeria” had been labelled fake news.
“Flagging simple solidarity posts that ask people to pray for Nigeria as false – when the authorities are actively spilling blood on the streets — is highly problematic and amounts to, inadvertently or not, political censorship,” said Ray Walsh, a digital privacy specialist at ProPrivacy, a digital advocacy firm.
“But why would they do that?” asked Zion, a Facebook user.
Walsh said that although Facebook and Instagram fact-checking is appropriate, however, it is evident “those algorithms simply aren’t up to the job of fact-checking when large scale breaking news events occur”.
As the dust settled, fact-checkers were out to highlight several disturbing posts that were fake, because they had no connections to the killings or the #EndSars protests. Okwudili suspects one of those pictures could have made Facebook react.
But Jo O’Reilly, ProPrivacy’s deputy editor, believes “the situation should have been carefully managed on a case by case basis. Simply using a one size fits all warning — which causes people to question all posts regarding the protests — is not good enough. And we need Instagram to work much harder to ensure that its algorithms either stay out of it or find a way to only put warnings on those posts that are known to contain false information.”
Okwudili, Obi and Zion have yet to make any #EndSars posts on both platforms since the night of 20 October; they would rather use other platforms like Twitter.
“It would appear that Twitter has not followed suit, and has avoided putting warnings or fact-checking posts coming out of Nigeria, simply because it has been unable to definitively single out posts that they know to be false,” O’Reilly said.
Facebook and Instagram have since apologised for “letting our community down in such a time of need”.