Disinformation is a significant threat to democracy and the credibility of electoral outcomes. In Nigeria it is being weaponised by political parties to influence voters ahead of the all-important general elections scheduled for 23 February and 9 March 2019.
The political strategy of spreading factually inaccurate information and negative rumours is part and parcel of Nigerian politics. However, the volume of disinformation is unprecedented and further exacerbating ethnic and religious tensions in the heavily divided and fragile polity.
During campaigns there has been both a deliberate attempt to spread information with the aim of deceiving and manipulating those who receive it, and an unintentional spreadof this information especially among the less digitally literate users. Political parties have been particularly culpable. Rather than establishing conventional campaign centres, Nigerian politicians may have been involved in creating “fake news factories” where paid employees, both local and international, create content with the aim of bullying, intimidating and sometimes cajoling, the public to accept it.
The “fake news” industry
Using the power of networks and reach of social media influencers, and by creating fake accounts or utilising bots, stories crafted for political gains are shared on social media as a strategy to curry favour with voters. Even the average voter who is not formally part of political activities have increasingly used social media platforms to taunt and jeer others who express contrary views. Your views are either interpreted as #Buharist or #Atikulated, representing the two major presidential candidates — President Muhammadu Buhari and the main opposition challenger Atiku Abubakar.
Instrumentalising disinformation in Nigeria is not limited to the use of social media platforms. Disinformation is part of the traditional media as well. Often referred to as political consultants, the soldiers of mouth or Sojojin Baci in Hausa, regularly speak on radio and TV broadcasts, spewing a mixture of truth, half-truths and falsehoods in favour of their preferred candidate or party. In response, the other side get their loyal attack dogs to do the same.
However, social media presents new opportunities for engagement due to the ease of its two-way communication, expanding mobile data subscription base, and growing availability of affordable smartphones. What is clear is that there is some overlap between traditional and new media sources, with disinformation spreading across multiple outlets in many languages. For example, using influential social media networks, a rumour that starts online can reach a huge audience in just a few hours. When something starts to go viral, groups like the Sojojin Baci take it up, spreading the message from door to door in a way that helps it to resonate with the local offline audiences.
The suggestion that Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is a clone — that he is actually a man named Jubrin from Sudan — has been one of the most pervasive rumours during this election cycle. The allegation was first made in a YouTube video by Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of separatist group, the Indigenous People of Biafra on September 3 2017.
“The man you are looking at on the television is not Buhari; he is Jubrin from Sudan. After extensive plastic surgery, they brought him back,” Kanu said with certitude.This assertion has been widely repeated with memes for more than a year, but despite Mr Buhari denying the rumours that he is dead during a trip to Poland last December, some people still believe the rumours are plausible. For some the idea that 76-year-old Buhari would be able to recover from a serious illness and return looking healthy and agile is hard to comprehend. Even some former Buhari supporters — the talakawas — have found some credibility in the rumour believing “the real” Buhari would not have allowed the economic suffering which has marked his presidency to pervade.
Tools and strategies
WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook are the most significant channels of disinformation in Nigeria. Unlike the 2015 general elections where television and radio were used extensively to disseminate lengthy disinformation videos, in this election, short two-minute videos camouflaged as adverts, are uploaded and shared widely across social media. Existing and newly created blogs and online news website are also a source of poorly sourced and often malicious information.
There are even sites that aim to clone reputable news website such as the CNN, Al-Jazeera or BBC. Research from the Centre of Democracy and Development (CDD) suggests that memes and pictures are the most successful way of engaging social media users, but it must be emphasised that the choice of the tools and language deployed often depend on the intended end user.
Our analysis focused primarily on Facebook and Twitter, with some data collection and fact checking through WhatsApp. Our Twitter dataset, which contained 118 649 tweets collected from December 31 2018 to January 30 2019, revealed a dense and interconnected landscape with an above-average prevalence of automated accounts – roughly 19.5% of collected accounts show signs of automation, which suggests a high level of bot activity around the hashtags, accounts and subjects collected. The initial results of the analysis revealed a number of interesting issues. One observable trend showed that accounts with bot like tendencies promoted messages concerning Biafra and calls to boycott the elections.
Another major issue we found in our study relates to satirical content. The role of satire is also not very well established, in that information which is satirical in nature might be presented or interpreted as completely true, leaving out any sense of nuance, and many users are incapable of distinguishing satirical content from real news sources. CDD collected items in WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages that were presented as true information but contained content that was satirical in nature. Due to the deficit in media and information literacy, there is a widespread inability to judge doctored photographs and videos, and users are often receiving material meant to misinform that they are unable to evaluate or discount if untrue.
Members of the campaign of the two dominant parties — the All Progressive Congress and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — are often the most culpable of weaponising information. One of President Buhari’s social media aides recently posted a tweet quoting the non-existent ‘US Department of African Affairs’ (rather than Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs) to create a false story as to how the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar, had secured his visa to the US, given corruption charges that he faces in the country.
Equally, an aide to the PDP campaign was recently caught posting false information that “800 companies shut down” during President Buhari’s time in office, when in fact the story was first aired prior to 2015, when Goodluck Jonathan of the PDP was president.
These ongoing political disinformation campaigns are aimed at garnering more votes, dividing voters and suppressing opponents’ participation in the democratic process. For instance, the Buhari-is-Jubrin-from-Sudan rumour has been manipulated to target voters who were previously his supporters but who might be persuaded to choose differently this time.
Disinformation targeting voter suppression can be seen through the activities of the faceless Fulani Nationality Movement. The group is fuelling ethnic and religious mistrust with messages shared through WhatsApp calling on people to boycott the forthcoming election and instead to look forward to a time when Muslims will rule Nigeria.
The number of conflicting messages and disinformation shared about Nigeria’s elections seem to grow every day.
Considering the historical and deep-rooted divisions in parts of the country along the fault lines of religion and ethnicity, which have morphed into deadly conflict in several parts of the country, disinformation is a big concern as Nigerians head to the polls.
Idayat Hassan is the director of the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, a policy and advocacy think tank covering West Africa.