Beware the fake news soldiers




The number of Nigerians using social media is growing fast, thanks to affordable Chinese smartphones and the low cost of services such as WhatsApp and Facebook’s “free basic” version.

WhatsApp is especially popular: Nigeria has the highest number of people using it in Africa. A report released in January by Hootsuite, a social media management company, shows 85% of the 24-million Nigerians with active social media accounts use WhatsApp, just ahead of the 78% who use Facebook. Even though Twitter is growing in popularity, only 30% of social media users are on the platform. Instagram, though popular among women in particular, is lower still at just 7.4%.

The amount of information Nigerians receive, upload and share on social media platforms daily is more voluminous than the contents of the average university library in the country. Work done by a team of researchers from Nnamdi Azikiwe University shows that the average Nigerian youth spends about three to five hours a day on screen.

As the social media industry has grown, so has the disinformation industry: false news, misinformation, alternative facts and plain lies are shared across social media every day in Nigeria, with many so-called social media influencers exploiting poor digital literacy for personal or political gain. Fact-checking has become a Herculean task; the limited number of fact-checkers cannot respond and counter all the false information that is shared widely.

Messaging applications such as WhatsApp have become “propaganda secretariats” where disinformation is planned, created and released for public consumption to portray certain narratives. Old pictures, fake news and sensational headlines get forwarded to groups and reverberate in echo chambers. Alleged news sites focus on attracting more visitors rather than on the credibility of their content.

This disturbing trend has had a noticeable effect on Nigerian politics.

The 2019 general election showed how social media was used to both positive and negative effect. While fact-checkers were busy countering fake news that could have caused confusion and led to violence, disinformation entrepreneurs were spreading false news that questioned the integrity of the Independent National Electoral Commission and further increased tensions between political opponents.

In November this year, Nigeria will elect a governor in Kogi state. Expect more disinformation on social media. Kogi, a multi-ethnic state with a history of electoral violence, is already showing signs that the fake news ecosystem, which applied to national politics earlier this year, is set to continue at semi-formal and informal levels. Politicians in the state are already employing influencers to help them spread false information online.

Initial research done by Nigeria’s Centre for Democracy and Develop-ment suggests that some politicians are using pseudo and sometimes real accounts to participate in the disinformation business.

For the most part the disinformation work is being done by the Data Boys/Girls — a group of social media influencers run by politicians from the ruling All Progressive Party and who are paid between 50 000 and 100 000 naira ($140 to $280) a month to spread false news and propaganda — and the less well-organised and financially supported Shekpe Boys (a Yoruba slur that translates as “beer boys”), who are aligned to the opposition People’s Democratic Party.

Politicians in the state understand the importance of having fake news peddlers and disinformation soldiers on-side. As one politician put it: “One must have his own data or Shekpe Boys if he is not ready to face a similar fate as the woman candidate [Natasha Akpoti] who suffered gender-based hate speech and fake news that led to her eventual loss of [a] senatorial seat.” Akpoti was viciously attacked online during the February National Assembly election, a factor which some analysts argue resulted in the reduction of political participation by women.

We are in the disinformation age in which Facebook posts, WhatsApp statuses and tweets that appeal to emotions are shared without checking the veracity of their claims. In multi-ethnic and multi-religious Nigeria this can be dangerous.

Although there is no quick remedy for the disinformation illness, and the proxy war on Nigeria’s democracy is set to continue during upcoming sub-national votes, steps can be taken to address this disease.

The tech companies that have control over what can be shared on their platforms should work to improve artificial intelligence capacity to better track fake news and to come up with ways to make fact-checking easier. Platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram should also have a button that can be clicked to show the first source of an image or video. Digital literacy training across all age groups and the inclusion of critical thinking as part of Nigeria’s school curriculum will help the country move toward a digital environment where everyone is cognisant of the need to consider the source, read beyond the headlines, check the author, find supporting sources, check the date of publication and ensure it is not satire before declaring it true.

Aliyu Dahiru Aliyu is a programme officer at the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, Nigeria

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Aliyu Dahiru Aliyu
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