Experts and activists say political actors have expanded the scope of misinformation ahead of the 2023 general elections in Nigeria.
Lagos, Nigeria — Since last November, Felix Oyewole has watched an avalanche of political content descend on his social media newsfeed ahead of Nigeria’s forthcoming presidential and parliamentary election on February 25.
These days, the 23-year-old Lagos-based student is unsure of which posts are true and which are not.
Some of these posts have targeted Peter Obi, Labour Party’s presidential candidate. The surprise frontrunner has been accused of paying church groups to speak at their forums and tagged as part of the separatist group, Independent People of Biafra (IPOB). Another claim is that Rabiu Kwankwaso, presidential candidate of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP) does not have the academic doctorate he claims to have obtained, in addition to an honourary one.
“I think this trend is crazy,” Oyewole, a first-time voter told Al Jazeera. “Sometimes I just laugh really, they are desensitising people.”
Ahead of the vote, there has been an explosion of fake news across social media platforms. Divisive content on subjects like religion and ethnicity is also littered across social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and WhatsApp.
Experts say while social media allows Nigerians to share information in real time, political strategists are weaponising this ahead of the forthcoming polls.
Idayat Hassan, director of Abuja-based think tank the Centre for Democracy and Development [CDD], told Al Jazeera that misinformation and disinformation are “plaguing this election” as political actors encourage the spread because they see it as a means to an end.
“The real motive is either to delegitimise other candidates or to suppress and garner votes,” she said.
In January, a BBC report uncovered how Nigerian politicians secretly paid social media influencers as much as 20 million Nigerian naira ($43,000) or promised government contracts and political appointments to spread disinformation about opponents. Some of these influencers are also being recruited to “situation rooms” to monitor the spread of the fake news, the report added.
Nigeria’s electoral commission has also sounded the alarm about misinformation, as different political camps accuse it of bias towards opponents.
“Purveyors of fake news are not relenting in their malicious efforts to put the commission in a bad light,” Olusegun Agbaje, the Independent National Electoral Commission [INEC]’s resident commissioner in Lagos told the press in January.
Misinformation has never been far from Nigerian politics.
Ahead of the 2019 elections, rumours that President Muhammadu Buhari had died while on medical leave in the United Kingdom and had been replaced in Abuja by a body double from Sudan, spread nationwide.
But some say misinformation has reached new dimensions in the current electoral season as political actors expand their scope of manipulation and are more adept at creating messaging compared with previous elections.
Even “the media, who are supposed to give authentic information, have also fallen for misinformation and [had] to retract the information,” Veronica Igube, a legal and governance analyst at Lagos-based sociopolitical research firm SBM Intelligence, said.
Odanga Madung, senior researcher on elections at the Mozilla Foundation told Al Jazeera that the patterns are consistent with observations from Kenya’s 2022 election and trends across various democracies in Africa.
This has increased concerns that this could mislead unsuspecting voters, sow political apathy or worse still, lead to violence before, during and after the elections.
“The [misinformation] oftentimes affects the level at which people turn up to vote,” Madung said. “A majority of political campaigns are actually an effort at information control and many of them [politicians] recognise that the way in which voters interact with the information they put out, is what leads to them winning on the ballot table or not.”
More than half of Nigerians are unemployed but two-thirds of the population has access to the internet, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission, making cash-for-posts an alluring temptation.
But some young people, driven by a willingness to be part of a change in the political landscape, are also unwittingly helping peddle misinformation.
Indeed, half of the 93.5 million eligible voters are youths according to INEC, so “young people who want a change at all cost are ready to go at any length even if it involves peddling fake news,” said Hassan.
“People have also taken this to be a job, like a normal 9-5 job,” she added. “Altogether, it makes misinformation much more insidious.”
In October 2022, American billionaire Elon Musk completed the controversial takeover of Twitter. Experts say there has been a recognisable lag in the app’s ability to track misinformation.
“He has fired the majority of the people who are working on content moderation on the platform,” Madung said. “So … there is no local context by which they are going to begin fact-checking information on the platform.”
‘Misinformation is a pandemic’
To mitigate the damage being done by the deluge of fake news, activists and fact-checking groups are working to identify and debunk misinformation on social media platforms.
Olasupo Abideen, the founder of FactCheck Elections, an Ilorin-based nonprofit, told Al Jazeera that it has 50 trained volunteers working in “near-real time”, across Nigeria’s 36 states.
“Misinformation is a pandemic in itself and we are hard at work to make sure it does not mar the electoral process … we are of the belief that Nigeria is in a fragile state going into this election so we want to protect it,” he said.
Hassan’s CDD has run workshops for more than 400 journalists, bloggers, administrators and the electoral commission, to equip them with digital tools to combat misinformation – in Lagos, Gombe, Rivers, Kano, and Enugu states, as well as the capital, Abuja.
It has also launched a “social media war room” for fact-checking, reporting social media accounts notorious for the spread of “fake news” and monitoring the response of social media networks.
Meta, which owns the brands Facebook and WhatsApp, the most popular networks in Nigeria, has been criticised in the past for not doing enough to control the spread of misinformation.
WhatsApp, in particular, has become a hotspot for misinformation, especially among unsuspecting older citizens who rebroadcast messages to friends and family without verifying it.
Adaora Ikenze, Meta’s head of public policy for Anglophone West Africa said the company is collaborating with fact-checking partners and INEC to remove multimedia shared out of context which falsely depicts ballot stuffing, vote rigging and acts of violence.
Meta is also working to “make political ads more transparent” and launch an election operations centre to identify potential threats in real time, she told Al Jazeera.
“We know that no two country elections are the same, which is why we are taking action to ensure we’re responding appropriately to the specific threats in Nigeria. We continue to closely monitor the situation and will implement further measures as required,” she said.
But citizens say they are now increasingly wary of any content regardless and undecided voters say there is an increasing degree of hesitancy, only 10 days before the polls.
“It is really affecting my choice now because I was really sure of who I wanted to vote for but … I am confused now,” Oyewole said. “Hopefully, I will make a good choice before election day.”