Disinformation, which differs from misinformation in its deliberate intent to mislead, has always been a feature of life in Nigeria. Writing in 2009, journalist Sola Odunfa noted that “there is only one industry I know in Nigeria which is completely immune to the vagaries of the national economy and the well-oiled machine of the government security and intelligence services. It is big, it is strong, it never sleeps, and it is unimaginably creative—but it is invisible. I am talking of the Nigerian rumor mill…It is so powerful that it has permeated the conventional media. Many newspapers and magazines publish products of the rumor mill as authentic news.”“Both falsehoods and accurate information can now spread faster and in a multitude of formats, including text, audio, images, memes, and videos.”
But in 2020, what is new is the speed at which content can be shared among Nigeria’s growing number of social media and internet users. According to the National Communications Commission, by the end of 2019, 125.7 million Nigerians were online, an increase of over 20 million since 2017. At the start of 2020 the country had 27 million active social media users with many more having access through shared phones. The exponential growth in the use and availability of mobile phones with internet access, as well as the sheer amount of information accessible in the age of digital media, has made the task of filtering out false information far more difficult. Both falsehoods and accurate information can now spread faster and in a multitude of formats, including text, audio, images, memes, and videos.
But, while disinformation campaigns may start on social media platforms, they penetrate offline spaces too, influencing the outputs and programs of conventional media and shaping the well-established word-of-mouth rumor mill. The way online disinformation interacts with, and builds on, the society in which it is being used is one of the key findings of a recent report conducted by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD). Based on this report’s research, this essay examines how Nigeria’s political and ethno-religious landscape, challenged by insecurity, provides fertile ground for the spread of disinformation and how social media has only furthered this spread by providing new, fast-moving arenas for confirming and amplifying such false information.
An influential presence“In Nigeria, as elsewhere in West Africa, it is increasingly difficult to draw a distinct line between content that is shared on social media and information reported or broadcast by print media, radio, and television.”
In providing a platform for people to broadcast anything, social media is gradually eroding the traditional gatekeeping and norm-preserving role of established media. In Nigeria, as elsewhere in West Africa, it is increasingly difficult to draw a distinct line between content that is shared on social media and information reported or broadcast by print media, radio, and television. That is not to say that the Nigerian media houses are simply lifting content from social media and printing it word for word (though in some cases they do). Rather that, because of the speed at which information travels and the way in which content can be created and shared at the community level, social media is increasingly used as a source of content to be investigated further. It provides a quick way to gauge the popular pulse on an issue and to understand questions citizens are asking. But this reality also opens the possibility of online disinformation reaching a new, wider audience.
A television presenter from Lagos interviewed for the CDD study admitted that “every time I have live interviews, I go on social media platforms to feel the pulse of the people, to know what they are saying and what they are thinking. And my questions [to panelists] would always be around the questions I found people asking on social media.” But if those questions or comments are informed by disinformation, this approach can have the effect of broadcasting unverified rumors to a wide audience, many of whom look to television and radio as a trusted source of information. A 2018 study by Afrobarometer found that radio remains the key source of information for Nigerians, with 44 percent of respondents listening every day. Meanwhile, 22 percent of respondents check social media daily for news updates, slightly less than the 23 percent who use television, but far more than the 5 percent who use newspapers.
In some cases, political parties deliberately push online rumors into conventional media forums. Political consultants, known in northern Nigeria as Sojojin Baci (“soldiers of the mouth”), often participate in television debates and radio phone-ins, intentionally using the platform to further spread false information already circulating on social media that makes their political godfathers look good, discredits their opponents, or makes unsubstantiated allegations against them.
A security risk
Disinformation on social media has become such a problem in Nigeria that it has begun to threaten national security by aggravating existing social divisions and amplifying extreme views. The volume of disinformation now circulating in Nigeria is unprecedented, and has further exacerbated pre-existing ethnic and religious tensions that predate the internet. In 2019, a video that circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp showed Hausa farmers sprinkling insecticide on their beans before they were transported to the southeast of the country. The purpose of this was to preserve the produce from pests such as weevils during the long journey. However, interpretations and voice-overs of the video emerged that drew on longstanding tensions between members of the Hausa and Igbo ethnic groups, claiming that the farmers were sprinkling poison, not insecticide. “The average person who doesn’t bother to ask critical questions or even verify the news would believe this version of the story and share it with others who are also likely to believe and before you know it, there can be a clash between Hausa and Igbos” was how one research respondent saw the potential impact.
In Nigeria, the likelihood for this sort of interethnic strife driven, in part, by disinformation, varies on a state-by-state basis. Local dynamics are key to understanding the disinformation cycle and its effects. In Kogi state, pre-existing political tensions between the three major ethnic groups—Igala, Egbira, and Okun—were exacerbated by disinformation shared online, especially in the run-up to the November 2019 gubernatorial vote.“Nigeria’s security agencies are…largely absent from online platforms, creating a counterinformation vacuum that benefits extremist groups.”
The opening up of online space has coarsened political dialogue, facilitated the proliferation of false and fabricated news, and made it easier for extreme and marginal figures to mobilize followers and stoke insecurity. Groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province, and the Indigenous People of Biafra are all active on social media, using it to attack opponents and recruit followers, with the latter group even using automated bots to amplify their online voice and demands. Nigeria’s security agencies are, meanwhile, largely absent from online platforms, creating a counterinformation vacuum that benefits extremist groups. This problem has been further exacerbated by the government closing down critical media and civil society voices last year in the northeast.
There are three main types of regulation at play in combatting disinformation, but so far each of these has faced limitations or drawbacks. Intervention by the state has risked limiting essential freedoms, independent bodies face accusations of bias, and self-regulation of content by social media platforms and their users has proven insufficient to stem the flow of disinformation. Those who see state regulation as a key part of curbing disinformation online recognize the need to find a way of doing so without clamping down on vocal citizens who are merely enjoying their freedom of expression guaranteed by Section 39 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution. The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill currently before the Nigerian Senate remains problematic. Provisions in the bill would allow the Nigerian government to unilaterally shut down social media and even the internet for posts they deem a risk to public safety or national security. In short, the proposed legislation places excessive amounts of power in the hands of government and security agencies. When it comes to legislation and regulation of online disinformation, Nigeria would be better served by ensuring the application of sections of Nigeria’s criminal code or provisions in the 2015 Cybercrimes Act. It can also do more to ensure that Data Protection regulations, established in 2019, are further strengthen and enforced.
Even if the power to shut down online spaces were to be handed over to an independent body comprised of actors like the Nigeria Communications Commission, independent experts, justice department representatives, and academics, it too would struggle to escape accusations of bias. In much the same way that the independence of the Independent National Election Commission is increasingly questioned by politicians on both sides, a similar social media regulatory body would struggle to be immune from accusations of favoring a political side or certain ethnic groups, whether those accusations were true or not.“Twitter and Facebook do not have sufficient capacity to assess content in local languages, such as Igala or Kanuri.”
In addition, social media platforms are stepping up their self-regulation efforts, but engagement and dialogue with African governments and efforts to raise citizen awareness about “fake news” in partnership with civil society, have primarily centered around elections. And despite these efforts, many users are still unaware of how to report other users or content on these platforms. Furthermore, Twitter and Facebook do not have sufficient capacity to assess content in local languages, such as Igala or Kanuri. Even when they do have such capacity for languages like Hausa, the number of people responsible for monitoring content is unable to keep up with the volume of content, and abuse, taking place online. This reflects a growing, but still limited focus on Africa by social media companies.
Reasons for optimism
While disinformation’s growing influence is a concern, social media platforms can, at the same time, provide avenues for the sharing of information that improves transparency, engages with those in authority, and ultimately holds them to account in ways that were not previously possible. The challenge is to find ways in which these more positive elements can be enhanced to address the threat posed by digital disinformation.
Social media provides real-time interaction between government and the governed, allowing for effective checks on state activities. In Ekuri, Cross River State, a successful social media campaign was able to stop the devastation of a forest. Efforts to stop the destruction were already underway before the online campaign began, but the platform and audience provided by social media was instrumental in raising wider awareness and ultimately checking the plans of the government. Other campaigns that have been able to draw on a strong digital presence to amplify or compliment pre-existing offline campaigns include #EndSARS, #NotTooYoungToRun, #BringBackOurGirls, and #FollowTheMoney.“The difficulty in establishing trusted arbiters of accurate information is one of the biggest challenges for countering disinformation.”
Despite their positive contribution to political and social engagement, social media remains a source of disinformation. The difficulty in establishing trusted arbiters of accurate information is one of the biggest challenges for countering disinformation. But this also points to an entry point. Engaging key influencers can have short-term gains that will be complemented by wider education of citizens in the long-term. There is growing evidence that older generations of Nigerians are the most avid sharers of misinformation and disinformation in Nigeria.
Disinformation, just as rumors always have been, will be part and parcel of life in Nigeria moving forward. As is the case across the globe, “a lot depends on what we already want to believe,” noted one respondent interviewed for this research in Kogi State, “if it falls in line with what people want to believe, they will gladly share, whether it is fake or fact. If the people already have their mind made up, they will never be convinced, even if you are saying the truth.”