With elections over in the United States and Brazil, eyes are turning toward misinformation in Nigeria.
In a survey published this week, nearly a third of Nigerians said they had shared a political news story online that turned out to be fake. Health rumors are widespread, varying from drinking saltwater to cure Ebola to misperceptions about the causes of disease. The BBC reported last month that misinformation on Facebook seems to have contributed to more than a dozen killings.
Misinformation has been plaguing Nigerians for months, but fact-checkers there say political hoaxes are getting worse — especially on WhatsApp.
“Politically related posts on WhatsApp most times have to do with ethnicity and some of them are in local languages, essentially accusing one candidate of saying something,” said Allwell Okpi, a Nigeria-based researcher and community manager for the fact-checking project Africa Check. “It’s a lot more than it used to be and of course the way it speeds is a lot faster than any other platform that we’ve seen.”
Among the false claims that Okpi has seen circulating include accusations about where politicians stand on the Fulani herdsmen, a semi-nomadic ethnic group that’s clashed with indigenous tribes and Christian farmers. Another rumor claimed that Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate of the opposition People's Democratic Party, could not enter the United States because of a corruption charge.
That was one-upped by a photoshopped image of Abubakar shaking Donald Trump’s hand.
Then there are more insidious hoaxes, like miscaptioned photos of dead soldiers that claimed to show the victims of a Boko Haram attack from last week. Africa Check discovered that a number of those photos were recycled from events that took place years ago, including one that actually showed a group of Kenyan troops who were killed by al-Shabaab in Somalia.
But the photos still made their way to the opposition, which publicly asked the president about them.
“That was totally the wrong photograph,” Okpi said. “Of course, the ruling party supporters have been pushing photos of airplanes releasing missiles and saying, ‘OK, the government has responded and bombarded the terrorists.’”
There’s just one problem: At least one of the photos Okpi analyzed was false, too. It showed a Russian jet fighting the Islamic State — not Nigerian military forces.
“We just see that supporters on both sides are trying to get whatever they can to push their point,” he said.
The spread of political misinformation ahead of the Nigerian election is in no way a new phenomenon. Peter Cunliffe-Jones, the executive director of Africa Check (and author of a book about Nigeria), said there’s a long history of inaccurate reporting and misinformation in the country that isn’t exclusive to social media platforms. But those platforms are being manipulated to stoke ethnic tensions ahead of the election.
“One of the big fears that people have is of election-related violence, and they are justified fears in many ways,” he said. “There is a long and terrible history of social violence in Nigeria, and I think that the sort of images and misleading videos and photos that are being circulated on social media — Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp and other platforms — have a very real effect.”
The BBC’s investigation is a good example of that. Cunliffe-Jones himself lived in and reported from Nigeria for years, and his conservative estimate put the number of deaths due to civil unrest at more than 20,000 over the course of four years.
He said that, while there needs to be more research on the connection between misinformation and violence, when you couple those tensions with the growth of bots, troll farms and the impersonation of politicians, it creates the perfect storm for unrest.
“There is clearly a serious risk that the way that social media can be manipulated in a country that has such a tragic record of social violence, it takes the levels of danger that you see of the undermining of faith in democracy in the West into a completely different sphere,” Cunliffe-Jones said. “These things are as serious as they are in the West or even more so.”
The growing concern over misinformation in Nigeria has elicited an influx in pre-election fact-checking, too.
On Wednesday, First Draft launched a collaborative verification project aimed at debunking misinformation ahead of the Nigerian election. The announcement comes on the heels of Comprova, a similar project that united 24 newsrooms from around Brazil to fact-check last month’s contentious election there.
“Our CrossCheck projects are designed to help the public understand not only what to trust, but also why,” said First Draft Managing Director Jenni Sargent in a press release sent to Poynter. “Followers of the CrossCheck Nigeria project will be shown the fact-checking and verification steps behind each report, and will also see the logos of all partner newsrooms that have taken part in each investigation.”
Under CrossCheck Nigeria, which is a partnership between First Draft and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, 16 Nigerian media organizations — including Africa Check — will be trained on how and work together to debunk misinformation that’s spreading online ahead of the election. Of key importance to them is WhatsApp — the most popular messaging app in Nigeria and a primary vehicle for the spread of rumors and hoaxes.
According to a press release sent to Poynter, CrossCheck Nigeria will use the WhatsApp Business API to surface and debunk misinformation on the messaging platform, whose encryption makes it nearly impossible to tell what’s going viral where. That technology, which First Draft outlined in a Medium post on Thursday, debuted during Comprova. It lets journalists answer reader questions on third-party platforms so that they don’t have to use one phone.
Beyond WhatsApp, fact-checkers are also making headway in debunking misinformation on Facebook.
In October, Africa Check’s offices in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria joined the tech company’s fact-checking partnership, which has enabled the outlet to debunk false news stories, photos and videos on the platform. In turn, their future reach in News Feed is decreased. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)
But Facebook’s inclusion of Africa Check in the program only four months before the Nigerian election could be too little, too late.
“I do think it is regrettable that the parts of the world, Africa included, where the problems that can be caused by social media manipulation are gravest were among the last to receive responses from Facebook,” Cunliffe-Jones said. “It’s the responsibility for all platforms to look at the impact of the work that they do, and I think that Africa cannot be the last place that they turn to to tackle the problems — they need to come here first.”