A month into Nigeria’s Twitter ban, fact-checkers aren’t seeing a feared drop off in the size of their audience, but are seeing restrictions on the reach of some of their content.
Kemi Busari, editor of the Nigerian fact-checking outlet Dubawa, said he was initially worried the Twitter ban would limit Dubawa’s impact by decreasing traffic to its website and fact checks. Of the big three social media platforms — Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — Dubawa has its largest following on Twitter.
“At editorial meetings we sometimes take statistics of the analytics, and sometimes Twitter was the largest source of readership for our website,” Busari said. “So I can imagine not putting out our tweets would do a lot of damage to the spread of false information on the platform.”
However, Dubawa’s audience engagement officer Lateef Sanni said traffic from Facebook has been able to pick up the slack.
“We still share our content on Facebook and other channels and are spending more on ads. We have also doubled our efforts on producing video fact checks as they are easily accessible,” Sanni said. He noted the ads on Facebook, in particular, have helped increase Dubawa’s audience to make up for the loss from Twitter.
Sanni said one of the biggest impacts for fact-checkers has been the limitations on Dubawa’s ability to interact with its audience on Twitter. He recounted his practice of dropping links to Dubawa’s fact checks on the Twitter threads spreading the original falsehoods, hoping to increase the fact check’s reach.
“I feel like if a number of people have seen a claim, that same number of people should be able to see the fact check that I’m sharing,” Sanni said. “I have not been able to do this, because currently we use HootSuite to tweet, and we can (only) tweet directly.”
The Nigerian government began blocking Twitter on June 4, citing what it called “the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.” The ban came two days after the platform deleted a tweet from Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari’s that threatened violence against groups attacking government buildings in the country’s southeastern regions.
Busari noted that Twitter has been a major source of breaking news for Nigerians as well as a potent way to affect political change in the country.
“If something breaks in Nigeria now, you will see it on Twitter before it even gets to some mainstream media,” Busari said.
The Nigerian government has viewed the platform as more of a nuisance, blaming it for spreading harmful misinformation leading to offline violence.
The platform played a major role in the October 2020 #EndSARS protest that called for the disbanding of a controversial police unit tied to cases of targeted harassment, excessive force and extortion of Nigerians. The government announced on Oct. 11 it would disband the unit in response to the protest, but the protests continued for several days and culminated in the Nigerian army gunning down some protesters at the Lekki toll gate.
“One of the allusions the government is making is that the #EndSARS protest and a couple of other hijacked protests where some government properties were destroyed, that it was the access to Twitter allowed for that to manifest,” Busari said. “I think those could be said to be the initial reasons (for the ban), and then the immediate reason is the deletion of the president’s tweet.”
Dubawa moved early on to help Nigerians get back on Twitter by using a virtual private network, or VPN. This technology enables users to hide their location, making it easier to circumvent blocks preventing Nigerian internet users from accessing Twitter. Sanni said these articles were major sources of traffic for Dubawa but that engagement on the platform has dropped over fears the government would prosecute those still using Twitter.
“To the best of my knowledge, no one has been prosecuted and Nigerians are still on Twitter, although we can’t deny the decline in users,” Sanni said.