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Nigeria 2023 election: Countering fake news

Chrispin Mwakideu | Uta Steinwehr
February 10, 2023

Nigerian voters will be going to the polls on February 25 to elect a new president. As the campaign heats up, fact checkers are warning that fake news could affect the poll and damage Nigeria's democracy.

upporters sit beside a banner of presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu during the party campaign rally at Teslim Balogun Stadium in Lagos, on November 26, 2022.
Who two vote for? On February 25 Nigerians will elect their next presidentImage: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

"In the 2015 elections, people knew that election-related disinformation was a problem. In 2019, it became a concern. By 2023, it is existential." This is the blunt assessment of the current situation by David Ajikobi, Nigeria editor at AfricaCheck, Africa's biggest fact-checking organization. In the past weeks and months, Ajikobi has looked at claims by politicians, trained journalists in debunking fake news and tried to make the Nigerian public aware of the potential dangers. 

He describes the disinformation cycle that he has witnessed ahead of the presidential and parliamentary election in Africa's most populous country and the continent's biggest economy as "worrisome." 

That's backed up by Idayat Hassan, Director of the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD). "This election is run against the background of disinformation as a tactic for the actors to win. For instance, we are seeing them instrumentalize disinformation to entrench preexisting social cleavages around ethnicity and religion in the 2023 election campaign." 

A person holds a bunch of permanent voter cards
The permanent voter cards store biometric data and are vital to be able to vote on election dayImage: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP

The CDD runs its own Election Analysis Center. One of its tasks is to monitor the social media ecosystem to ensure that the election is not undermined by people spreading disinformation. Beyond that, it monitors and analyses the entire election process. The CDD has enlisted more than 1,600 analysts for the election.

The meaning of religion, ethnicity, and origin

In Nigeria, elections are not only about politics. Religion, ethnicity, and origin all play an important role and are mirrored in voters' preferences. And this is reflected in the kind of disinformation that is spread, as the two following examples show.

In one case, presidential candidate Peter Obi, a Christian, is shown  cropped into a picture in which he appears to be drinking alcohol. This could be an attempt to tarnish his reputation among Muslim voters, as alcohol is prohibited in Islam.

And there are posts that claim that trucks full of cash were allegedly seized outside candidate Bola Tinubu's house on their way to a bank to make him look suspicious. Three photos were used to allegedly prove the incident, but they date back to 2022, 2020, or even 2014, as a reverse image search shows. More importantly: These posts were shared in the Hausa language, which is more commonly used among the target group of the third main contestant, Atiku Abubakar.

A screen shot of a Facebook post with three photos labelled as false.
These photos are old and do not show trucks with cash that have been allegedly seized outside a candidate's houseImage: Facebook/Vanguard Hausa

Even though such claims are quickly debunked, they have been seen, commented on, and shared thousands of times. 

Altered images, manipulated audio or video files, and media used in wrong contexts are popular tools to influence public opinion or just gain money through clicks. 

Attacks on the electoral body

"This disinformation is being used to delegitimize institutions and candidates, thereby challenging their legitimacy in the eyes of people," Idayat Hassan says. One of the most targeted institutions, she says, is the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). 

"It drives people away from saying, 'let me go and vote,'" concurs Tonye Bakare, a Lagos-based fact-checker for the news agency AFP. He has been focusing on the presidential elections over the past seven months.

People stand in an office that has been destroyed during an attack
The offices of Nigeria's electoral body INEC have repeatedly been targeted by attackersImage: INEC/AP/picture alliance

The INEC has expressed concerns that the spread of fake news and hate speech is a threat to the election. In the past weeks and months, there have repeatedly been attacks on INEC's offices across the country. Election-related material such as ballot boxes or uncollected voter cards have been destroyed in arson attacks, and some people were killed.  

The CDD's concerns go beyond election day: "The use of disinformation can potentially foster insecurity and violence post-election, because on the day of elections, when fake results come up — which of course is building on narratives that are already preexisting in this preelection period — people can take up arms to protest," Idayat Hassan says. 

Parties playing the blame game

Political parties and contestants have been blaming each other for spreading fake news. According to a BBC investigation, political parties in Nigeria secretly pay social media influencers to spread disinformation about their opponents. 

In 2015, the British analyst firm Cambridge Analytica which played a role in influencing the outcome of the Brexit vote and was involved in Donald Trump's US presidential campaign in 2016, was hired to run a campaign against the then-opposition candidate and now-outgoing President, Muhammadu Buhari. 

Against this backdrop, election observers and fact-checkers wouldn't be surprised to see coordinated efforts to spread disinformation in the run-up to the election.

What's being done to counter disinformation?

Under Nigeria's Cybercrime Act, it is an offense to spread disinformation. Such a crime is punishable by up to three years in prison, a fine of about 7 million Naira ($15,000, €13,800), or both. 

A person holds a camera in front of another person's face
The electoral body held mock exercices to test the voter accreditation system that's being used for the first time in a general electionImage: BENSON IBEABUCHI/AFP

Information Minister Lai Mohammed recently asked tech giants Google and Meta, home to the social networks Facebook, Instagram, and the messaging app Whatsapp, to control the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

However, Tonye Bakare is not convinced that politicians are genuinely interested in fighting the spread of fake news. 

"I have not seen a case where a political party in this country has actively campaigned against disinformation," he says. "Maybe it exists somewhere, but I've not seen it. […] They scream 'fake news' when it affects them negatively. But if they are benefiting, they're not going to say anything."

How to tackle fake news

Election observers expect another spike in disinformation in the final days before the election and have shared some tips on how to counter its negative effects.

"Prompt and responsive information sharing by government agencies. From the independent electoral commission to the security agencies to the Ministry of Information," recommends Idayat Hassan from CDD. "Authentic information has to be promptly shared with Nigerians to actually build peace and to build trust in the process."

The fact checkers highlight everyone's ability to be a fact checker themselves. "First and foremost: Pause," says David Ajikobi. "The second step is: Remember that everybody who is pushing any piece of information has an agenda." Very often, those who spread misinformation are trying to confirm people's preexisting biases or prejudices, he adds.

"It is your bias that will make you spread false information. If you are able to be objective, I think you have won 50% of the fights," says Tonye Bakare. 

Both underline the importance of checking the source. Who sent the information? Is the original source clear? With a quick reverse image search, people could find out if a picture has been published previously. And finally: If you are in doubt, don't share the content.

The stakes for Nigeria and its democracy are high. "If you want to win an election, you have to win clean," Tonye Bakare says. "Unfortunately," he adds, "I am an idealist."

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

For more details on how to spot fake news and manipulated images, have a look at explanations by DW's fact-checking team and the video below.

Fact check: How do I spot manipulated images?