A frontline pro-democracy think tank, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), has published yet another report that exposes the tactics of disinformation specialists and politicians in the buildup to the Nigerian general elections. The report, titled, “Online Operations: Nigeria’s 2023 Social Media Election Campaigns” and signed by CDD’s director, Idayat Hassan, x-rays the newly invented tricks employed by the political actors and their supporters to misinform Nigerians.
The CDD report identified the actors behind the growing disinformation, who include presidential campaign spokespersons, candidates of political parties, paid influencers and overzealous supporters.
The report also established that all the main political parties in the country were culprits at different times.
“An analysis of breaches of the Peace Accord moderated by the National Peace Committee revealed more than 63 per cent of the infractions were on social media. But it is not just party activists that are more directly involved, parties are again using networks of aligned supporters to win the ‘online war,” the report said.
It recalled that during the 2019 elections, there were fewer social media support groups compared to the 2023 elections where online groups and influencers had doubled to only compound the web and tactics of disinformation.
Brisk business for influencers
The CDD found out that the growing disinformation ecosystem had somehow created “lucrative” opportunities, particularly for youths, as some of them earned up to N500,000 (US$1200) a month for spreading propaganda and disinformation for their political candidates and paymasters ahead of the general elections.
To perpetuate these acts of misinformation, the CDD report found out that the influencers have added new platforms such as TikTok and Telegram to the array of social media channels they employed ahead of the general elections.
“Despite a relatively small direct user base, TikTok has emerged as one of the most important platforms in the run-up to the 2023 elections, given its ability to catch the attention span of people in just a few seconds, particularly youth; the way it facilitates promotion and rebuttal in an engaging way; and how easily content can be downloaded or shared across other platforms.
“TikTok content also reaches individuals without an account through cross-posting, meaning that it can reach Nigerians with limited literacy when it comes to written text. It is much cheaper to send out jingles on TikTok, which previously had to be placed on radio and TV channels, and with phone sharing and cross-platform posting, the audience reach can still be significant,” it said.
Meanwhile, the advent of the two platforms does not rule out the huge roles still played by older social media, WhatsApp and Facebook; it has only broadened the avenues through which disinformation flowed, the report further stated.
“Twitter Spaces, in particular, are a much-used feature in Nigeria’s electoral politics. All political parties are organising almost daily discussions, hosted by hired social media influencers or party activists, in which efforts are made to delegitimise opponents, boost the profile of their own candidate and galvanise supporters and would-be voters to cast a ballot.
“Finally, WhatsApp remains utilised to coordinate election organisations, circulate audio and visuals, and has the largest reach in terms of direct numbers of users. Voice notes remain critical, especially in local languages, with content regularly played and replayed to an audience that has no direct online access.
“Other closed network platforms like Telegram are also increasingly influential. One account, that remains anonymous, but that has over 400,000 subscribers regularly shares information on election candidates, some of which is false,” the report added.
Automation as a misinformation tool
Another clever way the propagandists and party supporters spread disinformation, using fabricated content, is through automation, according to CDD.
Automation includes pre-agreed hashtags and doctored logos of established media organisations to trend misinformation and confuse the Nigerian populace.
It has been discovered that the manipulation of hashtags “is used to boost the profile of a politician, for example, or to sell their agenda.”
“Another aspect of hashtag manipulation in this election is the strategy of flooding hashtags to drown out opposing voices by posting irrelevant content online under the same hashtag. While being used to bolster support or drive conversation, trends are also utilised as a tool to shut down voices online,” the report stated.
According to CDD’s research, videos are key to the spread of disinformation in the current elections, and pictures are the content most manipulated.
Alongside videos, the circulation and distortion of old photographs to spread disinformation is also a rampant phenomenon ahead of the general elections.
The report cited an example of a picture of the APC vice-presidential candidate, Kashim Shettima, eating with “members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
“A fact-check eventually revealed that while Shettima was indeed sitting and having a meal with people, they were not Boko Haram members but nomadic Fulani parents whose children he had enrolled in secular schools in 2017,” the CDD report said.
“With the APC running a controversial Muslim-Muslim ticket, this falsehood appears to have been designed to appeal to, and prey on the fears of Christian voters,” it added.
Doctored logos on the rise
Not done, the disinformation ‘medallists’ have also perfected the art of using doctored logos of reputable media organisations to gain credibility for their inaccurate reporting.
“Related to this is the proliferation of blogs funded or operated by political parties and their activists. Some of these sites even produce partisan “fact checks” that favour their candidate to further muddy the water.
“Sites include Reportera, Podium Reporters, The Link and Lagos Today. These are made more believable by the fact that conventional media has been sharing video content and advertisements from candidates and parties that violate the Broadcast Code of Nigeria and the Peace Accord,” the report noted.
It was also revealed that with the vicious instruments of distorted photographs and videos, the disinformation perpetrators do not spare even the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as the culprits smear institutions and challenge their legitimacy in the eyes of the Nigerian citizens.
The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) social media war room investigated an image circulating on social media of a child who had a voter card showing him to be a 31-year-old.
After an investigation, although the voter card is real, forensic analysis of the image using image and video verification tools reveals the image of the boy was manipulated.
Manipulation of history
According to the CDD, as part of the avenues to pull down their political opponents and parties, the disinformation online warriors have also resorted to the manipulation of history to appeal to the emotions of Nigerians to reject particular candidates.
“A prominent example involves the late Sardauna of Sokoto, former premier of the Northern region, who was killed during the January 1966 coup.
“Because most of the senior officers involved in that coup were Igbo from the South East, video has been sent with accompanying messaging to dissuade northern voters from supporting a candidate from the same zone whose officers killed the beloved premier,” the report said.
Impact on the 2023 election
Apart from identifying the channels and instruments of disinformation ahead of the general elections, the CDD examined the impact of such a sorry situation on the elections itself.
It identified the possibility of disinformation worsening insecurity and triggering post-election violence as well as encouraging political apathy among the populace.
The CDD report also weighed in on the responses from government actors, institutions, civil societies and bodies to the growing menace of disinformation ahead of the general elections.
The report highlighted the establishment of the Nigerian Fact Checking Coalition in September 2022, which enabled 12 Nigerian media and civil society platforms “to jointly investigate, author and disseminate fact checks, widening their reach.”
Touching on the 2022 Electoral Act, the CDD report lamented that despite the electoral law prohibiting the use of intemperate, abusive and slanderous languages, the law had not been enforced thoroughly as it should.
“On the accountability front, under provisions laid out in the CyberCrime Act of 2015, it is an offence to spread fake news and this is punishable by imprisonment of three years or fine of N7 million or both.
“Furthermore, the 2022 Electoral Act prohibits the use of intemperate, abusive and slanderous languages during campaigns, sentiments further complemented by the provisions of the National Peace Accord, midwived by the National Peace Committee (NPC), which requires signatories to commit to the non-usage of fake news and intemperate language during the 2023 campaigns.
“However, its provisions have been observed more in the breach than compliance. The NPC found a total of 67 breaches of the Accord that centered on the misuse of social media, but it has little enforcement capacity to seek accountability in these instances,” the report stated.
The CDD report suggested that to check disinformation, it was important to have “collaborative and multi-stakeholder approaches, while at the same time strengthening more positive elements of social media to weaken the threat posed by digital disinformation.”
It also advocated for technical support to government agencies on how to engage on social media platforms and manage proactive and strategic communication across both offline and online channels to reduce disinformation.
“Social media companies also need to be more accountable in offering a more robust proactive regulatory role in moderating content, particularly in local languages. This should be the focus not just of social media companies but also civil society groups and media outlets who can work to educate their audience through fact-checking and civic education,” the report said.