An increasing appreciation for the challenge of ‘fake news’ has led to more investment in fact-checking. But, in a very contentious election, this could be the difference between a peaceful transfer of power or violent post-election scenario.
The 2023 general elections are already being keenly contested, but information is fast becoming the most fraught battleground. Through different platforms, people share propaganda as videos, made-up quotes, and as fabricated articles made to look authentic in an attempt to push a hidden agenda. While the problem is not new, the current phase is particularly challenging, given the scope of the manipulation. This strategy of deliberately spreading inaccurate information and rumours is now a commonplace in Nigerian politics and given our historical religious and ethnic fault lines, it further aggravates tensions in our fragile polity
THE INFORMATION DISORDER SECTOR IN NIGERIA
At the heart of these political conversations is the war on information. Historically, this ‘war’ was strictly within the ambit of media and news companies, which jostled for how to stand out in reporting the same facts. This has since evolved to reflect the importance with which everyday humans interact with information as a concept. Entertainment groups utilize such information to determine which productions are likely to be more receptive, and thus more profitable. Brands use this information to create campaigns and ensure better reach and visibility. In politics, parties and politicians alike have used information wars to craft their narratives and galvanize their bases with the best example being Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign for the presidency in 2016, and his decision to use ‘fake news’ to define his war on mainstream media.
Researchers use the term ‘information disorder’ to cover this broadly, it is further divided into misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. These concepts are integral to understanding media manipulation as the core arguments revolve not only around the information and its use, but also what this information is used for.
While misinformation is the spread of false information unintentionally, disinformation is anchored on the active intent to use the spread of false information for harmful purposes – often against an opposing group. Malinformation—less common but no less potent, focuses on using often exaggerated facts to mislead and potentially cause harm. All three concepts are prevalent in the current political landscape and can be linked to activities around voter’s participation.
The spike in information disorder could see increasingly inhibited and informed decisions on issues affecting the standard and quality of living, including whether or not citizens participate in democracy. In 2018, some images of attacks between different ethnic groups went viral in Plateau State. This spurred some citizens to engage in reprisal attacks, which claimed the lives of dozens. Checks by the BBC .later revealed that the images had nothing to do with the violence in the state at the time, and had simply been weaponized to cause this unfortunate outcome – an example of the potency of mal-information. to cause this unfortunate outcome – an example of the potency of mal-information.
Ahead of the 2023 general elections, the capacity for this manipulation to grow even further should be cause for concern to the political instability surrounding the country’s major parties, the extent of how much misinformation heightens tension during election cycles has not even been met. These issues become mainstream to the masses, trickling into public discourse and further undermines our democracy.
In more advanced democracies, conversations are held about the dangers of information disorder and concerted efforts are made to curb it. In Nigeria, however, these conversations are just emerging. The pace with which it is incorporated into our working culture will likely play a part in either making or marring the 2023 elections.
FACT-CHECKING: THE LAST LINE OF DEFENCE
The best way to combat information disorder is to ensure the facts that are widely disseminated are accurate. Fact-checkers in Nigeria have recently set out on an ambitious task: ‘to fix the truth’. The danger is even more apparent, now more than ever.
Mistrust in the system also extends to the government, which is perhaps why attempts by legislators to address this issue have often been met with suspicion over ulterior motives. In 2019, Nigerian legislators sought to pass the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill would have allowed government to curb the spread of falsehood and fake newsbill was met with criticism with many faulting several of its clauses for a perceived hindrance to free speech. The bill has since been abandoned.
Likewise the media have also become victims of the increasing polarization in the information space. According to a 2019 research paper, African media consumers are exposed to ‘fake news’ on a regular basis, with many raising concern about its prevalence. Over a third of users surveyed from Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa said they periodically shared false stories. This study underscores why social media has evolved from a way for people to communicate to a means for information.
A 2021 Afrobarometer survey of internet users across 18 countries showed that many people believed that social media informed users about politics and helped them have political impact. A majority of the respondents also makes people less tolerant and more likely to believe fake news. It poses a problem and means extra work for fact-checkers.
Phillips Anjorin, a fact-checker with DUBAWA, said that the abuse of information has become so numerous that users consume one set of rumours after the other, with little time for them to verify. According to Anjorin: ‘Unverified claims fly around social media, as expected. We have to monitor every social media trend and factcheck every claim because we know that negligence is scary, if not tackled early.’
With Nigeria’s election campaigns in full swing ahead of February’s vote, fact-checkers like Anjorin are saying that everyone needs to be properly informed, especially in an election period that ‘its outcome can affect millions of lives for a long period of time.’
Misinformation, in such [Elections] moments, can make electoral stakeholders decide wrongfully and, in the end, the wrong candidate is chosen for such a position and the ripple effect can set the affected communities back by several miles. As much as we want to devalue opposition and promote our candidate, we need to consider the adverse effects that misinformation brings long-term, and it will reach our doorsteps someday.
Olasupo Abideen, the executive director of Factcheck Elections, noted that the fact-checking platform was created as a form of dedication to verifying and debunking of fake news relating to electoral activities in Nigeria using modern tools. Launched , the platform has been checking manifestos, claims made during debates and monitors election results.
Disinformation campaigns have a long history of tactics used to decimate citizens’ trust in the democratic processes. For instance, in the lead up to the 2019 elections, a report from Premium Times revealed how politicians and their supporters use fake news as campaign strategy. In the past as well, there have also been instances of how social media posts were used to disseminate incorrect information that have prevented voters from participating in elections. These campaigns are run for a variety of purposes including, garnering more votes or suppressing votes for one’s rivals.
Beyond social media, these conversations makes it easier for an individual to pick harmful behaviour and stoke enmity along already strained ethno-religious lines.
Abideen opined that the availability of sophisticated technology to stop this interference from having significant impact is important to deal with the problem.
In September 2022, the Nigerian fact-checkers coalition appealed to Nigerian politicians to desist from spreading disinformation ahead of the elections. In an open letter, the group said that this phenomenon poses a great threat to election outcomes. ‘This is an appeal from us, fact checkers working in Nigeria, to you, politicians, whether you are contesting the 2023 elections or not. It is the duty of all citizens to ensure that this seventh general election since 1999 is credible by all standards,’ the letter said.
Information will remain an integral part of Nigeria’s democracy, though current political actors do not appear to be acting with the requisite responsibility. More companies, institutions and citizens are engaging with fact-checks. Failure to incorporate stronger information review practices may see targeted campaigns to discredit the outcome of the vote and the likelihood for post-election violence. The 2023 elections will be determined by how well relevant bodies and agencies work together to ensure free and fair voting processes⎈
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