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Disinformation Era The Politics of Information in the Digital Age

Disinformation has increasingly become a problem in Nigeria. The stakes in Nigerian politics have always been high, and the information warfare is simply the latest development in political manipulation.

Life constantly evolves, nothing is ever truly stagnant. The same is true of our political and social lives. We stand at a juncture, where technology is becoming an ever-present feature of our lives. Today, we live in a digital world; engulfed in sea of information that constantly demands our attention. The Internet has made us more connected than ever in one sense, and yet we seem disconnected from each other in another. In this new information age, we are constantly surrounded by information, much of which is reliable, such as online journals and the like, but a larger part of the information we encounter is unreliable. The art of finding out what is true seems to be more difficult than ever before. Unfortunately, the volume of untruths is fast overtaking the volume of truths. But more than that, the social media universes we inhabit have found a way of externally curating the information fields of those universes without our realizing so. The democratization of information has had clear benefits, but as ever, the impact of technology on our lives, and our democratic spaces, is changing.

Nigeria, since its independence, has been defined by its differences, and now seems to have reached a tipping point. The divisions along the fault lines of religion and ethnicity, coupled with a profound deficit of good governance, have laid the foundation for deadly conflicts that afflict many areas of the country. These conflicts have not been helped by a sub-par media that values clicks over content. We are all familiar with the term ‘fake news’ and the space it occupies in recent discussions about information flows in democracies. ‘Fake news’ has come to mean different things to different people, but in a general sense, fake news has become a catch-all phrase for information that is dubious, outright false, or from an unreliable source. In the sense popularized by Donald Trump back in 2016—and used with fervour by Nigerian politicians since—it is simply used as a weapon to dismiss unfavourable truths. But if we seek to define it, what we really mean we talk about fake news is the concept of disinformation.

THE CONCEPT OF DISINFORMATION

Disinformation is information spread with the intent to deceive, and it is this deceptive intent that is so destructive to democratic processes. This differs from misinformation, which though false or misleading is not intended to be so. During the 2014 Ebola Crisis in West Africa, many Nigerians shared dubious remedies for the virus based on what they believed to be true. This was misinformation. During Operation Fortitude in WWII, the Allies knowingly disseminated false reports on the location of the D-Day landings to deceive the Germans. This was disinformation.

Enmeshed as we are in the online world, we have yet to fully grasp the extent to which our personal information is available social media corporations, nor the implications of this availability. We are still discovering the true extent of the information manipulation that took place during the United States presidential elections and the Brexit referendum. One way to understand this might be to imagine this scenario: you create a profile online and fill it out with your likes, dislikes, preferences and so on. Now what we have is not just an outline of who you are and what you like, but what you are predicted to like.

So, imagine that a referendum or election is coming up, one with huge implications for the future of your country, it would seem prudent not to leave the results to chance. What if one could hire a company or several, who could analyse the data of the individuals who have uploaded all their information online, and craft false or out-of-context messages that appeal to their specific interests? This is what modern disinformation campaigns are about: crafting false narratives that play on your biases in order to get you to think a certain way. That is what happened in the United Kingdom and the United States, and it is fast spreading.

It also happened recently in Brazil where the right-wing populist candidate, Balsonero, won the Presidential elections amid widespread reports of vast disinformation campaigns targeting WhatsApp specifically. The targeting was so widespread that WhatsApp was forced to delete hundreds of thousands of spam accounts that were releasing millions of messages. Furthermore, a report from The Guardian revealed that some of those accounts were illegally funded in ways that essentially amounted to electoral fraud.

Yet disinformation is not only being carried out by shadowy corporate entities. A 2018 report from the Oxford Internet Institute’s Propaganda Research Project reveals that up to 48 countries have at least one government agency or political party that is engaged in shaping public opinion through the use of social media. The great irony is that fake news as a phenomenon is routinely criticized by authoritarian leaders, who are themselves simultaneously shamelessly pushing their own falsehoods.

AN ERA OF SURVEILLANCE

So how did we get here? It was once conventional wisdom to assume that the greater access to information afforded by social media would empower civil society. However, recent trends show that one of the key facets modern democracies is control of the online information space. Perhaps one of the painful truths that must be confronted is what the social-media business model is based on—surveillance of consumers’ personal data for targeted advertisements. Companies such as Google and Facebook now spearhead what Shoshana Zuboff terms ‘surveillance capitalism’. At the heart of surveillance capitalism lies a simple concept—in exchange for providing (mostly) free services, social media companies monitor user behaviour for targeted advertising. What is perhaps more alarming, is that we are all willing submit to these terms—does anyone read the ‘Terms and Conditions’ before signing up to social media? In most cases, the answer is no. However, the most troubling aspect is that all of this creates the grounds for authoritarian practices to flourish.

Disinformation has increasingly become a problem in Nigeria. Hate speech is also more prevalent. The situation in Nigeria is especially fragile as it confronts rising levels of ethnic tension and violence, clashes between herdsmen and farmers, separatist agitations in the South East and violent extremism in the North East. In Premium Times, Jibrin Ibrahim notes that hate speech incidents, including on official government networks, reached dangerous highs during the 2015 General Elections.

Following the elections, fake news targeting President Muhammadu Buhari was prevalent. For example, when President Buhari left the country for London in January 2017, news stories started circulating that he had died. And when he returned some even alleged that he was a fake Buhari. The original source of the rumours came from the leader of the IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) movement who claimed: ‘…the man you are looking at on the television is not Buhari, he is from Sudan’. It was taken from a video originally surfaced on twitter in September 2017, and rapidly filtered into the information ecosystem. This was clear disinformation.

The democratic response to the current disinformation crisis we face in this age of the internet and globalization can best be summarized by this basic assumption: that with enough time, truth and reason will prevail over lies and deceit. But what if that assumption is false? A Duke University project lists 160 active, verified, fact-checking sites; two of which are Nigerian: the Buharimeter, run by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD); and DUBAWA, which was launched by Premium Times.  All of these sites are undoubtedly doing commendable work, however the biggest issue for these sites is the ability to reach their audience, and beyond that to gain their trust. It is often the case that disinformation spreads faster and easier than attempts to set the record straight.

If the public consumes disinformation because it persuades them at an empirical level, then perhaps improving media literacy is a step in the right direction.  The problem is that the same biases and desire for sensationalism that make us so eager to believe disinformation in the first place make us unwilling to change our minds when we hear the truth. When false information is introduced to social media echo chambers, it is viewed as credible so long as it conforms to the existing narrative. And when more truthful information is introduced, if it isn’t ignored its only impact is to reinforce the false beliefs.

Confirmation bias is not a new phenomenon, however in a post-truth, internet driven world, the increasingly urgent question now becomes: how do we overcome these biases? Research, including a 1977 paper from Hasher, Goldstein and Toppino, reveals that unfortunately we are more likely to believe something if it is repeated enough times. Given how ecosystems of Twitter and Facebook work, this means that fact-checking is not the panacea it is sometimes seen to be.

So where does that leave us? Disinformation experts, Keersmaecker and Roets, say that the success of false stories is a kind of information-processing error, a failure of our cognitive abilities. Taken at face value, this seems fairly believable, but how do we then account for supposedly intelligent and educated individuals who are swayed by disinformation and propaganda. Why do such people hold racial, gender, ethnic or religious biases so strongly despite their lack of logical grounding? This cognitive model is clearly lacking.

If we shifted the perspective rather to the role of collective identities, then disinformation can be seen far more clearly for what it is—a weapon for tribal warfare. I do not mean ‘tribal’ in the Nigerian sense, where it may refer to actual tribes, but more in the sense of a struggle between sides, between an in-group (perceived as good) and an out-group (perceived as evil). This is evident in Nigerian politics more so than anywhere else; however, the rest of the world seems to be catching up. The farmers vs. herdsmen narrative is, at heart, the same as Europeans vs. migrants, real Americans vs. coastal elites, or whites vs. non-whites. In each case, not only is neither group fully good nor fully evil—as the framers would have us believe—but the grouping itself is actually dubious. Disinformation takes the narratives that are borne out of underlying tensions and frames them in simplistic opposition so that it becomes very easy to take sides, when the reality is often much more complicated.

The stakes in Nigerian politics have always been high, and this information warfare is simply the latest development in political manipulation. Effective monitoring of the electoral process is a deeply challenging affair. The online sources of disinformation lack transparency, but this can be overcome by research. The Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) carried out a study that focused primarily on Facebook and Twitter. Our research found many suspect online newspapers in the Facebook and Twitter datasets, which are often linked to popular Facebook groups. While many of these online newspapers present themselves as credible online news sources, their content often reveals clear biases for or against a particular political party or individual.

A further issue found in our study relates to the role of satirical content. Satire is not well established in Nigeria, which means that an article which is satirical in nature might be presented or interpreted as completely true. In WhatsApp groups and on Facebook pages we found several examples where satirical articles were presented as true information. Due to a deficit in media and information literacy, and since users often receive material meant to misinform, content that might simply be satirical, or even an opinion, can be manipulated and doctored to serve a political purpose. Online sources of disinformation content are generated by ‘fake’ newspapers, or media houses that pose as real ones, after which hidden networks of social media accounts are engineered to promote divisive partisan information.

IS THERE A WAY FORWARD?

It is absolutely clear that social media must be held to account because left to their own devices civil society might be waiting for a long time. Disinformation has to be incorporated into the procedures of electoral analysis as part of the first steps to mitigating its influence. Media literacy has to be on the agenda for citizen awareness and education. Democratic activists are beginning to develop innovative strategies to meet these challenges; success will, however, rely on having the political space, the technical capacity and the ability to forge partnerships across borders. Pressure needs to be put on tech companies such as Facebook, and such companies need to be far more engaged in enabling the Nigerian information space become more open and deliberate about combatting disinformation particularly during elections. Essentially, we need better content moderation, research and focus on Nigeria and beyond, across Africa and the Global South. Ultimately, we need to remember the principles we want to uphold and resist the autocratic tide we are witnessing across several countries around the world.

Are we asking the right questions in a world that is changing and developing at a near frenetic pace? If we want the tools to be able to navigate such a world, we need to think about the future. Digital literacy has to be core priority at all levels in Nigeria. This has to do with a long-term vision towards educating Nigerians on how to be more discerning in navigating the online space. Failure to do so will leave Nigerians vulnerable to more coordinated attempts at deception in the future. There is also pressing need to develop education oriented towards critical thinking in more informal structures and settings, and to create mass awareness of tools for discerning through vast amounts of available information. In conclusion, it is clear that the political culture in Nigeria has laid the grounds for a complete lack of trust in governmental bodies, institutions and persons. This lack of trust means that the multiplicity of cultures, languages, religions and peoples are tools for division as opposed to a celebration of diversity