What do the following have in common?
- Rumours of a secret meeting between the candidate and the chief justice
- A picture of the candidate being endorsed by Donald Trump
- Pictures of soldiers killed by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria
- A story about the candidate handing out cash in Sokoto
- A story about the president being dead
Answer: they’re all hoaxes, and they’ve all been rumbled.
Spare a thought for the Nigerian vote; the lowly ballot paper that’s supposed to chip away at graft and special interests and replace them at some point with real representative government and the rule of law.
That vote, delayed at the last minute, is now to be cast on February 23. An electorate of 84 million will decide who governs Africa’s most populous democracy for the next four years. The incumbent, Muhammadu Buhari, promised a meaningful campaign against corruption and failed to deliver. His challenger, Atiku Abubakar, is a former vice-president and, he claims, a self-made billionaire.
Democracy in Africa is already under threat. For the past decade, Russia and China have been muscling in, making the case for autocracy over democracy with cash, loans, guns and engineering projects no Western government has seen fit to fund. At the same time, voters have been cruelly betrayed in Zimbabwe, Congo, Uganda and Angola.
If these trends were not enough to kill off hopes of a democratic revival, Silicon Valley has often seemed poised to administer the coup de grace. WhatsApp, in particular, owned by Facebook and the most popular social media platform in Nigeria, has been used by both sides in this campaign to spread fake news with immeasurable effect. It’s the new battleground in Nigerian politics. For voters this means making a well-informed choice won’t be easy.
Some of the hoaxes have been comical, some sinister. Any of them might have gained enough currency to tip a close race one way or the other. But something remarkable has happened. Many of them have been publicly and comprehensively debunked.
In anticipation of the misinformation threat, collaborative efforts have been set up to expose false claims. CrossCheck Nigeria, which I work for, is one such project (there are others). Funded partly by Facebook, it involves more than 40 journalists from 15 Nigerian newsrooms working together to combat fake news by using tools like Google’s reverse image search to detect and verify messages, videos, images and voice notes.
This is not about policing the open web. It’s harder than that. WhatsApp groups are private networks and the platform’s end-to-end encryption means you can’t see inside unless invited in. It also means these networks function as echo chambers in which members tend to reinforce each others’ preconceptions, and it makes the big picture – who’s spreading what sort of fake news where – extremely hard to map.
Nigeria is not alone as a focus of fake news; nor in fighting back. Growing concern over political misinformation has prompted similar initiatives elsewhere. Examples include Comprova in Brazil, which received 70,000 tips on WhatsApp and debunked a total of 147 claims during last year’s presidential election. The Indonesian government, ahead of presidential elections in April, has hired a team of 70 engineers to fight fake stories and threatens to ban Facebook if things get out of hand.
CrossCheck has so far been able to debunk around 20 claims deliberately shared by campaign officials of Nigeria’s two major political parties: the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC). Other purveyors of fake news include support groups and, frequently, unsuspecting citizens who forward whatever they are sent.
In a country of high smartphone penetration and willing sharers, many of them young and under-employed, this would have been a recipe for misinformation on steroids. Indeed, much will have gone undetected given that WhatsApp is by far the most popular messaging app among Nigeria’s 19 million social media users. Even so, the debunkers have become part of the story of this election, and we’ve been busy.
- In early December pictures started circulating on WhatsApp purporting to be of Nigerian soldiers killed by the Boko Haram jihadist group in the far northeast, where President Buhari claims to have restored control after years of atrocities including the kidnapping of 274 girls from a school in Chibok in 2014. If genuine, the images could have dented support for Buhari on election day. A closer look showed that in reality they were recycled photos from an earlier incident involving the Kenyan army in Somalia.
- Could it be that the ailing Buhari actually died last year, replaced by his campaign staff with a Sudanese impostor named Jubril? A video version of the story was shared more than 5,000 times on Facebook and Twitter before going viral on WhatsApp last year. Fact-checkers debunked it, revealing that those promoting it included a high-profile critic of Buhari (and former aviation minister), Femi Fani-Kayode. The rumour seems to have started with the death of a Nigerian diplomat in Khartoum six months earlier.
- A Facebook post last month claimed that members of the Igbo community in northern Nigeria were being kidnapped and killed by Hausa-Fulanis. A gruesome photo of the alleged victims was attached, but a reverse image search revealed that the photo wasn’t recent and the story wasn’t true. It had been taken from a blog post on an incident in another part of the country seven months earlier. Idayat Hassan, of the Centre for Democracy and Development in West Africa, says false stories are often shared with the aim of inciting violence along religious and ethnic lines.
- An image shared last year by an aide to Buhari appeared to show his rival handing out cash and food at a rally in Sokoto. In reality the picture was taken at a charity function in Lagos the year before.
- Stories circulating for several years suggested that Abubakar couldn’t enter the US because of corruption charges against him. Last month he travelled to the US to dispel the rumour.
- In December, Nigerians raised queries asking if President Trump had endorsed Abubakar. The rumour was based on a WhatsApp picture of Trump apparently shaking the PDP candidate’s hand in the White House Rose Garden. In fact it was Buhari’s hand in a photoshopped picture; the president had visited Washington in April.
- Earlier this year a video in which Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo was booed and chased away by angry women in a market in Ilorin was circulated on social media. Journalists tracked Osinbajo’s public appearances, established that he hadn’t been to Ilorin this year and used a geo-satellite search to show the video was actually shot at a shopping centre in Abuja.
- A picture first shared on Twitter last October claimed to show Abubakar meeting Nigeria’s then chief justice, since suspended, who had he stayed in post might have had to preside over any election dispute. In fact the candidate was meeting his running mate, but the picture had been retweeted 949 times before being exposed as false.
What is WhatsApp doing to fix the problem?
Last year, WhatsApp earmarked $1 million for research into misinformation. Of that, $50,000 has gone into a collaborative research project between with the University of Birmingham and the Centre of Democracy and Development West Africa. WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, has also contributed $67,000 to another mythbuster, Africa Check, and says it donates advertising credits to raise awareness about misinformation.
After unverified WhatsApp messages were linked to a spate of mob lynchings in India last July, the platform decided to introduce a limit on the number of times a message can be forwarded. It has also built in a feature that alerts users to forwarding.
For a half-trillion dollar company with $55 billion in annual revenues, Facebook’s spending to counter fake news in Africa’s biggest democracy (on its own behalf and WhatsApp’s) looks paltry. But is it enough in any case to leave the fight against misinformation to the platform, whose priority is to avoid gaining a reputation as an enabler of anonymised liars? Few users know how to block a number on the platform. It certainly could be easier. There are also calls for WhatsApp to examine the metadata it is legally compelled to collect so that it can help to identify the primary sources of viral messages.
“Closed messaging apps are becoming increasingly popular around the world, partly because they are data lean, and they make it easy to connect with different people in small trusted groups,” says Claire Wardle, of First Draft, a non-profit that helps journalists working to expose misinformation. “But we see evidence that misinformation tends to travel quickly on these apps, partly because there are few cues to help discern credibility, beyond the fact that it was shared by someone you know.”
Peter Cunliffe-Jones, Africa Check’s founder, says there’s “a very serious and severe risk that misinformation spreading on WhatsApp can provoke unrest and undermine democratic processes”.
Perhaps so, but Nigerian voters seem to be learning fast. “We are seeing people referring to themselves on social media as ‘influencers’ but Nigerians have renamed them ‘influenza’,” says Rosemary Ajayi of the Digital Africa Research Lab.
It’s too soon to know if fake news spread via WhatsApp will materially influence tomorrow’s vote, but at least misinformation is no longer going unchallenged. Could Nigeria’s voters in 2019 in fact be worldlier than America’s in 2016? That’s one for the psephologists on Monday morning.
Damilola Ojetunde is an investigative team member of CrossCheck Nigeria