Truth under fire: The multi-front assault on facts during the 2023 Nigerian election

Truth under fire: The multi-front assault on facts during the 2023 Nigerian election

Many Nigerians yearn for the opportunity to participate in a peaceful voting process, one where they can exercise their right to vote for leaders of their choice and witness the establishment of a national government that represents their rights, desires and aspirations. Indeed, a 2023 pre-election survey by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network, found that 70 percent of respondents in Nigeria said they want a democracy. But little more than 1 in 4 registered voters in the country exercised their right to vote in last year’s presidential election. This examination of the presence and role of false information before, during and after the contest is the first in a series of stories that raises pointed questions about the election’s legitimacy, as well as the current status and future trajectory of democracy in Africa’s most populous nation.

On February 11, 2023, 14 days before Nigeria’s presidential election, former aviation minister Femi Fani-Kayode wrote a tweet that appeared to question whether the country was about to experience another coup d’etat attempt. 

Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar was reportedly holding a secret meeting with army generals to topple the government, he wrote.

“Why would a presidential candidate have secret meetings with soldiers 14 days before the election?” the post thread read. “Is this meeting part of the wider agenda to disrupt the elections, destabilise the country, set us on fire, incite chaos and violence, provoke a coup d’etat…?” 

Fani-Kayode, then the director of special media projects and new media of the Campaign Council of the All Progressives Congress (APC) Nigeria’s ruling party, had at least 1.2 million social media followers at the time of the election.   

Several days later, the State Security Service interrogated Fani-Kayode for five hours. After a 14-tweet thread asserting that he had done “nothing wrong” in referencing Nigeria’s bloody history and tortuous road to democracy, Fani-Kayode expressed regret and explained that he failed to verify the news source, according to Premium Times.  

It was a temporary retreat.  

Fani-Kayode later made other statements the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) found to be misleading.  For example, on April 12, 2023, he claimed that Labour Party presidential candidate Peter Obi had been deported to Nigeria by British authorities. (Labour Party Campaign Council spokesperson Diran Onifade said that Obi was detained and questioned about an impersonation crime involving his name. Daily Trust newspaper also debunked the claim that Obi was deported). 

However, this is not the story of one powerful former government official. It’s an investigation into the hard-to-quantify but nonetheless real and negative impact of a multi-front assault on the truth before and after last year’s Nigerian presidential election.  

Party spokespeople, journalists and social media influencers helped generate false information that received millions of views during that time, according to an analysis by CCIJ. From implying the presence of an unsubstantiated coup plot to spreading false election results to fomenting ethnic discord, some of these posts remain on the authors’ social media pages more than a year after they were made and at the time of this publication.

CCIJ reviewed numerous reports of election misinformation from spokespersons, news outlets and social media influencers. Those who spread false information faced minimal consequences from either the social media platforms or the Nigerian government. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) sent a letter dated May 15, 2024, in which it said it was working on answers to a detailed list of questions CCIJ had submitted in April. It had not provided answers by the time of this publication. The social media platforms declined to comment for this article.  

At the time of this publication, CCIJ had not found any publicly available records of anyone penalized for spreading false information during the election, despite the existence of laws such as the Cybercrimes Act, 2015 and codes forbidding the publication of false news with the intent of causing fear. Instead, the very laws established to deter the spread of misleading information have been used against some of the journalists, bloggers and other citizens who exposed fake news.   

INEC did not respond to detailed questions from CCIJ about how it grappled with electoral misinformation. In a more than 500-page report, published in February 2024, it wrote that its “proactive and regular dissemination about its policies and activities through the mainstream media, social media platforms and online newspaper (inecnews.com) countered fake narratives as much as possible.”  

Others held different views. 

CCIJ conducted an online survey of Nigerian citizens that it distributed through some of the newsrooms in its network. It sought in part to gauge participants’ awareness of false information online and INEC’s efforts to combat it during last year’s campaign season. Close to two-thirds of the 104 respondents said they were unaware of INEC’s efforts, while only seven people said they were aware. None of the 36 who explicitly answered the question said INEC’s actions to counter misinformation were effective.   

Civil society activist Armsfree Ajanaku said in an interview with CCIJ that false and misleading information widely shared on social media may have contributed to the low turnout in the election.  

In 2003, 69% of eligible Nigerians participated in the nationwide elections. Two decades later, despite a pre-election report from Afrobarometer that found a large majority of Nigerians want their country to be a democracy, the rate of eligible voter participation had fallen to 27%. 

A record low in the country since democracy was restored in 1999, this was the sixth-lowest voter turnout rate when compared to more than 1,000 presidential elections worldwide since the end of World War II, according to a CCIJ analysis of elections data compiled by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.  

Idayat Hassan, former executive director at the Centre for Democracy and Development and current senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the spread of false information during the 2023 election increased polarization and social unrest while undermining the election’s legitimacy and the country’s fragile unity. 

“Political actors, influencers and news websites often have strategic interests and can use disinformation as a tool to achieve political or financial gains,” she said.  “In some cases, they may underestimate the broader consequences of their actions, but in others, the spread of disinformation is a calculated move to influence public opinion or disrupt the political process.”

SPOKESPEOPLE COMPOUND CONFUSION 

The 2023 election was not the first time the Nigerian public encountered false information. In 2018, The Guardian published an investigation detailing the contentious role that the now-defunct data analytic firm, Cambridge Analytica, played in the 2015 Nigerian presidential election.  

Opeyemi Kehinde, an editor at Abuja-based FactCheckHub, the fact-checking arm of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), said in an interview with CCIJ that the amount of false information rose in the 2023 general election compared with previous contests. 

Former senator and PDP spokesperson Dino Melaye also posted false information to his 3.4 million followers on X.  On March 6, 2023, he shared what appeared to be a screenshot of a news article suggesting that INEC Chairman Mahmood Yakubu declared that his life was “at risk.” The photo shared by Melaye did not contain any website attribution and online searches failed to yield any credible reports corroborating the claim attributed to the INEC chairman. Rotimi Oyekanmi, chief press secretary and media adviser to Yakubu, also dismissed  the false claim.

Melaye’s claim that CCIJ investigated generated more than 1 million views. Some readers not only reshared the post, but also agreed with the fake information. 

“So, the obsolete INEC chairman didn’t think of his life before his actions on the 25th of February?” an X user wrote, referring to the date of the presidential election. “Let him face his troubles squarely as they come.” 

Festus Keyamo, aviation minister and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), stirred trouble on February 9, 2023. He shared a series of pictures with 1 million followers that he suggested were from APC presidential candidate Bola Tinubu’s campaign event in Sokoto state ahead of the election. 

But a Google reverse image search conducted by CCIJ found that one of the pictures was originally taken in 2021, during the Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. The others were real photos taken during the campaign rally in Sokoto, northwest Nigeria.

Keyamo’s false claim amassed 1.1  million views on X.

“It is going to be propaganda against propaganda, word for word, we will meet them everywhere because Asiwaju [another name for Tinubu] has a mandate he will defend, and we are prepared to defend that mandate,” he declared in March 2023, the month after the election. 

 

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