Nigeria’s 2023 elections are only weeks away. Voters are set to pick a president and members of the national assembly on 25 February, and governors and state assemblies two weeks later.
As campaigning hits the home stretch, false political narratives aren’t far behind. The stories have affected candidates, parties – and the electoral process.
Here we pick out 10 trends in election disinformation – false information spread deliberately – identified in our reports. Africa Check has also helped expose this disinformation as a member of the Nigerian Fact-checkers’ Coalition.
The perceived front-runners in the race for the presidency are:
- Bola Tinubu of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC)
- Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)
- Peter Obi of the Labour Party
- Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party (NNPP)
1. Who said what? Politicians falsely quoted
A notable trend is quotes falsely attributed to politicians and past presidents.
One of the most “attributed” is former president Olusegun Obasanjo. Well known for weighing in on public debate, including penning open letters on the state of the nation, Obasanjo governed Nigeria from 1999 to 2007.
Many quotes attributed to Obasanjo are about the Labour Party’s Obi. Obasanjo endorsed Obi in January 2023.
Months before the endorsement, quotes falsely attributed to Obasanjo did the rounds online. One has him vouching for Obi’s integrity. In another, Obasanjo appears to claim that getting Obi into the presidency would reduce violence and insecurity in Nigeria.
Obasanjo has also been falsely quoted as saying Nigerians should arm themselves with guns if the elections turn violent.
Abubakar of the PDP hasn’t been spared either. One false quote has him saying: “Peter Obi is giving me worries, I can’t even campaign in south East again because he has taken over.” There is no evidence Abubakar said this. And he’s campaigned in the southeast, seen as an Obi stronghold.
Information minister Lai Mohammed has also been a target of false quotes. One is that he said Obi was the “brain behind the #ENDSARS protests” that rocked Nigeria in 2020. The ministry has refuted this.
2. False claims of size
The size of a crowd a candidate can attract is often a source of interest.
As in previous elections, candidates and their supporters have compared the attendance at their rallies. The narrative is that the candidate with the biggest crowd has the best chance of winning the election.
Photos of huge crowds from 2019 were, for example, posted with the false claim they showed Abubakar’s August 2022 visit to Kano, a northern swing state.
The captions to crowd photos may be false. But politicians do rent crowds to give a false impression of their popularity. That’s what Kamilu Fage, a professor of political science at Bayero University in Kano state told Africa Check.
Misinformation, or false information spread unintentionally, and disinformation are rampant in Nigerian politics, Fage said.
“With those large crowds, they make their supporters believe they will win the election,” Fage said.
“When the outcome of the election shows otherwise, they claim the election was manipulated and this often ends up in crisis.”
3. Misleading achievements attributed to candidates
Three of the four presidential front-runners are former state governors. Tinubu, the APC candidate, was governor of Lagos state. The Labour Party’s Obi governed Anambra state. Kwankwaso of the NNPP ran Kano state.
To burnish their presidential credentials, some of the candidates and their camps have claimed achievements as governors. Some of these assertions have turned out to be either false or misleading.
For example, Kwankwaso and his supporters have claimed that in his two terms as governor he had not borrowed a dime. He also claimed he had repaid all Kano state debt. We rated both claims as incorrect.
Tinubu’s supporters have also exaggerated his contribution to the financial growth of Lagos state, the country’s economic hub.
4. Nonexistent endorsements
Supporters have often circulated photos and videos of prominent people across the globe appearing to endorse their candidates.
Obi’s supporters have been particularly active here, perhaps unsurprisingly, given their youth.
We have debunked several fake endorsements of the Labour Party candidate.
Obi has supposedly been given the support of US billionaires Elon Musk and Larry Ellisson, US comedian Steve Harvey, Egyptian footballer Mohammed Salah, Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo, and the Chinese government.
In late 2022, a manipulated video seemingly showing a host of Hollywood stars campaigning for Obi also did the rounds on social media.
We’ve also debunked fake support for Tinubu. As early as January 2020, a manipulated photo of Nigerian footballer Mikel Obi supposedly endorsing Tinubu for president in 2023 circulated online.
In December 2022, another viral photo appeared to show Tinubu meeting US president Joe Biden. The central claim was that the US government had recognised Tinubu as Nigeria’s next president, which would have been a public relations coup for him as his time in the US has often been scrutinised.
Fake endorsements are another way politicians deceive people, Fage told Africa Check.
“They visit prominent people, circulate photos of the visit and then claim it was an endorsement. When the prominent person keeps quiet, the claimed endorsement is taken as real and some voters might then vote for that candidate,” he said.
5. Edited videos and misleading photos
Altered photos and videos are another disinformation trend.
In the example of the Hollywood stars supposedly endorsing Obi, the video showed dozens of famous US and British actors displaying white cards with the inscription: “Yes. It makes sense to Vote for Peter Obi in 2023.”
It turned out to be a combination of over 20 doctored episodes of the US magazine Wired’s autocomplete interview series.
Another example is a manipulated photo that seemed to show Tinubu watching his rival Obi on TV while aboard a flight.
In the original photo, posted on Twitter by a Tinubu support group, the APC presidential candidate is looking out of the plane’s window while returning to Nigeria in October 2022. The screen in front of him is blank.
Editing is popular because it has a “low barrier to entry”: the skills and equipment needed are often easily available.
6. Bots and trolls on Twitter
Rosemary Ajayi is the lead at the Africa Digital Research Lab, a nonprofit that examines issues such as the misuse of social media.
Several disinformation techniques were being used in the buildup to the elections, she told us. But it was either too difficult or too early to measure their impact.
Automated “bot” – robot – social media accounts were also being used. But more worrisome were the activities of trolls and hired influencers, Ajayi told us.
“We have been picking up evidence of coordinated inauthentic behaviour on social media – usually around trends. Influencers and their many minion accounts are pushing narratives,” she said.
7. Activities of online influencers
Online influencers – people able to influence understanding of major public issues – are major players in several disinformation trends ahead of the 2023 elections. Some have consistently promoted their candidates at the expense of others. Others have taken every opportunity to attack opposing candidates, sometimes using false information.
Influencers’ work was more complex in this election than it was in 2015 and 2019, Dr Theresa Amobi, a senior lecturer in the department of mass communication at the University of Lagos, told Africa Check.
“Since this presidential election has more than two leading candidates, influencers have engaged on multiple fronts, unlike in 2015, when it was only the PDP and APC,” she said.
“Politicians hire these influencers to spread false information on social media to promote themselves and de-market their opponents. Unfortunately, they do to some extent because not many people are media literate enough to critically analyse these things and spot disinformation.”
Ajayi added that some influencers bribe other social media users to use certain hashtags. “And this is not hidden. They openly promise to give money to whoever uses the hashtags they want to trend.”
8. Dubious and partisan news websites, and fake social media accounts
The election season has come with the emergence of fake news websites and blogs used by different camps to publish information – sometimes false information – that advances their campaigns.
Some of these less known news websites are often referenced by the spokespeople for presidential campaigns. The websites usually have reports promoting the party, several of them making false and unsubstantiated claims about their opponents.
On social media, particularly Twitter, there have been fake accounts sharing false information while impersonating political figures.
In August 2022, Obi’s running mate, Yusuf Datti Baba-Ahmed, called a press conference to complain about social media accounts in his name spreading false information. Months later, there are still multiple Twitter handles with the name. We found at least 21 in January 2023, some of them claiming to be his official account. Some have since had “parody account” or “affiliate account” added to their bio.
9. Targeting of ethnic and religious groups
Ethnicity and religion are two critical factors in Nigerian politics. They influence most political decisions mainly because of the country’s population and geography.
Since independence in 1960, Nigerian political leaders have often negotiated political power based on ethnicity and religion. And the presidency is expected to rotate between the north and south, and between Muslims and Christians.
More than any other poll since the return of democracy in 1999, ethnicity and religion are playing major roles in this election. This is reflected in the type of information being shared.
“We’ve also seen narratives targeted at ethnic nationalities. I believe this has to do with the unwritten agreement of rotation of power between north and south and the fact that someone from the southeast, Peter Obi, is a front-runner in this election,” Ajayi said.
Amobi, whose recent research interests have been misinformation and disinformation, also noted that much of the recent election-related false information has been about ethnicity.
Similarly, a lot of the disinformation has been about religion, partly fuelled by fears of the impact of APC’s Muslim-Muslim ticket. Both the APC presidential candidate, Tinubu, and his running mate, Kashim Shettima, are Muslims.
10. Fake giveaways and scams
Another trend is claims that political parties and their candidates are giving cash and other goodies to their supporters. These often circulate in SMS or WhatsApp messages.
An example is a claim that PDP’s Abubakar will give N85,000 each to his supporters. A phone number is included, for people to call to get the giveaway.
Another claims that Abubakar is giving out N5,000 airtime vouchers and 10 GB of mobile data. It includes several weblinks and encourages Facebook users to click on them and share them with their friends.
Many would-be voters fall for these scams, affecting both their pocket and their perception of political issues.
How disinformation could affect the 2023 election
Disinformation is part of a rigging process that Nigerian politicians have perfected, Kamilu Fage, a professor of political science at the Bayero University in Kano, told Africa Check.
“The use of disinformation works for them sometimes, when they succeed in deceiving many people to vote for them. It backfires at other times.
“However, election-related disinformation is dangerous because if supporters judge by what they see on social media and conclude that a candidate will win the election, they may resort to violence when the candidate loses. This was part of the reason for the 2011 post-election violence that led to the death of many people,” he said.
Contrary to what some think, disinformation on social media has real life consequences, Dr Amobi told Africa Check.
“Some people erroneously think that an election cannot be won on social media. The truth is that social engagement influences conversations offline. People on social media, some of whom are in the diaspora, can influence the voting behaviour of their relatives in rural areas without access to the internet,” she said.
Amobi said the greatest impact of disinformation would be on undecided voters.
“Some people have decided who to vote for and they will not shift no matter what you say about their candidate. But undecided voters are likely to be swayed by disinformation especially when they are exposed to it constantly over a relatively long period,” she said.