Misinformation played a key role earlier this year during Nigeria’s 2023 general elections. The election cycle, held between February and March, ended with the victory of candidate Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who was inaugurated in May 2023.
In the run-up to the elections, activists and politicians used social media to disseminate misinformation to millions of followers. Photos, videos and text messages were doctored and shared massively on WhatsApp, and this became a conduit for false narratives and fake news.
Election cycles are always a tough period in Nigeria, and this one was made even tougher by the cacophony of the digital public sphere. But trolls and activists were not alone on the internet. Fact-checking teams across different newsrooms worked hard to debunk false claims and had a meaningful impact on public discourse.
These fact-checking teams worked with the Nigeria Fact-checkers’ Coalition (NFC), an alliance of 12 fact-checking news and research organisations, including CDD Fact-check, Dubawa, FactCheckHub, Cable Check, RoundCheck, Africa Check among others who verify statements from politicians and false narratives being shared online.
The coalition is not funded by any donor. However, three members (Africa Check, FactCheckHub and Dubawa) self-funded the activities and projects of the coalition.
I spoke to these five Nigerian fact-checking organisations to learn more about their strategy, their tactics and their work during the past election.
Mayowa Tijani, who led the fact-checking initiatives of the organisation, said they had between 12 to 20 journalists who worked round the clock during the election. He said the organisation had a partnership with media outlets who dedicated a number of journalists to assist in the fact-checking efforts.
The fact-checking project during the election was largely funded by the U.K’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Tijani said CDD had a “multi-pronged approach” to tackling misinformation. Before the election, the organisation set up a social media war room. “We prepared pre-bunks which we called ‘Fact Shields.’ They were basically explainers of issues that we thought could be soft spots for disinformation peddlers,” he says.
During the election, they published daily fact-checks on controversial claims by politicians and their handlers. “We were not only debunking claims,” Tijani says. “We were also flagging bad actors with social media platforms and providing context where necessary. Now that the election has passed, we are sharing what we’ve learnt with others so our processes get better ahead of future elections.”
Did CDD’s have a meaningful impact? Tijani thinks it did. “Candidates could not just get away with misinformation,” he says. “They became quite cautious about what to say and about the negative impact of being called out for a misleading statement.”
Over the election period, CDD’s posts got more than five million views on Twitter and created a community who looked to them for clarification on any controversial statement. “We were constantly being asked online and offline to check claims,” Tijani says. A more informed electorate was a big win for us.”
“Fighting misinformation is not a job for one organisation. We can’t do it alone,” Tijani says of the work of the coalition during the election.
He thinks fact-checkers have managed to “line politicians up in front of a mirror of truth, showing how false some of their claims have been.” Has this changed anything? Tijani thinks so. “Our work has helped improve the information ecosystem,” he says. “Politicians are now aware that journalists will always check what they say.”
Verifying information in real time
The FactCheckHub is an independent fact-checking initiative established by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) in 2020. Before the election, its team of fact-checkers embarked on a major social listening exercise for over a year. They wanted to know how accurate were the statements of all political players across the country, says Opeyemi Kehinde, editor of the hub.
As a member of the fact-checking coalition, Kehinde said that the Hub worked with other members of the coalition to produce live-checks on what was happening during the voting process. Live-checks, Kehinde explains, is fact-checking on the spot immediately a false claim was made, for example. This was mostly used during the election debates and town halls to debunk false claims made by politicians.
As part of the Nigerian coalition and as a member of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), the FactCheckHub was able “to launch a much broader approach to tackling misinformation and disinformation,” Kehinde says. They independently fact-checked many of the people involved in Nigeria’s electoral process.
“Nigerians were faced with the threat of misinformation. Even presidential candidates shared false narratives and statements,” says Kehinde, who thinks their fact-check reports helped hold politicians to account during the campaign.
Kehinde gives a couple of examples. “In reaction to our multiple fact-checks on him, Peter Obi, one of the leading presidential candidates, had to recant some of the facts and figures he had shared,” he says. “We also fact-checked [winning candidate] Bola Tinubu, who had claimed that voter cards had expiration dates. He only rectified after we published a report debunking his claim.”
The hub debunked a false claim about a statement attributed to the European Union delegation and the election observation mission to Nigeria. This false statement called on the electoral chairman, Mahmood Yakubu ,to step down and initiate a review of the results. The claim also called for the disqualification of president-elect Tinubu after he was declared the winner.
Why local languages matter
“Before the campaign, we monitored political conversations on television and town halls to identify any misleading claims,” Olagunju says. Then they produced fact-checks and translated them into Nigeria’s three main dominant local languages – Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and pidgin English to reach audiences on their own terms. Fact-checks were also published in voice-over versions, so they could be listened to.
Olagunju and his team partnered with radio stations so that fact-check reports could be aired regularly. “These strategies are very important because fact-checks are always playing catch-up with fake news,” he says.
In a couple of cases, Olagunju says, fact-check reports from Cable Check were used to “present empirical factual evidence to politicians and their spokespersons.”
One of the most notable things of this year’s election, Olagunju says, was the sophistication of the digital tools used to mislead voters. He is concerned that the days ahead might reveal advanced weaponisation of digital tools to amplify disinformation, especially with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI).
“Fact-checkers should be better equipped with modern digital tools for investigations, to fight the scourge of fake news in the days to come,” he says.
Investigating misleading accounts
Dubawa is one of the leading fact-checking organisations in Nigeria. Its editor Kemi Busari explains he and his colleagues looked out for social media accounts which were persistently spreading misinformation around the election. Busari worked with 10 journalists during the election project.
They designed what they call a “Caution Card,” a social card with information about the accounts spreading falsehoods and alerting audiences they should beware of such accounts. “We also tried to put out some explainers and media literacy articles which helped to keep the public informed,” he says.
Busari said they received a lot of positive reviews from members of the public on the impact of their work during the election.
“We opened up our channels widely so people could send us tips and claims to debunk on WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram. Some reached out to us to fact-check an issue they saw trending on social media and we did that,” he says.
Busari says politicians are now weaponising false information. “They craft falsehoods and then pay some of their supporters to spread them on social media and use them as a tool they use against their opponents.”
Adesola Ikulajo agrees with Busari. As the managing editor at RoundCheck, a fact-checking platform which focuses on reaching young audiences, he noticed politicians were the main source of misinformation during the election period.
“Thanks to the work of fact-checkers, audiences can decipher that most of what the politicians post is untrue,” Ikulajo says. “Some have been forced to recant false information they put out there. The problem is that they cherish all the engagement they get from social media more than the pressure from the information ecosystem.”