As the election campaigns officially start in Nigeria, a coalition of its fact-checkers is asking politicians to reject misinformation and promote evidence-based public debate.
It will be the seventh general election since the country returned to democratic rule in 1999.
Given the role accurate information plays in the electoral choices voters make, a coalition of fact-checkers working in Nigeria has written an open letter to the country’s politicians.
In the letter, the fact-checkers appealed to political figures to avoid making false claims, and to debunk false or misleading information related to their parties or candidacies.
“This is an appeal from us, fact-checkers working in Nigeria, to you, politicians, whether you contest the 2023 elections or not. It is the duty of all citizens to ensure that this election is credible by all standards. And you play a significant role in this; hence this open letter is addressed to you,” the letter reads.
Read the full open letter here.
The coalition noted that there was evidence that misinformation and disinformation campaigns could affect the integrity of elections and lead to violence.
“It is a fact that disinformation and influence peddling are threats to Nigerians having a credible election in 2023. We have already seen an increase in the circulation of misinformation that can sway public opinion about candidates and parties and influence voters. It is a dangerous trend.
“Democracy thrives when the outcome of elections truly reflects the informed choice of the people, devoid of deceit and manipulation. Disinformation has affected elections in several countries.”
It cited how data analytics companies such as Cambridge Analytica were hired to target election content in favour of a candidate in the 2015 presidential election. Cambridge Analytica was also used in Kenya in 2013 and 2017.
“In all these, it is important to note that it is not enough for you to avoid making false claims and spreading misleading information, you must take responsibility for debunking false information related to your candidacy or your party, even if it advances your campaign.
“We have internal processes and methodologies that mandate us to present factual, fair, independent, and objective reports devoid of personal biases and opinions. We are independent and apolitical; we are neither for any political candidate nor party,” said the coalition.
‘Nigerian politicians use false information to their advantage’
The fact-checkers also noted that there had been cases of social media influencers and ordinary citizens being paid to spread false and misleading narratives.
Kayode Omojuwa, a professor of political science at the Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in Kaduna state, said political figures use false information to gain an advantage over their opponents.
“Politicians sometimes use false information to gain certain advantages and put themselves in a favourable light. For those who have previously held public offices, they may present misleading information to pad up their previous performance in office,” he told Africa Check.
“When political figures spread false information about their opponents, the said opponents could feel the need to retaliate and that is how the fake news cycle is formed. This could also lead to violence when supporters defend their candidate and degenerate into chaos.”
Theresa Amobi, a senior lecturer in the department of mass communication at the University of Lagos, said disinformation at the start of a campaign season eventually evolved into misinformation.
“During the electoral season, things start out as disinformation because false information is deliberately spread to mislead the public. It then evolves into misinformation when people who do not have access to accurate information spread it innocently believing them to be true especially when it comes from sources they think are credible,” Amobi said.
“This may lead to a situation where the candidate with the larger propaganda machine wins because the opponent did not arm agents with tools and money to match their activities. In the end, the better candidate may lose out.”
She added: “Sometimes the false information may be inciting, leading to violence and affecting the credibility of the election. We are beginning to see instances even when the campaigns have not officially begun. Therefore, we must prepare as the electioneering activities begin.”
Media literacy and cutting-edge technology to fight election disinformation
David Ajikobi, the Nigeria editor at Africa Check, said the coalition would work together to cross-publish, fact-check debates live, use new tools to reduce the spread of misinformation, and disrupt targeted disinformation campaigns.
“We think this coalition is important and will amplify the work fact-checkers are doing to curb the swelling election-related disinformation we are already seeing,” Ajikobi said.
“If we put together a united front it will make it harder for politicians who have tried to weaponise, antagonise and attack the work being done by fact-checkers in Nigeria.
“We also believe this will help further foster the nonpartisanship and independence of fact-checkers in Nigeria, especially in line with the Code of Principles of the International Fact-Checking Network to which we subscribe.”
He added that the coalition would also use media literacy initiatives to help inoculate the electorate against targeted disinformation, and use artificial intelligence tools to improve the detection of false claims and for social listening.
‘The challenge cannot be handled by one organisation’
Peter Cunliffe-Jones, founder and former director of Africa Check, said the coalition was needed to effectively tackle misinformation around the election.
“No fact-checking organisation can do this by itself. Nigeria is a large country with millions using social media and thousands of politicians making claims during political rallies and in interactions with traditional media. The challenge cannot be handled by one organisation so there is absolutely a need for a coalition,” he said.
“The way misinformation affects politics is not straightforward. Sometimes, false information takes effect after repetition. So it’s good that fact-checkers get started in correcting falsehood before the elections take place, you don’t wait till January to start correcting misinformation about an election that will be held in February.”
He said seemingly implausible claims could become accepted if they were repeated over time.
“It is no good that Africa Check publishes one fact check to say this claim is wrong,” he added. “For a claim that has been repeated over time, then the fact check needs to be done by multiple people. And when these claims are repeated over time, it forms a narrative and so people no longer believe the particular claim, they believe the narrative.”
The Nigerian fact-checkers said in the letter that they were collaborating to ensure accuracy in public debate, for the good of society and integrity of the elections.
“We are watching. We are monitoring the media to spot misinformation and call out disinformation schemes. You owe it to the people you desire to serve to provide accurate information and ensure they are not deceived or intimidated as they head to the polls.
“Elections are not a do-or-die affair. Let’s do it for posterity.”
Read the full open letter here.