Social media propelled ethnocentric disinformation and propaganda during the Nigerian elections

Voting in progress at presidential election March 28, 2015, in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo by US Embassy / Idika Onyukwu [Image Attribution: Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)]

This story is the first in a two-part series on online ethnic hate speech, disinformation and propaganda during the 2019 Nigeria elections. You can read the second part here.

Nigeria went to the polls to elect a new president and a national parliament on February 23, 2019. With two main contenders vying for the presidency, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari obtained 15 million votes and triumphed over his closest rival, Atiku Abubakar, by a “margin of 56 percent to 41 percent.” Buhari was sworn-in for a second term of four years on May 29, 2019.

Read more: #NigeriaDecides2019: Everything you need to know for this year's general elections

However, the election campaign was fought on different fronts, including social media. There was widespread dissemination of ethnic hate speech at the service of disinformation and propaganda online, particularly on Twitter.

Ethnic hate in Nigeria

Nigeria’s multi-ethnicity – over 250 ethnic groups and 500 languages – has at times been a source of conflict instead of strength. This becomes particularly obvious during elections when politicians use these divisions to campaign for votes. Naturally, online conversations in Nigeria have not been devoid of ethnic-induced hate.

During the 2015 elections, for instance, Twitter Nigeria descended into a bitter and binary sparring match between supporters of the then-two major contestants, Goodluck Jonathan (PDP, an Ijaw Christian) and Muhammadu Buhari (APC, a Hausa, Fulani Muslim). Twitter became a tool for propagating ethnic hate and party politics.

Some thought 2019 would be different because Buhari from the All Progressive Congress (APC) and Abubakar from the People's Democratic Party (PDP) are both Hausa, Fulani Muslims, but that was not the case. Their vice-presidential candidates – Yemi Osibanjo (APC), a Yoruba, and Peter Obi (PDP), an Igbo, are both Christians— but from different ethnic groups. It seemed like a repeat of 2015 but now with different protagonists.

The political atmosphere became ethnically-charged in 2017, two years before the elections, creating the conditions for an atmosphere of distrust. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a secessionist organization in the southeastern part of the country led by Nnamdi Kanu, also added to the heightened ethnic tensions brewing.

Desertification in predominantly-Muslim northern Nigeria led to a southward migration of Nigeria’s cattle herders that ignited violent conflicts with farmers. The southern Christian communities’ resentment of the influx of Muslim Fulani herders was “portrayed in some narratives as an ‘Islamisation’ force.’’ The failure of the Nigerian government to investigate these clashes and “bring perpetrators to justice” resulted in the death of about 4,000 people from 2015 to late 2018, according to Amnesty International.

Hence, ethnocentrism was already at an all-time high before the presidential elections in 2019. The prevailing distrust was a fertile ground for false information – online and offline – during the elections.

Elections and the credibility of online information in Nigeria

The number of internet users in Nigeria grew from 98.3 million in 2017 to 100.5 million in 2018. Facebook maintains the lead as the social media platform of choice with 22 million users, followed by YouTube (7 million+), Twitter (6 million) and Instagram (5.7 million).

The majority of Nigerian voters are young. Out of the 84 million registered voters for the 2019 General Elections, over half — 51 percent — are young voters aged between 18 and 35, whereas nearly 30 percent are between 36 and 50 years old. These two groups of voters, which include both digital natives and digital immigrants, form the majority of Nigerian voters who are digitally savvy.

Therefore, it was not surprising that digital media was one of the prominent battlegrounds for election campaigns in 2019.

As a result, the credibility of online information during the 2019 elections suffered great attrition. False and misleading information, promoted as gospel truth, was amplified by supporters of the two major parties in Nigeria: the All Progressive Congress (APC) and the People's Democratic Party (PDP).

Based on ethnographic participant observation conducted between October 28, 2018, and May 29, 2019, ethnic hate was employed as a tool for disinformation and propaganda by both sides of the political divide on Twitter Nigeria during the 2019 presidential elections. These observations were captured as screengrabs of tweets or saved URLs collected over this period.

In terms of ethnically-charged disinformation, some APC supporters accused Obi of being a bigot for purportedly deporting northerners while he was governor of Anambra State, in southeast Nigeria. Tweets went viral that claimed that Yoruba people were burning shops of Igbo traders in Lagos. Both stories were false and will be explored further in Part II of this essay.

Figure 1: Misinformed propaganda tweet by Festus Keyamo

Figure 2: The true location of the image that Keyamo shared.

In another example, a photograph was used to misconstrue facts. On October 28, 2018, Festus Keyamo, then-media director of the Buhari Campaign Organisation, tweeted an image (Figure 1) of a tree growing between an apparently abandoned Nigerian rail track: “This is how trees grew in-between rail tracks between 1999 and 2015… Now, this is the ‘Completion Era’ as the tracks are beginning to roar back to life.” The PDP government was in power between 1999 and 2015.

However, a Nigerian Twitter user later traced back the image to an original Arabic-language tweet (Figure 2) posted earlier that same month. According to the tweet, the photo is from Lebanon.

Keyamo's intention may have been to show that the Buhari government had surpassed previous administrations on the revamping of the morbid rail lines in the country. However, the use of an image from a different country made the so-called “gains” questionable.

Figure 3: Ethnic hate speech

Figure 4: El-Rufai later apologized for the “insensitive” tweet shown in Figure 3.

Online ethnic hate speech was also pronounced before, during and after the elections. In an ethnic slurred tweet (Figure 3) Bashir El-Rufai, son of the Kaduna State Governor, inferred that the Nigerian Civil War was ignited by the Igbo vengeance.

Between 1967 and 1970, Nigeria fought a bitter civil war with the secessionist state of Biafra inhabited mostly by the Igbo in the southeastern part of the country.

Hence, according to Bashir El-Rufai, the result of the 2019 elections which was won by his party, the APC, should also be taken as a sweet “revenge” from the Hausa, Fulani. He later apologized, after a backlash, for his previous “insensitive” tweet as shown in Figure 4. He also deleted the earlier tweet (Figure 3).

Ethnic-motivated false information on social media during the elections falls into two categories: disinformation and propaganda.

Miroslav Tudjman and Nives Mikelic, communication scholars at the University of Zagreb, Croatia, define disinformation as “intentionally deputed mistaken information with the purpose to mislead the user.” Hence, the intention to pass across inaccurate, distorted and false evidence as true, distinguishes dis-information from misinformation.

Tudjman and Mikelic assert that propaganda is much more than disinformation or misinformation. This is because propaganda “aims to manipulate the attitudes of the user” through an “accidental or intentional handling with information in [the] communication process.” Thus, propaganda weaponizes biased or inaccurate information for political interests and consequently manipulates perception.

Justifiable fears emerged surrounding 2019 elections because online disinformation and propaganda incites electoral violence but also poses “a threat to reconciliation after the elections.”

Part II of this essay will examine how this played out online, especially on Twitter, with specific examples.


This article is part of a series of posts examining interference with digital rights through methods such as network shutdowns and disinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).

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