In light of the growing threat of disinformation, or more colloquially 'fake news', the Commonwealth Security Group has begun to explore the challenge faced by countries across the Commonwealth, and what efforts are being taken to address the scourge.
Whilst disinformation and false news stories are a well-known and much maligned phenomenon of elections and political campaigns, less is understood of their direct threat to national security. This Situation Insight explores the threat that disinformation poses to security in Nigeria, where efforts are being taken at state and national levels to address false news stories that are stirring up intracommunal violence and hampering effective emergency response efforts.
Across the globe disinformation spreads fast, but in Nigeria, the dissemination of fake news is ever more rapid due to a heavy reliance on large Facebook and WhatsApp groups as a primary source of news. Often run by community leaders, these groups are trusted by users, when in reality they are wholly unaccountable sources of information.
Time to Act
In light of a recent spike in violence exacerbated by disinformation, Nigeria’s Northern Governors Forum as well as a group of six South Western State Governors have called for more controls to be placed on social media. In a communiqué, the Chairman of the Northern Governors Forum and Plateau State Governor, Simon Bako Lalong, noted the “devastating effect of the uncontrolled social media in spreading fake news” and called for “for major control mechanisms and censorship of social media practice in Nigeria”.
Nigeria’s various governors’ forums function as an avenue for state level decision makers to influence policy on a national scale. Their calls for action to be taken against social media platforms are significant as the forums have a track record of driving national policy initiatives over the line, through their power to create agreement between blocs of states. They hold particular significance as they interface with Nigeria’s traditional leaders who are important figureheads in many parts of the country. As such, this development highlights a step forward in the battle against disinformation.
Intracommunal conflict is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria, however, false information on social media platforms has contributed significantly to entrenching ethnic and sectarian animosity and generating flashpoints of violence. In June 2018, a riot which killed eleven people was started in the Gashish region of Plateau State after images of atrocities were
spread on Facebook with captions suggesting that they had been carried out against Berom Christians by Fulani Muslims. The posts, including pictures of a mutilated baby and bodies in mass graves, were deliberately designed to illicit fear and anger in the Christian group. One Berom youth leader was quoted by the BBC as saying, “As soon as we saw those images, we just wanted to strangle any Fulani man standing next to us”. In reality, the pictures were taken in the Republic of the Congo, were six years old and had nothing to do with Nigeria. Whilst fake news did not create the tension between these two ethnic groups, it certainly exacerbated them.
The rise in intracommunal violence associated with fake news stories brings another problem alongside it. False alarms of violence regularly raised on social media platforms are interfering with the real work of emergency services. Plateau State is riven with real violence, so when the police officers there see reports of ongoing or threatened violence, they feel obligated to respond. This requires sending armed personnel to remote villages. Often, the reports are simply not true, wasting officers’ time and preventing them from doing much needed police work. Given the frequency of fake news in the region and its propensity to cause harm the police in Plateau state have officers constantly monitoring social media platforms “for fake information and fictitious pictures”. This extra work created by the constant stream of disinformation is consuming resources that are already overstretched.
During Nigeria’s October 2020 #ENDSARS protests, disinformation disseminated by both pro-police and anti-police sources made false claims of violence amidst the real conflict, spreading mistrust amongst the population, and aggravating an already regrettable situation. For example, a picture circulated of a woman named Ugwu Blessing Ugochukwu with an accompanying caption that stated three of her brothers had been killed by the police. Whilst Ms Ugochokwu had briefly been detained by the SARS, (Special Armed Robbery Squad) it was simply not true that her brothers had been killed. Disinformation in this vein has exacerbated tensions in Nigeria and contributed to ongoing violence as well as making it more difficult to call out real acts of injustice. On the other hand, pro-police sources suggested that verifiable acts of police brutality were actually fake in attempt to suppress criticism. It is extremely difficult for ordinary people to know what is real and what is not. The sad reality is that disinformation will do nothing to help any of the people of Nigeria as the protests continue, other than add to the air of distrust that sparked the violence in the first place.
It is widely agreed that big technology companies have not done enough to prevent the spread of disinformation in Nigeria. As of September 2019, there were 33 million Facebook users in Nigeria. At the end of 2018 Facebook had just four-full time employees fact checking suspicious content for the entire country, through their partners AFP and Africa Check. During the #ENDSARS protests Facebook has come under fire for labelling real posts as disinformation and failing to tackle actual false content.
The intransigence of big tech in the face of the disinformation problem highlights one of the main barriers to tackling it. Namely, that this is a transnational phenomenon. The Nigerian state apparatus has limited power over companies like Facebook and Twitter, who hold huge sway over the dissemination of news in the country. Moreover, as much as 50% of fake news stories are generated from outside Nigeria. Likewise, criminal elements and political agitators export fake news from Nigeria to the rest of the content and indeed the rest of the world.
In light of big tech’s failure to address this problem, a collection of Nigeria’s state governors are calling for some aspects of social media to be censored. Censorship of disinformation has been tried before. In the wake of the 2019 Easter Bombings in Sri Lanka, a social media blackout was put in place. However, many people circumnavigated the blocks using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), allowing the continued spread of real and fake information. By itself censorship is unlikely to be successful.
Disinformation is plaguing Nigeria. False reports of violence stoke ethnic and sectarian tensions and drain the resources of emergency response organisations. There are no easy solutions, and it is likely that this is a problem we will have to find a way to live with, rather than wholly suppress. However, efforts to educate consumers, more action on the part of social media companies, and boosting the reputation and credibility of conventional news sources may go some way to alleviating the problem.
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