Nigeria's Fake News Ecosystem: An Overview

Fake news is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria. Historically, peddlers of disinformation were popularly referred to as “radio without battery”, with fake news a weapon in Nigeria’s civil war (1967- 1970). Today in Nigeria’s southeast, fake news peddlers are given the moniker of ‘Okokon Dems’ – a homage to Biafra’s chief propagandist - and use their influence on spread rumours at the sub-national level. Whilst social media has expanded the bandwidth of the ‘radio without battery’ through its more extensive reach, speed, and low costs, word of mouth continues to be a fundamental way in which falsehoods are spread in the country, particularly in rural areas. Drawing on 15 key informant interview and extensive desk-based research this paper highlights the increasingly blurred line between conventional and online media and between the spread of offline and online misinformation and disinformation. It argues that online and offline disinformation are intertwined and shape and influence each other. Tweets and Facebook posts are regularly reported in print media or discussed during radio and television programs in Nigeria. It also highlights the increasing sophistication of online disinformation operations in Nigeria, outlining a toolkit of methods from which propaganda secretaries, cyber warriors and online activists choose. The implications of this deluge of falsehoods into the information ecosystem are significant. Fake news increasingly inhibits informed decisions on issues affecting everyday lives in Nigeria, including whether citizens participate in democracy or even take Covid-19 vaccines. Most worryingly of all it is building on existing tensions to divide and polarise Nigerians across ethno-religious lines. Actors responsible for spreading disinformation include state affiliated groups such as the Buhari Media Centre, who harasses and try to delegitimise opposing voices online, domestic and international public relations firms like the now defunct Cambridge Analytica, and even nation states like Iran, who used proxy social media accounts to attempt to shape Nigerians views around the Islamic Movement in Nigeria in 2020. Arguing that there are several existing laws in Nigeria legal framework to address misinformation, the report claims selective implementation of the laws, not the absence of legal recourse, is a challenge. It opines that instead of introducing new targeted laws that will likely infringe on citizens’ fundamental rights, the government should look instead into formulating a regulatory framework with tech companies and at the same time support efforts to improve civic education and digital literacy in partnership with civil society and media. In Nigeria, what we are increasingly seeing is a digital divide not between those who have access and those who do not, but between those who have direct and indirect access to social media content. Therefore, a comprehensive response to tackle the infiltration of fake news into the countries wider information eco-system is urgently needed. Recommendations highlighted by this study focus on improving digital literacy, investing in quality journalism, supporting fact-checking in local languages and strengthening existing laws.

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