“Social media has changed the face of politics in Nigeria.”¹ So said many political candidates, professionals, non-governmental organisation (NGO) and civil society actors, scholars and political advisers interviewed as part of this research project in the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the 2019 presidential and gubernatorial elections. To what extent, though, is this true? Moreover, if it is true, how exactly has it changed politics – and with what effects on political discourse, information flows, campaign strategy, the democratic process and, indeed, election results themselves?
This research – funded by WhatsApp² – helps to provide some answers to these questions by focusing specifically on the role of WhatsApp in Nigerian electoral politics and Nigeria 2019 Election. Although the centrality of social media platforms to information flows around electoral processes globally is now widely acknowledged by scholars, practitioners, industry, commentators and even politicians themselves, WhatsApp’s influence has received far less attention in this regard than Twitter or Facebook.³
WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned private messenger application, is nonetheless playing an equally important, though harder to quantify role, in the spread of information during election campaigns and votes.⁴ Ahead of national elections in April and May 2019, for example, India’s political parties were pouring money into creating hundreds of thousands of WhatsApp group chats to spread political messages and memes.⁵
In Brazil’s 2018 election, candidate – and now president – Javier Bolsonaro’s campaign benefited from a powerful and coordinated disinformation campaign intended to discredit his rivals.
According to one academic, supporters used WhatsApp to “deliver an onslaught of daily misinformation straight to millions of Brazilians’ phones”.⁶ Even in countries where digital campaigning remains nascent, WhatsApp is playing an important role. Sierra Leone’s presidential vote in 2018 saw false rumours that were started on the platform appearing in national newspapers and on radio discussion broadcasts. Through word of mouth, telephone conversations or calls to popular radio shows, disinformation that originated on WhatsApp reached far beyond individuals with direct access to a smartphone.⁷ A similar phenomenon was noted in Malawi’s 2019 presidential election.⁸
In Africa, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in 40 countries, including Nigeria.⁹ Given the low data costs involved with usage and the simplicity of the application’s functions, it is fast catching-up with calls and text messaging as the most popular way of communicating in countries like Nigeria, where smartphones are available for as little as US $30. According to a civil society activist we interviewed in Abuja there has been “an explosion of WhatsApp use from 2015 to now … you give someone your number, the first thing that they ask you is: is that your WhatsApp number? It is taking over the communication landscape in Nigeria”.¹⁰ The data reflects this expansion.
Nigeria’s active social media users were estimated at 24 million in January 2019, a 26% increase on the number in 2018.¹¹ “I use WhatsApp more than I use the toilet,” remarked one user we spoke to, whilst another said that “it was the first thing I do in the morning and the last thing I do at night.”¹² 91% of individuals surveyed for this research, predominantly degree educated, urban residents, use WhatsApp.
It is therefore unsurprising that WhatsApp played a critical role in the spread of a range of “fake news” stories – or disinformation – during Nigeria’s 2019 election season, most notoriously the rumour that President Muhammadu Buhari had died and been replaced by a Sudanese body double named “Jubril”. The rapid spread of this story across WhatsApp and other platforms eventually prompted Buhari to address it directly.¹³
But while WhatsApp is often associated with the spread of false information it can also be a tool for accountability and monitoring; for improving the transparency of the electoral process. It can also offer opposition candidates a more level playing field when it comes to access to, and distribution of, information, and give youthful political activists an opportunity to enter and influence politics in a system often closed to those without wealth and extensive, elite networks.
The importance of finding a balance to ensure that the positive uses of the platform come to the fore and negatives are diminished is key in increasingly digital democracies like Nigeria.
Our research has therefore focused on answering four key questions, in the context of Nigeria’s 2019 elections. It builds on the research and efforts of Nigerian researchers and civil society groups to counter online propaganda, which the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), with partners, has been at the forefront of:
- How is WhatsApp used by political candidates, their teams and supporters to tailor political
messages to local and electoral contexts, and with what impact?
- What strategies do different actors and communities use to disseminate messages via
WhatsApp during elections?
- How far are voters influenced by political messages shared on WhatsApp?
- To what extent do voters distinguish between “fake” and “genuine” news spread on WhatsApp
In answering these questions, we adopted a mixed-methods approach, described in more detail below, and built on pre-existing research undertaken in Nigeria and elsewhere on the role of social media.
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