Jamie Hitchen (independent) – Idayat Hassan (Centre for Democracy and Development) – Dr Jonathan Fisher (University of Birmingham) – Professor Nic Cheeseman (University of Birmingham)
Date of publication : July 2019
The following excerpts come from pages : 06 – 07, 16, 20, 22, 24, 27 – 29, 32 – 36
“Social media has changed the face of politics in Nigeria.” So said many political candidates, professionals, non-governmental organization (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 helps to provide some answers to these questions by focusing specifically on the role of WhatsApp in Nigerian electoral politics. 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.
In Africa, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in 40 countries, including Nigeria. 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”.
The data reflects this expansion. Nigeria’s active social media users were estimated at 24 millions in January 2019, a 26% increase on the number in 2018. “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.” 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 rumor 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.
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.
Four key and, to an extent, interlinked, findings emerge from our interviews, discussions and surveys in Abuja, Kano and Oyo :
Organisation : The political use of WhatsApp is becoming increasingly sophisticated and organised, but a significant proportion of activity remains informal, in part by design. In turn, this limits the ability of formal structures to set and control narratives. This means that WhatsApp replicates existing clientelistic networks, but at the same time has the potential to generate space for a broader range of non-elite, including women and youth actors, to enter the political arena.
Content : Different types of content shared online have varying impacts depending on who they have been shared by and how they are presented to the user. The format of messages pictures are more powerful than text – and the regard in which the individual sharing the information is held, shapes popular perceptions of their credibility.
Networks : Offline and online structures are interlinked, reinforcing and building on each other in ways that it is important to understand. As a result, in many respects WhatsApp amplifies the significance and influence of networks that already exist within Nigerian politics and society.
Impacts : WhatsApp is used to both spread disinformation and to counter it. The private messenger application is also used to observe elections and to share fact checking information. It therefore represents a competitive information environment that may spread misinformation but also levels the playing field between the ruling party and the opposition and can be used to boost electoral transparency and accountability.
Political entrepreneurship or reproducing clientelism ?
Political parties and candidates in Nigeria are increasingly recognizing the importance of online organization around elections. The 2015 elections were the first time WhatsApp had been given significant attention during a national election. Following the polls, a consensus emerged among APC supporters and members that social media had played an important part in Buhari’s election. By 2017, two years before the presidential elections were scheduled to take place, the Buhari Media Centre (BMC) had established a network of groups on WhatsApp that extended across all 36 states and 774 local government areas (LGAs).
The view that drove this approach was outlined by a key BMC strategist :
“If you take the fact that Nigeria Communication Commission estimates there to be over 100 million internet users in Nigeria and compare that with the voter register of 84 million, our assumption was that every voter was potentially online. WhatsApp is cheaper than text messaging and you can get everyone in one place.
Creating political space?
In Elnathan John’s recently released satirical book, Becoming Nigerian : A Guide, the author cites a quote about how to use social media if you are a politician. “All you need are motivated guys that have internet connection and hope that when their oga’s hustle is blessed it will reach them. It is these ones who will identify anything bad said about you and attack appropriately.”
As with all good satire, there is a lot of truth in this statement. As one active APC supporter in Kano told us told us, “The party is not in control of what is shared or even created in these groups – this is up to the creativity of the individual. And to a large extent the party (APC) doesn’t care where the content comes from or whether it is true but that it helps get them ahead of the PDP is all that matters.”
Analysts agreed but noted how, “It is very hard to prove that they [party officials] actually sat down [and ordered the creation of fake news]. They [young supporters] will create something on social media, share what they have done and then say [to politicians], ‘Here is what I did for you, boss.'”
These social media entrepreneurs are not just young men they are almost exclusively men with limited skills looking for a short-term opportunity. Graduates with a strong understanding of how social media platforms operate are also used, as they often bring with them a sizeable online presence : “These are people who are conversant and really understand how social media works.” One of the social media entrepreneurs interviewed for this research in Kano had over 85,000 Facebook followers and almost 25,000 Twitter followers.
Claiming to be a member of more than 600 WhatsApp groups, he boasted that his name was known by every LGA head in northern Nigeria. While he may have been exaggerating for effect, one respondent in Abuja noted: “Some of these young guys on social media are so influential that the governor will know their name.” Similarly, one influencer we met in Kano had met both presidential candidates during the course of the 2019 campaign as each side tried to buy his loyalty.
Even for those with limited access, social media offered the chance to showcase loyalty that might be rewarded, creating a new path to political influence for Nigerian youth. A report produced by the Centre for Information Technology and Development in Kano, shows that many state governors have up to 200 Facebook pages; the majority created by individuals with no affiliation to the governor directly but who hope to be rewarded for their public support for him.
Similar approaches were used on WhatsApp with individuals seeking to show their value to a particular party or candidate by doing everything they could including creating and sharing false information to enhance their chances of victory. Self-reporting propaganda taking screenshots, of WhatsApp stories and sharing it with others was one approach used by social media influencers to get themselves noticed.
Our research indicates that the format, style, source and content of a piece of information shared or received on WhatsApp all have a critical impact on how far they reach, and how far they are believed.
The role of networks, and trusted sources :
Despite the introduction by WhatsApp of a label on messages showing if a message has been forwarded or not, several people we spoke to highlighted the importance of who the immediate sharer of the information is, even if they were not the originator, as being a decisive factor in whether they believe the content. “Once you get the info in a certain group you believe it [all content] is true … when I receive a message in my church group I believe it to be true, even though in some instances it has later been proven not too have been.” Furthermore, in the view of an academic studying the use of WhatsApp among women in Kano, “Unless someone else that they trust more comes with a different truth, they won’t stop believing the original message [regardless of its content].”
This poses a challenge to fact-checking initiatives looking to set the record straight on false accusations and re-emphasizes the importance of local context, and structures, when seeking to understand information flows on WhatsApp.
Social media offered the chance to showcase loyalty that might be rewarded, creating a new path to political influence for Nigerian youth
The type and format of the content being shared on platforms like WhatsApp is also important.
Our survey shows a significant difference in the use of language on WhatsApp between Kano and Oyo. 96% of respondents in Oyo said that the most frequently used language across groups they were in was English. In Kano, although English was still the most commonly used (62%), 36% of respondents said they typically use Hausa and a majority of the social media influencers in Kano we spoke to for this research operated primarily in Hausa. That is not to say that many respondents were not in groups that combined Pidgin, Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba, but that these were used less often, which perhaps reflects the relatively high level of education of our survey respondents. In the view of one interviewee in Kano, “When people [who speak Hausa] see a message in Hausa they are even more likely to believe it than when they see it in English.”
Images vs text ?
Images were also viewed by many of our respondents as constituting an extremely effective way of sharing information of all kinds across WhatsApp groups. “Pictures are so important … we hardly write text messages to be honest,” one social media influencer in Kano told us. This view was shared by a compatriot in the state who noted, “We look at how people receive and consume messages on WhatsApp and we tailor all our materials to that … people relate to colourful pictures, a lot of them are not [able to] read long materials … so we ‘fact-check’ statements of our opponents and put them on colourful posters saying this and it is not true.
Impact on voting ?
Another unanswered question is how much impact WhatsApp has in actually shaping or changing people’s minds when it comes to voting. This is a complicated thing to measure, not least because people do not always want to say how they voted, but is an area that would benefit from more research. One point that was mentioned several times in interviews was the idea that the contest on WhatsApp was more about discrediting the opponent, than actively securing new voters.
This point was summarized best by a female participant of a focus group discussion in Kano :
“The strategy is not to win voters over by selling them what you will do or promoting the policies you want to introduce, but to discredit the other party so much that voters will be forced over to your side.”
This view was shared by a prominent civil society member in Abuja who noted, “I have never been part of a political WhatsApp group where parties are using it to promote their own manifesto promises … attacking opponents is the norm.” In Kano, WhatsApp was used particularly on voting days to spread information that violence was taking place around polling stations in opposition strongholds. During the supplementary election on 23 March many videos of violence were shared, some of which were true, but many of which could not be verified and gave a skewed impression of just how severe the scale was in certain areas.
In some cases, sharing false information about violence seems to be designed to suppress turnout in a rival’s home areas. By the time such rumours are countered, they have often had a sizeable impact by making voters too fearful to go to vote.
One point that was mentioned several times in interviews was the idea that the contest on WhatsApp was more about discrediting the opponent, than actively securing new voters
The increasing prominence attached to WhatsApp by candidates’ supporters and strategists is an indication that they believe it has an impact, even if this is hard to quantify. As one official explained, “WhatsApp is fairly new in public consciousness but a lot of things we do now have to be targeted at WhatsApp … though you cannot measure the impact compared to Facebook or Twitter … other than if I send a video out and by the evening 20 people have sent it back to me. It is basically just gambling.” But in Nigeria’s win-at-all-costs political system, there are lots of people willing to gamble.
Navigating between online and offline spaces : Beyond the “digital revolution”
“WhatsApp,” as one digital rights advocate in Abuja observed, “is an amplification of what already exists people gathering at newspaper stands, in the hairdressing salon, the barber salon people bring information from nowhere and then it spreads to motor parks and so on … what makes WhatsApp significant is that it is not complex; with Twitter and Facebook you need to set up a profile but with WhatsApp you just need a phone number.”
The technology has simply provided a new and faster platform for conspiracy theories to flourish, but the fertile ground already existed. As one respondent noted, the “reach and speed are new, but rumours themselves are old”.
The strategy is not to win voters over by selling them what you will do or promoting the policies you want to introduce, but to discredit the other party so much that voters will be forced over to your side
The interaction between information shared on WhatsApp and the offline context in which senders of that information exists is a crucial part of the digital ecosystem, and challenges claims that the platform has revolutionised political campaigning. Rumours can start on WhatsApp, spread offline, and then even come back online on different social media platforms, expanding the audience beyond simply the number of users with access to WhatsApp directly, or even indirectly.
Messages also move between social media platforms, with WhatsApp messages posted to Twitter and Facebook. Many influencers believe that it is when individuals see messages on a variety of platforms that they start to believe them. Content shared on WhatsApp, be it false or accurate, can shape offline views by “shaping people’s conversations with friends” and by becoming discussion points of radio talk shows. As WhatsApp becomes an increasingly important source of news, the significance of political rumours is only likely to increase. Here the power of community leaders, religious preachers and even family heads to stop the spreading of false information is significant.
WhatsApp has not replaced the need for physical ground campaigns
A candidate who unsuccessfully contested in the primaries for the House of Representatives in Oyo, reiterated from his experience that “even if they like you [as a candidate] they will take offence if they don’t see you.” But what the network of WhatsApp groups does provide is a cheaper and faster way of reaching out to voters more consistently and more often during campaigns; to be more responsive and interactive with prospective voters; and, a tool to discredit and attack potential rivals.
Groups typically replicate offline structures of networks and communities
Politics is a topic for discussion, particularly during elections, across all groups but our survey suggests that a number of offline structures of social organization are replicated online. In Oyo, the four most common types of groups respondents were characterized as religious (36%), academic (29%), political (27%) and those representing alumni networks (25%). In Kano the notable difference was the importance of family (41%) and friendship (38%) groups, which were followed in importance by political groups (28%) and alumni networks (22%). What this data illustrates is that WhatsApp is not necessarily creating new forms of social structures, but rather building on, and altering, existing ones by bringing them into a digital realm and allowing information to spread faster.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Striking a balance
In Nigeria, WhatsApp is both a major conduit for the spread of disinformation and misinformation and yet a key tool for tackling “fake news”. It also plays a role in strengthening accountability and offers a new pathway through which the youth and women can increase their participation in politics. The dilemma to be grappled with is therefore how to strengthen WhatsApp’s contribution to democracy while reducing its negative impact. So, what can be done ?
Removing encryption or allowing governments to censor WhatsApp or social media in general is not the best way to move forward. As one political commentator noted, “You cannot control social media, that is the wrong approach, even if we had the technical ability to do it, which I doubt, it is not the way forward.” Especially in a country like Nigeria with a history of authoritarian rule and a government with questionable commitment to key democratic norms, strengthening government control is likely to facilitate the erosion of civil liberties in the future.
Moreover, heavy handed efforts to manage WhatsApp would risk undermining its potential to strengthen accountability in evolving democracies.
As a space for (in)formal political organisation, debate and discussion; for sharing audio, visual and text-based content to a diverse an ever-increasing audience; and for connecting communities online and for providing cheap and simple access to communication, WhatsApp has the potential to support efforts aimed at generating a more informed electorate and a more accountable political system.
We therefore need to look for other ways to harness WhatsApp’s democratic potential while reducing the damage done by disinformation. While political rumours and misinformation will always be part and parcel of election campaigns, digital literacy campaigns can ensure that users will be better equipped to interrogate and question the authenticity of messages they receive.
WhatsApp group administrators have an important role to play in this process. In non-political groups, they are already doing this. For example, “In professional groups [those organised around work] admins are much more diligent in keeping the quality of information higher…sometimes it’s the group admin, other times it is a sort of group-wide admin,” noted one analyst.
Others mentioned that “some WhatsApp groups those with more academic members require members to verify posts,” with Naija News and Sahara Reporters, as well as national daily newspapers, CNN and Twitter, cited as credible sources of evidence. In a number of cases, we found that groups had codified rules that are regularly shared, prohibiting practices such as abusive language and sharing “fake news”.
Indeed, many non-political groups actually ban members from sharing political news and exclude those who break these rules. It was also noted, though, that in some social groups that are less well policed, oversight is weak, enabling messages to be shared with little scrutiny. This is a significant cause for concern given that our survey found that, especially in Kano, these were the most popular types of group to be a part of.
The problem is of course particularly acute when it comes to the political groups set up by candidates and activists, where the idea is to promote a certain point of view and there is much less concern about information it is verifiable.
The findings of this research from Kano and Oyo offer new insights that can drive more nuanced interaction with WhatsApp by policymakers, civil society and citizens more broadly. These may be applicable to Nigeria as a whole and even extend to neighbouring countries in the sub-region but before Kano or Oyo’s experience is used to inform policy making elsewhere, further research to better understand local dynamics in a particularly setting is encouraged. That is just one recommendation this research study proposes. It argues that there are both short-term and long- term approaches that can support a shift in the balance of WhatsApp use; to emphasise its positive functions and minimise the negative uses.
Short term targets
1 . Make it easier to leave groups and report disinformation
WhatsApp has not created “fake news” in Nigeria but it has provided a new vehicle for the spread of it. In our discussions, respondents noted that one of the problems was that people could add them to groups without asking permission. This is something that WhatsApp is seeking to address by trialing an update that would allow users to change their privacy permissions to limit unsolicited additions.
This is a good start, but it has yet to be rolled out worldwide. A second problem is that many Nigerian users want to be able to leave a group without all other members receiving a notification, so that they feel less pressure to remain in groups that are sharing information they do not wish to receive, but at present this option is not available. The inclusion of a simpler, visible “report content” mechanism would also encourage individuals who are concerned about a message that they have seen to communicate their worries. At present, only user accounts themselves can be reported.
2 . Targeted digital literacy training on responsible use of WhatsApp
Given the importance attached to receiving information from a trusted source, targeting respected individuals religious preachers and community leaders improving their capacity and willingness to screen out “fake news” would be an extremely valuable step. Training of this kind could also encourage social influencers not only to cease sharing unverified rumours but also to persuade their followers to do likewise.
3 . Reinforce the ability of WhatsApp group administrators to set standards
In groups created to serve a political purpose this will be difficult but in groups where politics is one part of the discussions, these rules, if enforced, can support the development of critical thinking and a normative shift in what online engagement looks like. Some of the most effective groups have clearly defined rules that are regularly shared so that members are aware of them, enabling effective enforcement. Model “codes of best practice” could be designed and shared over WhatsApp to encourage other groups to follow suit.
4 . Invest in fact-checking initiatives that work in local languages
The effectiveness of fact- checking initiatives may not be immediately realized as their diligently compiled content often produced hours, if not days after a story first circulates struggles to penetrate networks of WhatsApp groups. But, over-time, fact-checking initiatives can support a change in mindset among WhatsApp users. It is increasingly important they do so in a way that makes them more relevant at a sub-national and even LGA level. For Nigeria this means working more in Pidgin English, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo and focusing on stories with sub-national resonance and relevance.
5 . WhatsApp should strengthen its ability to understand the risk of misuse by opening an office on the continent
With its application the most downloaded in over 70% of African countries, WhatsApp should devote greater research to how it is being used and time to explain changes and functions of the application (such as the report function) to citizens in languages they are familiar with. Although Facebook does have a presence on the continent, and Facebook owns WhatsApp, no WhatsApp staff are based in Africa. An office of the continent, would be symbolically important, but should be enhanced by greater listening to WhatsApp users.
Long term goals
1 . Comprehensive digital literacy education as part of the national curriculum
A more digitally educated and aware population is the most effective means of reducing the spread of disinformation and misinformation on WhatsApp. A multi-pronged, cross-sector approach is needed to prepare citizens of all ages for the complex digital landscape of the future especially as new developments such as “deep fake” videos are just around the corner.
This sort of campaign can target different demographic and social groups in ways tailored to their particular needs and can be overseen by a Digital Education Working Group: comprised of key stakeholders from civil society, media, the education profession, politics and government. As part of this process, digital education should be made part of the national curriculum.
Equipping the next generation of Nigerians with the skills to better discern fact from fiction on WhatsApp will reduce the need for perpetual digital literacy campaigns. Nigeria’s education sector, and political parties developing policies, must start thinking about how to best incorporate digital awareness and critical thinking into the curriculum for secondary school, tertiary institutions and university students.
2 . Develop WhatsApp codes of conduct for future election campaigns
Having a set of standards that candidates have promised to adhere to would allow civil society organisations and the media to hold them to account when they, or their supporters, fail to do so. These should be developed through a consultative cross-party basis, so that key parties and leaders feel a sense of ownership over the agreement. Publicising such codes of conduct, for example through high profile signing ceremonies, can further strengthen a normative shift towards citizen driven accountability and the public shaming of those spreading disinformation.
3 . Support continued research into the use (and abuse) of WhatsApp
Given the closed nature of WhatsApp, research is difficult and resource intensive. Both policymakers, development partners and WhatsApp itself should support research that improves our limited understanding of the platforms political effects. Only with better knowledge can more effective and locally relevant solutions be generated.
4 . Enhance online protection of data and civil liberties
Nigeria’s Digital Rights and Freedom Bill was presented to the President in March 2019 to be signed into law, but Buhari did not give his assent arguing that it covers too many technical subjects and fails to address any of them extensively. Passage of the bill, which aims to provide for the protection of the human rights online, to protect internet users in Nigeria from infringement of their fundamental freedoms and to guarantee the application of human rights for users of digital platforms and/or digital media, into law would be a welcome and continent-leading step.
Source photo: CDD West Africa