When social media first entered the Nigerian technology space in 1995 through the UNESCO sponsored project, named the Reginal Informatics Networks for Africa (RINAF), it served as a means of interaction among people in which it was used to create, share and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. The people from virtually all walks of life make use of social media to connect, enhance their businesses, broadcast news, relax, and use it to promote political participation (Amuoluwapo, 2017).
Egbunike (2015) in his article “The Untold Story of Social Media and the 2015 Nigerian Election” observed that the granting of license to internet service provider by the Nigerians Communications Commission (NCC) and the explosion of mobile phones technology made Nigerians become technologically equipped to explore, share and make their voice heard, turning the social media into an electioneering tool for creation of political awareness, mobilization, participation in elections and in keeping check of electoral candidates. Somehow, misinformation infiltrated the media and became a great threat to democracy. It grows daily as many sources and platforms keep emerging, the majority of which were creation of politicians who deliberately spread misinformation through the social media to interest groups or innocent citizens who are ignorant of the false content of the information and the intention of the source which fuel hate speech, distrust and abuse of freedom of expression and threaten the unity of the country.
During the 2019 electioneering campaign in Nigeria, Apuka and Omar (2020) noted that fake photos, doctored video contents, and news exacerbate tensions to cause conflict, fake media posts to intensity regional and religious crises were freely shared on social media. Furthermore, misinformation has taken international dimension in Nigeria’s electioneering campaign with a post on Facebook linked to a Tel Aviv political Consulting firm which smeared the 2019 opposition presidential candidate.
To curtail the negative effect associated with the spread of misinformation before the 2019 elections, “First Draft,” a British Nonprofit Organization which focuses on tackling misinformation along with other 16 Nigerian media organizations came together to fact-check and debunk political campaign misinformation that might arise during the 2019 general election. (Kazeem 2018).
In the same vein, media organizations in Nigeria, coordinated by International Centre of Investigative Reporting (ICIR), came together ahead of the 2019 election to combat misinformation and other media factors that could negatively impact or influence the election. Their aim was to investigate claims and rumours that would be circulated on social media and debunk them before they go viral (The Cable, 2016).
Bearing in mind that the social media is the fastest means of spreading misinformation, coupled with increase in number of internet users in Nigeria which rose from 25 million in 2012 to 103 million in May 2018, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with the support of Fredrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and Macarthur Foundation organized a 2-day International Conference, with the theme : “Democracy & Disinformation: How Fake News threatens our Freedom & Democracy.” The conference gathered over 100 experts in Abuja to deliberate on the phenomenon of fake news, misinformation /disinformation, their effects on Nigeria democracy and how these could be mitigated.
Government agencies were not left out of the struggle to mitigate the effect of misinformation before the 2019 general elections. The National Orientation Agency (NOA), a government agency with statutory legislative backing to enlighten the citizenry and create awareness for behavioral change and modification, was strategically positioned to create awareness, enlightenment and develop sensitization programmes to inform the citizen on the ills of misinformation and its implication on voters’ decisions. The Agency through the instrumentality of its nationwide structure put together events where issues related to voters’ education and misinformation were discussed.
All efforts put in place by government agencies, media, and Non-governmental Organizations to curtail and tackle the spread of misinformation before the 2019 election Campaign made little or no impact as misinformation persist to the point that social media was turned to a battle ground where misleading information were posted, retweeted and main political parties turned their campaign headquarters into fake news factories.
International media organizations, such as the BBC’s reality check team observed that “Written posts, photos and videos have been shoved on social media platforms, publicly on Facebook and in private WhatsApp groups, spreading unsubstantiated rumours about the candidates”.(Nwaoko, 2019).
There is no doubt that misinformation cases in Nigeria are on the increase, no week passed by with no cases of misinformation investigated and articles published to debunk and reduce the spread. Dubawa.org and other fact-checking organizations are at the forefront of debunking claims and creating media awareness to make the citizens aware of the dangers of sharing misleading information.
The struggle for political influence and popularity over the opponent has greatly increased the spread of misinformation, the measure of popularity which is determined by the number of votes accredited to a candidate made the scramble for votes a legitimate business for the politicians, leading to unhealthy rivalry which in turn makes the political candidates employ misinformation techniques to gain votes.