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How WhatsApp influenced Nigeria’s recent election — and what it taught us about ‘fake news.’

WhatsApp’s use as a tool for political campaigns and sharing fake news across the global south has become increasingly apparent in the past year. High-profile state level elections in India in May were highly influenced by WhatsApp sharing, according to Washington Post reporters and other observers. Brazil’s presidential vote in October was shaped by WhatsApp sharing of fake news, much of it done by automated bots.

That’s happening as well in Nigeria’s elections, where citizens will vote Saturday for a president and the legislature, and on March 2 for state governors. In December, the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, used his trip to a U.N. summit to deny a rumor that he had died and been replaced by a Sudanese clone named Jubril. The story, supported by doctored photos, circulated for months on social media, including across Nigeria’s most popular platform, WhatsApp. The rumor emerged after Buhari spent several months outside Nigeria seeking medical treatment. His absence fueled false reports that he had died. The Jubril rumor is just one example of the “fake news” that stalks Nigeria’s elections.

How we researched WhatsApp’s use in Nigeria’s 2019 election

Although this is not Nigeria’s first social media election, it may be its first WhatsApp election. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, WhatsApp and its end-to-end encryption allows stories and messages to be shared widely without revealing their origins. With its simple user interface, minimal entry requirements and affordability, WhatsApp is many Nigerians’ primary communications tool.

To better understand how Nigerians are using WhatsApp during elections, we conducted two dozen in-depth interviews with leading political party representatives, civil society groups and media in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja in February. Our ongoing research will include focus group discussions, interviews and a survey in Kano and Oyo states before and after the March gubernatorial elections.

Our initial research identified four key lessons about how WhatsApp is shaping the Nigerian elections.

1. WhatsApp groups spread messages far and wide

The average Nigerian WhatsApp user belongs to lots of “groups,” sharing messages with different sets of friends and acquaintances. This allows them to instantly share thoughts and ideas with a big group of people and explains how fake news can spread quickly. Taking a message from one group and sharing it with another can start a ripple effect that can cover the country.

WhatsApp groups have a limit of 256 members. In Nigeria, they are often centered around professional associations, religious affiliations and alumni networks, or the groups are designed to support the goals of a particular social movement. In any one group, a member can receive several hundred messages a day. A member of five groups can forward a message to 1,280 people with unparalleled speed, despite restrictions newly introduced to slow fake news from spreading.

2. Political parties are taking advantage of these groups — and sometimes encouraging them

WhatsApp is teaching old leaders new tricks. Boye Adegoke, information and communications technology program manager at the digital rights social enterprise Paradigm Initiative, told us, “The old men of the political parties may not have a full grasp of how [WhatsApp] works, but they understand the importance of it.”

Digitally savvy youths lead political parties’ online campaigns, operating informally while being tacitly endorsed by parties. Youths with varying degrees of political access saw this opportunity and, in some cases, responded to political party overtures. They build networks of several hundred WhatsApp groups. They then offer these to political parties as networks to promote the party’s agenda, “fact check” claims of their opponents, and create and disseminate misleading and false information.

Political parties may not directly control this, but they are not trying to stop it. In fact, our research suggests that they are often paying those at the top of these online youth structures or promising rewards should they be elected to office.

3. Truth is relative

WhatsApp messages are powerful because of the platform’s intimacy. For the most part, messages come from family members, friends or respected society members. Naima Abubakar, a lecturer at Bayero University who has researched women’s use of WhatsApp in Nigeria’s Kano State, told us, “Unless someone else that they trust more comes with a different truth, they won’t stop believing the original information.”

Several people we interviewed say that the less educated and more rural are most likely to treat as credible their family members or friends in a WhatsApp group. But urban voters are not immune. As one of those we interviewed admitted, “When I receive a message in my church group, I don’t question that it is the truth.”

This poses a significant obstacle for fact-checking initiatives such as the Centre for Democracy and Development’s Fact Check or CrossCheck Nigeria. Nigerians have little trust in the political elite or the news media, preferring instead to believe friends, family members or community leaders.

4. People interpret the rumors they hear through their everyday experiences with the state

WhatsApp amplifies how Nigerian society interacts, offering even greater reach and speed for rumors and allegations that spread anyway — but not as quickly. Ethno-religious identity and divisive party politics shape what people believe. Take the Jubril rumor: It was started by a Biafran separatist leader whose Igbo support base will be inclined to believe his view, regardless of its authenticity.

The Jubril rumor also resonated because it is consistent with Nigerians’ lived experience. One of Buhari’s predecessors, Umaru Yar’Adua, also spent months of his presidency abroad for medical treatment, dying in office in 2010 after months of speculation that his advisers were keeping his condition a secret to preserve their influence. The presidency had kept details about Buhari’s health a secret. Some Nigerians took this as evidence that the government could have covered up his death to hold onto power.

What’s more, for poorer citizens, who cannot afford health care, serious illness nearly always leads to death. The idea that Buhari could recover and look healthy again does not resonate with their own health-care experiences.

The future of social media

Social media’s use and abuse is constantly evolving. Nigeria’s nonurban areas are not very digitally literate or even fully literate. This is particularly true of older people. As we’ve seen in the United States, people in this demographic are often the most likely to share disinformation — at least, according to our interlocutors. The more digitally aware younger generation remain credulous about disinformation, particularly when it comes from trusted sources. As populations across the African continent are becoming ever younger, social media’s significance will only grow.

Jamie Hitchen (@jchitchen) is a freelance research analyst and the co-author of a chapter on WhatsApp’s use in Sierra Leone’s 2018 election in “Social Media and Politics in Africa,” forthcoming from Zed Books.

Jonathan Fisher (@JFisherBham) is reader in African politics at the University of Birmingham, and co-author with Nic Cheeseman of “Authoritarian Africa,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Nic Cheeseman (@Fromagehomme) is professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham, and author of “Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform” (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and, with Brian Klaas, “How to Rig an Election” (Yale University Press, 2018).

Idayat Hassan (@HassanIdayat) is executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Development.

This research is being funded by WhatsApp, which has no say in the editorial content.