The crazy rumours and conspiracy theories circulating during the campaign included a claim that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un planned to colonize Nigeria and a video, viewed more than 500,000 times, reporting that President Muhammadu Buhari had died and been replaced by a Sudanese clone. Buhari, who is running for another term, was forced to issue a public denial
Less sensational but undoubtedly more dangerous fake news and disinformation campaigns were widely circulated by the supporters and even the campaign teams of the two main candidates. Buhari’s special adviser on social media posted a video on Twitter which she said showed the president’s supporters at a rally when in fact it was a huge religious gathering that took place last April. She also posted a photo of a road being built in Rwanda and said it was an example of the President Buhari’s public works. The supporters of the leading opposition candidate, billionaire and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, also resorted to disinformation as a campaign tool. For example, they published a photo of US President Donald Trump that had been digitally altered to show him holding a photo of Abubakar.
“Fake news has reached unprecedented heights,” RSF was told by Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a Nigerian research institute. The main political parties have turned their campaign headquarters into “fake news factories,” she said.
“Nigeria has never before been affected by rumours, fake news and propaganda to this degree ahead of an election,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Even more disturbingly, the political parties and their supporters have abetted this unprecedented pollution of the public debate.” Froger added: “The candidate who wins these elections must ensure that the freedom, independence and protection of journalists are priorities during his presidential term. Combatting the spread of fake news requires a major and genuine commitment to the promotion of quality journalism.”
Anticipating the scale of the problem and the need for solutions, 16 of Nigeria’s leading media outlets teamed up to do fact-checking during the election campaign. Entitled “CrossCheck Nigeria,” their project has reported around 20 cases of false information since the start of the year.
Last July, information minister Lai Mohammed described fake news as “time-bomb” waiting to explode in Nigeria and announced the launch of a campaign to combat its spread.
This realization by the authorities of the dangers of disinformation has unfortunately not been accompanied by better protection for journalists. As RSF reported at the time, the army carried out raids on the Daily Trust newspaper and arrested two of its journalists last month after it reported that the Jihadi terror group Boko Haram had gained control of several northeastern towns and the army was planning an operation to recover them.
Nigerian journalists are often the targets of harassment and attacks. Last year, RSF registered four arbitrary arrests of journalists and eight act of violence against journalists by members of the security services.
Nigeria is ranked 119th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.