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2023 Elections: How campaign spokespersons spread fake news to promote presidential candidates

On February 11, Fani Kayode, Nigeria’s former aviation minister and the Director, New Media of the All Progressive Congress (APC) Presidential Campaign Council, shared a disturbing false narrative suggesting Nigeria was about to experience another coup de tat. He had claimed, via his verified Twitter page with over one million followers, that Atiku Abubakar, the presidential candidate for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), had a secret meeting with army generals ahead of the general elections.

“Why would a presidential candidate be having secret meetings with soldiers 14 days before the election?” he said, conspicuously pushing a disturbing narrative without providing any evidence. “Is this meeting part of the wider agenda to disrupt the elections, destabilise the country, set us on fire, incite chaos and violence, provoke a coup d’etat and establish a new and unconstitutional order in our beloved country under the auspices of an ING?”

Fani Kayode swallows morsels of fake news

A few days later, after hours of grilling and interrogation by the Department of State Service (DSS), the former aviation minister retracted his statements and expressed regrets over his comment on possible collusion between some elements in the military and the presidential candidate of the PDP. He, however, declared that he would verify the source of such news next time before putting it out on his social media pages.

He might have shown remorse after Nigeria’s secret police challenged him, but such propagandistic claims are typical during elections. This year’s general election is not an exception. As Nigerians prepare for the forthcoming poll, information disorder appears to be the order of the day. Politicians have tooled fake news, false narratives, propaganda and hate speech to stay ahead of their opponents in the campaign spaces.

Sadly, spokespersons of major political parties in Nigeria have also used social media to spread disinformation in favour of their presidential candidates, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a Nigerian non-profit organisation, revealed in a gazette titled “Online operations: Nigeria’s 2023 social media election campaigns.”

The CDD verdict is corroborated by this researcher’s online surveys of how influential election merchants demarket their opponents by spreading disturbing fake news, propaganda and cyberbullying. Fani Kayode is just an example, but he’s not alone.

Since 2019, a media war has occurred between Nigeria’s major political parties, the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The ‘Atikulated’, supporters of Atiku Abubakar’s presidential ambition, and the ‘Batified’, the supporters of Bola Tinubu’s presidential bid, have now been joined by the ‘Obidients’, the followers of Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party, on the online battlefield towards the 2023 elections.

The battle line drawn among these three parties has been preoccupied with online threats, spreading lies and libellous claims about one another, an act punishable by the Nigerian statute. 

Many of such claims are what you might have consumed on social media that shaped your views about a party candidate. Let’s analyse some of them here.

Dino Melaye: “Shettima is a commander of bandits”

In July 2022, a picture of Kashim Shettima, the vice presidential candidate of the APC, dining with some five men wearing the look of herders. But it would soon be rumoured that the people Mr Shettima were dining with were members of Boko Haram, an Islamist terror group in Borno. At the time, Nigeria’s political vehicle had just zoomed off.

However, Nigerian fact-checkers would soon pass a verdict, noting that “there is no sufficient evidence to back the claim that the Senator was dining with alleged Boko Haram members as depicted in the viral photo.”

Meanwhile, in November 2022, Dino Melaye, PDP’s campaign spokesperson, rejuvenated the dead matter, saying Mr Shettima was a commander of bandits, Nigeria’s local terrorists. Mr Melaye did not provide evidence of Mr Shettima’s commandeering banditry involvement. He would instead base his narrative on the viral photo and the falsified claims around it. 

“Overwhelmed by the conviviality of a civil atmosphere, Kashim Shettima, the Grand Commander of bandits and the running mate of the Presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress ( APC), who has gathered enough funds from his field soldiers to be so intoxicated as to engage in a verbal gibberish that is only permissible in Sambisa Forest,” Mr Melaye said, adding that, “he has been seen in footage where he was exciting a rented crowd with whimsical pot shots at His Excellency Atiku Abubakar.”

Festus Keyamo: “Peter Obi bribes CAN pastors with ₦2 billion”

On February 12, the spokesperson of the APC, Festus Keyamo, via his Twitter page, joined others to spread the claim that Mr Obi of LP had bribed some Nigerian pastors with over  ₦2 billion to mobilise voters for him. 

Mr Keyamo shared the story published by an unknown blog, Nigeriancheck, without attempting to authenticate it. The tweet had nearly one million views; it was liked by over 2,000 Twitter users and retweeted by over a thousand others.

Reacting, a social media user, Christian Chukwu, said: “Coming from a SAN, right? A simple due diligence check should have told you this propaganda is solved; we are waiting for the next one.”

Several others corroborated Mr Chukwu’s worry and wondered why the APC spokesperson would share such a fake story only to count political score and demarket an opposition party presidential candidate. The story had since disappeared from the news website cited by Mr Keyamo. 

But then, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) would later distance itself from the purported  ₦2 billion allegedly given by Mr Obi to churches under its umbrella.

LP supporters: “INEC probes drug allegations against Tinubu”

In November 2022, a press release said to be let out by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) went viral on social media, with Twitter and Facebook influencers known for campaigning and canvassing votes for Peter Obi, the Labour Party’s presidential candidate, sharing massively to spite Bola Tinubu, the All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential candidate. 

Before then, Mr Tinubu had been largely accused of being a drug baron and a runner of a narcotic cartel. The so-called press release attributed to INEC was only consolidating the allegations and pledging to investigate the matter. But interestingly, INEC denied writing such a letter, describing it as a fake press release.  

However, supporters of Mr Obi had campaigned with the press release on social media and validated it. David Hundenyin, a known supporter of Mr Obi and a Twitter influencer with thousands of followers, had shared it without necessarily verifying the story. He is not alone. Many LP supporters and politicians, including a certain DEMAGOGUE PHD, a popular social media influencer, and AriseTV, a broadcast news medium, fell for the widespread of the letter, airing the fake press release, after which the civic, social media space went agog.

By the time INEC would come out to deny the disturbing claim, the false story had been consumed by unsuspecting readers who believed that the drug baron probe allegation was true. The narrative pushed by the LP supporters, and a section of the PDP, turned out to be false, but fake news peddling would not stop in the political space.

Fake news jeopardising peaceful election conducts — NPC

On January 21, the National Peace Committee (NPC) led by former Head of State, Abdulsalami Abubakar, urged the Nigerian presidential candidates to mind their word usage and desist from spreading disinformation during the ongoing campaigns across the country. 

“I appeal to you all to be moderate in your language, show respect to the views and concerns of one another and listen to the concerns expressed,” he said.

Corroborating CDD, the civil society organisation warned Nigerians against a multiplicity of actors working to muddy the water and make sorting fact from fiction difficult for Nigerians during this electoral season. 

“For the first time, presidential campaign spokespersons, across all main parties, are pushing disinformation using their social media handles,” it noted. “An analysis of breaches of the Peace Accord moderated by the National Peace Committee revealed more than 63% of the infractions were on social media.”

However, spreading fake news is punishable by imprisonment of three years or a fine of N7 million or both, according to the Cyber Act of 2015. Also, the 2022 Electoral Act prohibits using intemperate, abusive, and slanderous language during campaigns. The provisions of the National Peace Accord by the National Peace Committee (NPC) further require signatories to commit to the non-usage of fake news and intemperate language during the 2023 campaigns. 

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