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Analysis of Claims on #EndSARS Protest in Nigeria: Images most manipulated content, Twitter as major platform

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Summary

What started as a peaceful protest that compelled President Muhammadu Buhari to respond to the allegation of police brutality and extra-judicial killings of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria was later weaponised with provocations and disinformation leading to loss of lives and property. While the Nigerian Army was accused of using lethal weapons to disperse peaceful protesters at the Lekki Tollgate, some of the protesters and their sympathisers employed the weapon of mass dis and misinformation to counter the forceful dispersion of the protesters. There were claims and counter-claims, with  the two sides providing  narratives to win favourable public opinion. This incident laid credence to the assertion that dis and misinformation have the same potentials as weapons of mass destruction.

The above conclusion was based on the content analysis of fact-check stories on #EndSARS protest in Nigeria between 1st and 31st October, 2020 published by Africa Check, AFP Hub, Dubawa and People’s Check. The study focused the analysis on:

  • Media organisations that fact-checked contents concerning claims around the #EndSARS protest,
  • The number of fact-check stories about #EndSARS in the selected media organisations,
  • The stakeholders which  promoted the narratives  (Government, Protesters, Media, etc) of disinformation about #EndSARS protest,
  • The media platforms that were used to promote false information on #EndSARS protest, and 
  • The form of contents which the claims on #EndSARS protests were presented.

This content analysis provided the empirical data on the severity of dis and misinformation on the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria.

Dubawa being the first indigenous fact-checking outfit in Nigeria, published the highest number of fact-checks compared to Africa Check and AFP Hub. This indicated that due to proximity, Dubawa gave prominence to the #EndSARS protests more than other fact-checking organisations. 

Though social media users and celebrities accounted for a higher number of sources of claims on #EndSARS protest in the fact checks carried out by the selected fact-checking organisations, other stakeholders who were also sources of claims fact-checked included protesters, politicians, mainstream media, and security agencies.

Twitter was the dominant platform that was used to promote the claims on #EndSARS protest fact-checked by the selected fact-checking organisations. WhatsApp was expected to have been the major platform due to mass adoption and usage in Nigeria but Twitter occupied the position. This led the researcher to ask whether the support by the CEO of Twitter for #EndSARS protest contributed to this. Or it was influenced by the deliberate adoption of Twitter by the organisers of the protest.

The content analysis of fact-check of claims on #EndSARS protest identified images as the most manipulated contents. Over 50 percent of the claims were presented in image format, unlike audio that has no claim, with such format fact-checked, despite its popular use on WhatsApp.

Introduction

What started as a peaceful protest on 7th October 2020 that compelled President Muhammadu Buhari to respond to the allegation of police brutality and extra-judicial killings of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria, was later weaponised with provocations and disinformation leading to loss of lives and property. While the Nigerian Army was accused of using lethal weapons to disperse peaceful protesters at the Lekki Tollgate, some protesters and their sympathisers employed the weapon of mass dis and misinformation to counter the forceful dispersion of the protesters. There were claims and counter-claims, with the two  sides providing narratives to win favourable public opinion. This resulted in the death of 100 people with over 260 assets burnt

The protesters and government competed to label each other as purveyors of disinformation. For instance, a catalogue of pictures appeared on social media platforms showing pictures of those who allegedly spread disinformation about the #EndSARS protest. A review of this content revealed that it exhibited one of the characteristics of propaganda – “unidentifiable sponsors”. 

Pictures shared on social media accusing Nigerian celebrities of spreading disinformation

BBC also documented misinformation that went viral online during #EndSARS protest especially on social media. These are content mostly shared on social media platforms. Many of these social media users can however not be verified. They hide under the anonymous nature of these social media platforms and false identity to spread dis and misinformation about the #EndSARS protest. According to Kunle Adebayo, “this practice provides an incentive for people to create multiple accounts on social media and assume false identities in order to gain followers.”

There are series of assertions surrounding the #ENDSARS protests which started on the 7th of October, 2020. The Punch, reported that “particular concern was the Lekki toll gate shooting of Tuesday, October 20, where peaceful #ENDSARS protesters were shot at by security agents, leading to yet-to-be ascertained number of casualties.” Similarly, the Nigerian police also claimed that scores of policemen were killed and hundreds of police stations destroyed during the protest. There has not been enough empirical data to confirm or refute many of these assertions. 

Even before the #EndSARS protest, there have been debates on the appropriate strategies and approaches to combating the problem of dis and misinformation in Nigeria. While some stakeholders are calling for regulation of social media, others described fact-checking and information literacy as the best solution.

This study, therefore, interrogates this phenomenon by conducting comparative analysis of fact checks published by Africa Check, AFP, Dubawa and People’s Check in order to answer some questions occasioned by the assertions around the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria.

Research Objectives

To determine the frequency of fact-checks on #EndSARS protest by selected fact-checking organisations in Nigeria.

To examine the sources of claims on #EndSARS protests in fact checks carried out by the selected fact-checking organisations.

To find out the platforms used to promote the claims on #EndSARS protest fact-checked by the selected fact-checking organisations.

To examine the form of contents that the claims on #EndSARS protests were presented.

Method

The use of content analysis offered this study the opportunity to explore and analyse online manifest contents to determine the severity of dis and misinformation around the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria. It adopted a quantitative research approach just as the study conducted by Raji Rasaki to leverage on the content analysis of the fact-checks published mainly on the websites of the selected news media. This was complemented with literature and description of the quantitative data along the subject area.

The study selected all the three fact-checking organisations in Nigeria (Africa Check, AFP Hub and Dubawa) who are signatories to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and a fact-checking organisation operated by some Nigerian students (People’s Check). In order to ensure professionalism and using laid down parameters, IFCN assesses the suitability of organisations conducting fact-checking around the world. People’s Check was also selected because it is a fact-checking organisation owned by Nigerian students (the #EndSARS protest was largely championed by Nigerian youths). This was made possible through the guide to fact-checking ecosystem in Nigeria. The study focused on fact-check stories published between 1st and 31st of October, 2020 by the four fact-checking organisations operating in Nigeria. This period captured the days before, during, and after the #EndSARS protest. The researcher first examined all the fact-check stories (n=132) published by the four fact-checking organisations during the period under review. The study further conducted keywords searches on the websites of the fact-checking organisations to filter out unrelated #EndSARS protest fact checks. The use of the keyword “EndSARS” returned little or no search results on some of the fact-checking organisation’s websites. It is not clear whether this was due to non-use of the required keywords while posting related contents on the websites. The researcher addressed this challenge by scanning through all the fact-checks (1st to 31st October, 2020) related to #EndSARS published under different sections of the websites, thereby recording more published fact-checks compared to the results of the keyword searches. For instance, Dubawa  has a section (“Fact Checks”) where all its fact-check stories are published. This section has six sub-sections (Mainstream, Economy, Health, Education, Politics, and Security) but fact-checks related to #EndSARS appeared under Mainstream, Politics and Security. The researcher further eliminated results related to #EndSARS protests which are not purely fact checks but research and media literacy articles. In addition, fact-checks that were repeated on the same fact-checking organisation website were eliminated. The four fact-checking organisations operating in Nigeria published a total of 45 fact-checks during the period under review. All the fact-checks were published during and after the #EndSARS protest. 

Screenshots of results emanated from keyword searches on #EndSARS 

The content analysed are based on the following criteria: fact-checking organisations that published fact-check stories online; contents analysed are those published online on #EndSARS protest between 1st  and 31st October, 2020. The study considers claims on the #EndSARS protests by examining their sources, focus, platforms used to promote them, presentation formats of the claims, and targets of the claims.  It also analysed the verdicts of the selected fact-checking organisations on the claims, and fact-checking tools deployed to verify the claims. These form the units of analysis and content category for this research. In order to gather the required data, this study adopted the content category used by Rahemah Adeniran but with modification to satisfy the peculiarity and focus of this study.

Results and Analysis

Experts have linked protest with communication and one of the major tools of protesters and government is the adoption of information to sustain or discourage protests. In an attempt to win the information war, all manners of tactics are deployed to pollute the flow of  information to promote narratives to sway public opinion. This came into play during the October 2020 #EndSARS protest in Nigeria, calling for an end to police brutality and disbandment of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS). The protest started on October 7, a day after a video on Twitter went viral, showing a young man allegedly shot by SARS in Delta State.

Fact-checking organisations quickly brace up to the task by verifying claims made by the stakeholders directly or indirectly involved in the #EndSARS protest. Few days after the protest started, Dubawa published the first fact-check story on #EndSARS on the 9th of October, followed by People’s Check that published its first fact-check on 14th October, 2020. Africa Check and AFP Hub published their first fact-checks on #EndSARS on the 21st and 23rd October, respectively. Also, after the suspension of the protest, the spread of misinformation did not cease with Dubawa publishing its last fact-check on #EndSARS, in the period under review, on the 31st of October while Africa Check, AFP Hub and People’s Check had theirs on 29th, 28th and 28th October respectively. This shows that misinformation around the subject matter started before the full blown protest and it continued after the organisers announced the suspension of the protest.

Dubawa fact-checked highest number of claims on #EndSARS protest

To determine the frequency of fact-check on #EndSARS protest by selected fact-checking organisations in Nigeria, the study content analysed fact-checks by the selected organisations. Out of the 132 fact-checks related contents published in October, 34 percent (n=45) were fact checks around #EndSARS protest. Dubawa published the highest number of fact-checks (21), representing 47 percent of the entire fact-checks on #EndSARS protest. AFP recorded the lowest fact-checks (5)  representing 11 percent. What is responsible for high and low records of fact-checks by the selected organisations? Meanwhile, it was noted that Dubawa is the first indigenous fact-checking organisation in Nigeria, while AFP Hub is France-based news agency operating a fact-checking hub in Africa including Nigeria. The pattern was however slightly different from that of the People’s Check (based in Nigeria) that has 20 percent (n=9) compared to Africa Check (with headquarters in South Africa) that recorded 22 percent (n=10) of the fact-checks on #EndSARS published by the selected fact-checking organisations.

One of the traditional criteria of determining newsworthiness is proximity (physical or psychological). By this news value principle, indigenous fact-checking organisations are expected to give prominence to fact-checks around #EndSARS compared to others with affiliations to international or continental organisations.

Table 1 : Distribution of Analysed Fact-Checks on #EndSARS 

Fact-Checking OrganisationsFrequency Percentage (%)
Africa Check 1022
AFP0511
Dubawa2147
People’s Check0920
Total45100

Social Media Users, Celebrities as major sources of fact-checked claims

The claims on #EndSARS protests fact-checked by the selected fact-checking organisations were traced to social media users and celebrities. This data of the content analysis of the fact-checks indicated that 67 percent of the source of dis and misinformation on #EndSARS protests were spread by social media users.  This was followed by celebrities/social media influencers that accounted for 16 percent of the source of claims fact-checked on Africa Check, AFP, Dubawa and People’s Check. Other sources of claims fact-checked are politicians/political parties, mainstream media, impostor/parody social media accounts, and security agencies. 

Table 2: Sources of #EndSARS protest claims fact-checked by Africa Check, AFP Hub, Dubawa and People’s Check in October, 2020.

Claim SourcesAfrica Check AFPDubawa People’s CheckCumulative
Social Media Users07 (70%)04 (80%)14 (67%)05 (56%)30 (67%)
Parody/Impostor Accounts01 (20%)01 (2%)
Celebrities/Social Media Infliuencers02 (20%)01 (5%)04 (44%)07 (16%)
Politicians/Political Parties01 (10%)03 (14%)04 (9%)
Mainstream Media02 (9%)02 (4%)
Security Agencies01 (5%)01 (2%)
Total10 (100%)05 (100%)21 (100%)09 (100%)45 (100%)

The finding of this study revealed that the largest percentage of false claims on #EndSARS protest emanated from social media users. Do they spread the information without knowing that they are false and without the intention of causing harm (misinformation) or the opposite(disinformation)? A grassroots campaigner, Hamzat Lawal, in a tweet chat on #EndSARS and misinformation on Nigeria’s social media space said “the internet allows for all kinds of news to be shared and in the case of the #EndSARS protest, false information was shared either intentionally or not.”

This again lays credence to the need for information and digital literacy to equip social media users with the skill of verification and culture of being critical when it comes to consumption of information.

Twitter as a major platform for spread of misinformation on #EndSARS protest

The data generated from the content analysis revealed that Twitter was the major platform used to promote claims on #EndSARS protest. This is because 36 percent of claims fact-checked by the four fact-checking organisations were promoted on Twitter. Adeniran (2020) discovered a similar pattern in the study that content analysed claims and fact-checks on the 2020 Governorship election in Edo State. The NOIpolls, in its 2019 Social Media Poll report, rated Facebook (86%) and WhatsApp (84%) as the most used social media platforms in Nigeria but they accounted for only 20 percent and 9 percent respectively of claims on #EndSARS protest fact-checked. Could the dominant use of Twitter for the spread of misinformation on #EndSARS protest be partly due to support for protest by Jack Dorey, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Twitter? Or is it because the organisers officially adopted or used Twitter for the campaign? There is a dedicated hashtag (#EndSARS) officially recognised by Twitter. Similarly, all tweets with the hashtag are retweeted by bots. Aside this, the organisers used Twitter to mobilise support (logistic and finance) in support of the protest. The mysterious ‘Anonymous’ of the #EndSARS protest, that allegedly hacked public institutions websites, also operates a dedicated Twitter handle.

The data of the content analysis also shows that the same claim on #EndSARS protest was promoted on multiple social media platforms. This represented 31 percent of the claims fact-checked. Is the low fact-checked contents on Facebook indicates that the platform discourages or controls the spread of misinformation on its platforms?

Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu argues why there are more contents about #EndSARS protest on Twitter than on Facebook. He explains this in an article on Quartz, titled – “Facebook and Instagram made missteps on Nigeria’s EndSARS protest while Twitter boosted it“: “Twitter gave the EndSARS hashtag an official emoji and verified the Twitter accounts of several users at the forefront of the protest. This act of support contributed to the global credibility of the protest and boosted the movement both online and offline.”

But it was not the same with Facebook and Instagram as Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu expressed concerns that “Instagram and Facebook platforms, which are both owned by Facebook Inc, both flagged posts containing words such as “#EndSARS” and “Pray for Nigeria” and of photos of a blood-stained Nigerian flag and a burning candle as fake news, and users were directed to an unrelated fact check article for explanations.”

Facebook and Instagram later apologised for the error with explanation that its Algorithm wrongly label as ‘fake News’, posts about #EndSARS on its platforms.

There is a need to establish whether there is any significant relationship between the above variables.

The result of this study shows that social media platforms especially Twitter was massively used for the spread of dis and misinformation on the #EndSARS protest. What role did social media policies on spreading misinformation on these platforms played during this period? To what extent did the Third Party Fact-checking programme of Facebook and similar programmes of other social platforms curtail or reduce the spread of misinformation on these platforms?

The mainstream media however recorded the lowest (2 percent) of the claims promoted on different platforms. Only Dubawa fact-checked claims promoted on mainstream media. By this, does this signify that mainstream media are more credible than social media platforms in terms of information flow? Despite record of low usage of mainstream media to promote misinformation about the #EndSARS protest as evident by the finding of this study, some television stations came under the sanctions of National Broadcasting Commission (NBC). As a politician affiliated with the ruling party sues the CEO of Twitter and calls the sanction on Twitter for supporting the #EndSARS protest, there was no report of such sanction on any social media platforms or their users. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Muhammed renewed the call for regulations of social media. This call was made despite the existence of Cybercrime law and other related legislations gazetted in the Nigeria status book. 

Images as most manipulated contents of the claims fact-checked

After examining the form of contents that the claims on #EndSARS protests were presented, images (pictures, screenshots etc) were the most manipulated compared to other contents fact-checked by Africa Check, AFP, Dubawa and People’s Check. Out of the 45 contents fact-checked, 51 percent were images with videos accounting for 26 percent followed by text (16 percent). While seven percent of the claims on #EndSARS were presented in multiple forms, none of the claims fact-checked was presented in audio form. Claims in audio form are usually presented on WhatsApp platform as Africa Check and Dubawa fact-checked one claims each from this platform while People’s Check fact-checked two claims on the same platform. AFP did not fact-check any claims on WhatsApp platform despite widespread use of this platform by Nigerians. This also reflected on why audio, which is prominent with WhatsApp, did not appear as the presentation format of claims on #EndSARS protest fact-checked by the fact-checking organisations.

Issues of focus in the claims on #EndSARS protest

To examine the issues of focus in the claims on #EndSARS protest, the study analysed the contents of fact checks by the selected fact-checking organisations and identified about 20 issues. Some of these include: shooting/killing of protesters, death of Buhari, destruction of public properties/arsons by protesters, arrest of fake army, call for curfew, support of protesters, death of celebrities. Others are: UN intervention/Diplomatic row, BBC apology, attack on security agents, looting by protesters/hoodlums, disgrace/attack on public figures by protesters, dissolution of SARS, and holding Nigerian flag as immunity from being shot by security agents

Similar issues raised in the claims were fact-checked by all or some of the selected fact-checking organisations while others were exclusively fact-checked by individual organisations. For instance, all of them fact-checked claims of protesters’ destruction of public property. Only People’s Check fact-checked claim of Video Of Femi Adeshina Calling #EndSARS protest A Child’s Play. It was only Dubawa that fact-checked claims on  a video used to portray Obasanjo running away from Nigeria.

The #EndSARS protest was one of the top trending search terms on Google in Nigeria in October, 2020. Also, the faces and voices behind the protest appeared as the most trending on the search engine. This includes Aisha Yesufu, who tops the list of those featured among the most asked questions for the month. It added that people are also keen to know where President Muhammadu Buhari was as he waited days before addressing Nigerians on the protest.

“According to Google, the top 10 trending questions for October 2020 are: Who is Aisha Yesufu? Where is Buhari now? Who is the winner of BBN 2020? Where is Tinubu now? How to track a stolen phone? Who is Anonymous? Who is Tompolo? How to prepare jollof rice? Who is leading in the Ondo election? Who is DJ Switch?” according to The Guardian.

Security Agencies as most target entity of claim

The Nigeria Army, Police, and other security agencies are the most targeted entity of claims on EndSARS protest. This is because security agencies accounted for 38 percent (n=17) of the total persons and institutions that are targeted with claims fact-checked by Africa Check, AFP Hub, Dubawa and People’s Check. This was trailed by Protesters (16 percent; n=7), politicians/political parties (16 percent; n=7). Public figures as well as private/public institutions had 13 percent (n=-6) each while celebrities/social media influencers are the least target entity of claims on EndSARS protest (4 percent; n=2).

Table 3: Target Entity of Claims

Target of ClaimsAfrica CheckAFPDubawaPeople’s CheckCumulative
Security Agencies3 (30%)3 (60%)7 (33%)4 (45%)17 38%)
Protesters2 (20%)1 (20%)3 (14%)1 (11%)7 (16%)
Politicians/Political Parties1 (10%)6 (29%)7 (16%)
Public Figures1 (10%)1 (20%)3 14%)1 (11%)6 (13%)
Private/Public Institutions2 (20%)2 (10%)2 (22%)6 (13%)
Celebrities/Social Media Influencers1 (10%)1 (11%)2 (4%)
Total10 (100%)5 (100%)21 (100%)9 (100%)45 (100%)

Conclusion

This content analysis provided the empirical data on the severity of dis and misinformation on the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria. 

Dubawa, being the first indigenous fact-checking outfit in Nigeria, published the highest number of fact-checks compared to Africa Check and AFP Hub. This indicated that due to proximity, Dubawa gave more prominence to the #EndSARS protests more than other fact-checking organisations. Meanwhile, there might be other intervening variables that influence this which is open to further interrogations. 

Though social media users and celebrities accounted for higher number in terms of sources of claims on #EndSARS protest in the fact-check carried out by the selected fact-checking organisations, other stakeholders which include protesters, politicians, mainstream media and security agencies are also sources of claims fact-checked (majority of which are false).

Twitter was the dominant platform that was used to promote the claims on #EndSARS protest fact-checked by the selected fact-checking organisations. WhatsApp was expected to have been the major platform due to mass adoption and usage in Nigeria but Twitter occupied the position. This led the researcher to ask whether the support by the CEO of Twitter for #EndSARS protest contributed to this or it was influenced by the deliberate adoption of Twitter by the organisers of the protest.

The content analysis of fact-check of claims on EndSARS protest identified images as the most manipulated contents. Over 50 percent of the claims were presented in image format unlike audio that has no claim with such format fact-checked and is popularly used on WhatsApp.

There was an increase in spread of dis and misinformation in the events and days to Lekki Toll Gate shooting with assertion that the information pollution during this period was partly or wholly responsible for the destruction of public and private property, looting, arson and killing of security agencies by hoodlums. Hamzat Lawal in the Dubawa Tweet chats on EndSARS and Misinformation raised a similar observation: “One instance of the dangers of fake news is the claim that carrying the Nigerian flag would prevent a soldier from shooting you. Misinformation like this is not only improbable but could cost us lives. While a lot of the agitation was stirred by genuine anger caused by the incidence of police brutality, misinformation had a role to play in fanning the flames.”

Is it the characteristic of protest to be hijacked by hoodlums or it was spread of dis and misinformation on the Lekki Tollgate shootings that raised emotions and tensions which encouraged some Nigerians to engage in civil disobedience and criminal acts? Abdul Mahmud, an activist and social critic during the Dubawa tweet chat submitted that “the violence experienced had nothing to do with fake news but the sole actions of those he described as ‘the underclass’ who took advantage of the situation.” Similarly, report by Premium Times attributed arson and looting during the #EndSARS protest in Ondo State to curfew declared by Governor Rotimi Akeredolu. And in another report, it described looting and arson as “unprecedented” in the history of Nigeria. There is a need to interrogate the (dis)connection between these variables.

Going by the findings of this study, there is a need to consider the concerns that fact-checking in the world is on the “defensive” rather than being “offensive”. Fact Checkers therefore need to put up measures to discourage purveyors of disinformation from setting agenda for them. One area where the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) needs to look into is the use of bots and sponsors of fact-check contents on social media. 

This research is conducted for the Dubawa Fellowship programme (2020), and is supported by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Foundation, to amplify the culture of truth and contribute to literature around information disorder.

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