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Critical insights from DUBAWA’s study on Twitter bot activity in the lead-up to 2023 Nigerian Elections

Just months before the 2023 elections in Nigeria, DUBAWA conducted a study that sheds light on a concerning trend! There was a growing number of followers on Twitter for the key presidential candidates, and it does not appear organic. Hence, the hypothesis was clear: unknown actors attempted to manipulate Nigerian political discourse on Twitter through the pervasive use of bot accounts. Thus, the study found the significant presence of bots, especially during crucial campaign periods, which raises concerns about the authenticity of online political engagement and its potential influence on voter perceptions. 

The bot accounts in question exhibited particular traits, like having few followers and following a small number of accounts. Although the study didn’t fully identify the individuals behind these bots or their motivations, it did highlight these significant findings:

1. Twitter (bots) in Nigerian political discourse 

The study revealed a significant presence of bots among the Twitter accounts following the five chosen candidates for the 2023 Nigerian elections (Tinubu, Obi, Atiku, Sowore, and Kwankwaso). About 12.7% of the 9.8 million accounts following these candidates were identified as bots. Most of these bot accounts were established in 2022, particularly in the months leading up to the official start of political campaigns. There was a notable surge in bot creation in August and September 2022, especially linked to crucial political events like primary elections. But what do these numbers signify? We must revisit Tunde Opeibi’s 2019 study titled “The Twittersphere as a Political Engagement Space: A Study of Social Media Usage in Election Campaigns in Nigeria.” In his study, he observed how social media networks alter the landscape of party politics and election campaigns in Nigeria, particularly encouraging novel methods to attract voters and involve ordinary citizens. He specifically highlighted Twitter’s usage in election campaigns and civic engagement from 2012 to 2015. 

However, it was in the 2022 elections that these findings began to unfold clearly. You might argue against it, but it’s hard to deny that Twitter almost became a rehearsal stage for the Nigerian elections in 2023. Consequently, when Nigerians realised that Twitter had become a powerful platform for political discussions and amplifying their voices, it was expected that those seeking an advantage would amass the most followers, whether bots or actual people. The indications of Twitter evolving into a dominant political medium were apparent even in previous elections, notably the 2015 election that generated over 12.4 million tweets. However, to underscore its significance and impact in the 2023 elections, DUBAWA’s discovery of over 2 million bot accounts following the key presidential candidates couldn’t have been a coincidence. Twitter has now cemented its place in Nigeria’s political landscape, and the substantial presence of these bots indicates that political entities are well aware of the platform’s influence.

2. Candidates and bot followers: Peter Obi led

Despite variations in the number of overall followers for each candidate, the proportion of bot followers wasn’t directly correlated with the total number of genuine followers. Peter Obi, for instance, had a higher percentage of bot followers (25%) compared to Atiku Abubakar (9.2%) despite having fewer total followers. Yet this was not so surprising since Peter Obi’s presidential candidature seemed to gain more ground on Twitter than any other candidates. The same pattern was also found when analysing hashtags directly related to each candidate, revealing significant bot activities around them.  The level of bot activity correlated with the number of bot followers a candidate had. In other words, Peter Obi’s related hashtag, particularly #obidient, had the most bot accounts around it. But can hashtags influenced by bots guarantee real-life political success? In Obi’s case, despite losing the 2023 elections, his Twitter-fueled movement had a broader reach and was particularly effective in disseminating political campaign messaging, unlike other candidates. This was especially true for Tinubu, now President Tinubu, the victor of the 2023 presidential elections, who, before the elections, described his social media experience in politics as: “I don’t read social media anymore; they abuse the hell out of me. If I read it, I get high blood pressure and get angry. I don’t read it, so if I want to hear anything, my children or workers will say this one said this, and when I’m tired, I say, please forget it.” 

3. Strategic Bot Creation

An intriguing finding was the surge in bot creation following crucial political events, notably the primary elections in June 2022. For example, Obi, who was found to have most of the bot account followers created in 2022, was mainly after the primary elections in June. This finding resonates with the spiral increase of his followership; Obi’s followers, as of February 26, 2022, were  705,600 but increased by over 1.3 million to 2.1 million by September 2022, which was a similar situation with Atiku.  This surge indicated a strategic effort to amplify candidates’ presence on Twitter during pivotal moments, hinting at a concerted attempt to sway online discourse. Yet, even this finding is not new. In a study by Emilio Ferrara, a research assistant professor of Computer Science at the University of Southern California, on ‘How Twitter bots played a role in electing Donald Trump’ back in 2016, at least four million election-related tweets were found to have been sent during the campaign, posted by more than 400,000 social bots.

Another significant finding highlighting the importance and strategic timing of bot creation and utilisation was that about one in every five election-related tweets from September 16 to October 21 (2016) was generated by bots. Like DUBAWA’s research, Ferrara found that bots on Twitter are segregated and align with a particular candidate or party. “We found that, in general, negative tweets are retweeted at a pace 2.5 times higher than positive ones. This, in conjunction with the fact that people are naturally more inclined to retweet content that aligns with their preexisting political views, results in spreading content that is often defamatory or based on unsupported, or even false, claims.”

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