For most fact-checkers, 2021 is not a year to forget so quickly. It was the year they saw a plethora of false information about the novel COVID-19 vaccine; false theories about the cure for coronavirus and the metamorphosis of the COVID-19 virus from the delta to the omicron variant currently raging.
While the year might have proven itself a hard nut to crack, it has undoubtedly left lots of viable lessons behind. Lessons not just for journalists but also to everyone who was not oblivious to the previous year’s drama.
As such, entering 2022 may be perceived as the soothing point that should set the pace for a calmer and less dramatic season, with a hopeful perspective that most citizens should hold, but perhaps not for fact-checkers, especially those in Nigeria who may be up for a big fight this year in these key areas.
The 2023 general election
The 2023 general elections are slated to be held in about a year. Anyone familiar with the sociopolitical context of Nigeria would recall the common knowledge that the year preceding a general election in Nigeria is charasterically as hot as the actual election year. Candidates announce their interest, political parties hold primary elections, and the dissemination of inter-party or inter-candidate allegations to gain an advantage becomes fraught or volatile.
For example, in 2018, warming up to the 2019 general election in Nigeria, Lauretta Onochie, a Special Assistant on Social Media to President Muhammadu Buhari was criticised on Twitter and forced to apologise to Nigerians after sharing a picture of a road in Rwanda, which she claimed was constructed by the Buhari administration in Nigeria.
“My big mistake, apologies to all, friends and wailers alike. It won’t happen again,” Lauretta apologised, but not after the information had already gone viral.
Still, in the same year, 2018, just months after her false road claims, Onochie claimed that Atiku Abubakar, her principal’s chief opposition and presidential candidate for the 2019 election, had shared food and money during his campaign rally to lure voters.
She accompanied the claim with an image of food packs with 500 notes attached to it: “saying keep them in poverty, then give them handouts. Atiku in Sokoto yesterday”.
But unlike Onochie’s earlier false claim, the narrative she wove about Atiku also turned out to be false, as multiple fact checks conducted showed the image she shared was taken from a charity event.
While she again apologised, Onochie explained that “The story I posted was true”. “It’s the images that were the issue. I pulled it down, and I have apologized. I have never deliberately posted fake news and I never will,” she added. Yet her statement was not entirely true, as the tweet still remains on her twitter page till date.
Even more, in a fact-check conducted by AFP on a pro-Atiku claim, the platform wrote:
“As the final hours tick down until Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election, a video has surfaced on Facebook claiming to show US President Donald Trump endorsing opposition presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar. Trump has made no such endorsement, and the video was a doctored version of footage showing the American president in October 2017, signing an executive order weakening the health reforms known as Obamacare.”
Yet that’s not all, rumors about top political figures defecting to other parties usually makes the trend. In 2018, a number of claims circulated when some members of the National Assembly defected from the All Progressives Congress (APC) to the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). This year, misinformation in this area is most likely to erupt since Rabiu Kwankwaso, a prominent politician and former presidential aspirant, has already debunked a claim about him defecting from PDP to APC.
Even more, president Buhari’s reluctance to openly endorse anyone as his successor may also open up space for debate and possibly breed misinformation. These few instances of misinformation created ahead of the previous general election not only predict possible recurrence this year, but possibly a slew of electoral misinformation a year to the general elections.
The Covid-19 vaccine
In an interview conducted by Nigeria Health Watch on “How misinformation impacts COVID-19 vaccine uptake,” some respondents bared their thoughts.
“Nobody can convince me to take the COVID-19 vaccine. I don’t trust the government to give me anything that is free and good for me. Nothing is free in Nigeria. I know they want to insert a microchip in us so that they can control us,” Mary was quoted as saying.
“I would rather travel to Ghana or Dubai to take the vaccine than take it here in Nigeria. I trust the vaccine itself, but I don’t think the one they’re giving us here in Nigeria is real,” another respondent, Babatunde, was quoted as saying.
While these are just two perspectives regarding acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria, the responses signal the extent of misinformation in rooting unfounded narratives around the vaccine. Relatedly, current data from World Health Organization indicates that as of 3 January 2022, a total of 15,485,143 vaccine doses have been administered in Nigeria. Though this is a remarkable increase in number, the achievement was not without the massive media campaign initiated to fight against instances of viral misinformation disseminated.
Prominent figures like Dino Melaye and Femi-Fani Kayode, who also dissuaded people from taking the vaccine, caused a serious setback to the campaign. However, thankful to the numerous efforts of fact-checkers, the duo not only restated their stands, they also took the vaccines.
Yet with all this improvement, the fight is apparently not over, as the number of vaccinated persons is not nearly a quarter of the total population of the country. Also, the emergence of multiple theories about the effect and people’s reaction to the vaccine in the last quarter of 2021 signals the prospect that this topic, though reminiscent of the 2021 trend, is not likely to diminish in 2022.
The topic of security in Nigeria is no doubt a viral one. Last year, Dubawa debunked over 100 security related claims.
False and sensitive claims emerging in the form of videos, images, voice notes and even forged screenshots were used to spread false security claims.
These claims were not only found to have caused panic but also to have instigated a lingering fear amongst the Nigerian populace. Though most of them were fact-checked almost instantly, their wide negative impact was not a matching feat.
Till the last quarter of 2021, security issues that relate to banditry, kidnapping, Boko Haram and even ritual killings have been sensationalised by fake news merchants to either exaggerate the situation or tilt the narrative.
This was perhaps why the Commonwealth Security Group wrote that:
“Whilst disinformation and false news stories are a well-known and much maligned phenomenon of elections and political campaigns, less is understood of their direct threat to national security. This Situation Insight explores the threat that disinformation poses to security in Nigeria, where efforts are being taken at state and national levels to address false news stories that are stirring up intercommunal violence and hampering effective emergency response efforts.”
This further reinforces the continued importance of fact-checking as regards security, not just in 2022 but in years to come. As such, until complete peace reigns in Nigeria, the possibility of security related misinformation is not only predictable but also anticipated by many people, given the experience of 2019.