Much has been cited about the damage occasioned by false information in Nigeria. One of such was witnessed during the last nationwide protest against police brutality and impunity, tagged #EndSARS. No doubt, some citizens fell for fake information and acted on them. Some were cognitive enough. Why? They have developed different attitudes to false news. Relying on Cognitive-Reflective Test Theory as explored by Pennycook et al (2015), this study finds that the majority of the respondents felt there was a need for cognitive thinking and they explored the process; while a significantly low respondents were cognitively miserly, failing to override their instincts when they came in contact with false content. The study observes that the first category (the majority) have not changed their trust for mainstream media and are less likely to fall for fake information, while the second category (the minority) have proven to be undaunted in their instincts for social media and are more likely to be victims of fake information.
The study thereby recommends a further investigation into reasons news audiences fail to believe in verified information, even when it is crystal clear that the earlier information they were exposed to is false. It also recommends that news audiences must engage in effortful thinking when exposed to certain information going viral.
In recent times, there has been a serious outrage over police excesses and brutality by a cross-section of Nigerian youths. This development is tagged #EndSARS protest. What started in what was best described as peaceful protest ended up in killings, maiming, property destruction, arson, and the rest. The darkest part of the events around the protest was the barrage of false information that trended in the public space, most particularly on social media and the rate at which unsuspecting members of the public consumed these information.
Much of the noise about the protest was heard mostly on the major social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. It is on record that Twitter founder, Jack Dorsey, used his platform to garner support for the protesters, not only by tweeting in support, a customised émoji was also assigned to the protest on Twitter (QuartzAfrica, 2020). While technology is said to be the enabler of false information in the public space (Ziga TURK, 2018), the same technology has been cited as the potential tool to prevent it. This played out during and after the nationwide protest and the crisis that engulfed the nation following the military attack of the peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos, Nigeria.
Concerns have been raised over the roles of the social media platforms in either helping to perpetrate fake contents or providing a guide to their users against false information during the protest. At least, not a few news media and fact-checking organisations have flagged series of posts that went viral on social media as texts, photos and videos. There have been reports indicating different actors using social media platforms to feather their nests. While some suggest pro-government propagandists used the platforms to post contents to discredit the protesters, and some have shown how technology companies themselves incorrectly flagged posts published in support of the protest, others have reported clear fake contents going viral on the same social media platforms (QuartzAfrica, 2020).
Following these concerns, Nigerian government, through the Minister of Information, has “lamented that celebrities used the social media to circulate fake news during the #EndSARS crisis” (The Punch, 2020) and has also threatened to take action against the issue. “What we have always advocated, and what we will do, is to regulate the social media. Nigeria is not alone in this regard.” (The Nation, 2020).
BBC had fact-checked some posts that trended on social media, ranging from the image of a woman, Ugwu Blessing Ugochukwu, posted on twitter whose brother was allegedly killed by SARS and was fact-checked by BBC to be “The woman protestor whose brothers were not killed by the police”, to the picture of “the Nigerian Catholic Conference matching in support of the #EndSARS protest” and debunked by the BBC (Gris Global, 2020).
There was another theory circulating on social media that linked mere holding the Nigerian national flag to a compulsory restraint by the Nigerian soldiers from attacking the holders. Relying on this claim, and few days into the nationwide #EndSARS crisis, protesters were seen bearing the Nigerian flag anywhere they went or were found during protest. A twitter user had claimed that he spoke with his dad over concern for protesters and possible reprisal attack from the men of the Nigerian Army, to which the dad responded, saying that a Nigerian Army would not shoot at any Nigerian carrying the Nigerian flag. Yet, this apparently became a hoax as holding the national flag by the protesters seen in a viral video on CNN (CNN, 2020) at the Lekki Toll gate did not deter military officers from attacking them.
The impact of fake contents during the protest did not only create a series of fears and anxieties in many quarters, it also propelled a degeneration into a destruction of lives and properties. This forced many concerned stakeholders to react in very strong terms against the menace of misinformation. As regretted by Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, “we have seen the adverse effect of spreading fake news and misinformation on social media channels which escalated violence and carnage in the wake of the hijack of the peaceful #ENDSARS protests across the country.”
Decrying the inability of the technology companies particularly Instagram to flag false information going viral during the EndSARS protest, Ray Walsh, a digital privacy analyst at ProPrivacy based in the UK stressed that a great number of fake videos and photographs purportedly coming from the scene of shooting at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20, 2020, were a pointer indicating social media platforms are ill-equipped to adequately police the internet against misinformation. According to him, “Instagram’s algorithms have not adequately singled out posts that do contain fake news” and that “there is no doubt that Instagram and other social media platforms have proven instrumental in the spread of fake information”, proposing that it is essential that “fact-checking occurs with oversight on a case-by-case basis and platforms should spend greater amounts of energy and time ensuring their algorithms are not making unnecessary errors” (Ray Walsh, 2020).
Unfortunately, these false claims were quick to go viral. The psychology of the information consumers that made this possible is still a matter of serious concerns to researchers and experts working around a misinformation ecosystem. People tend to trust and believe those close to them and they end up creating their own echo chamber. To Katy (2018), news consumers are more susceptible and insist that the “better that we understand the way we think in the digital world, the better chance we have to be part of the solution”.
The general goal of this study is to investigate the attitude of the news audiences to viral information, particularly one shared via social media platforms, and as it relates to the recent nationwide protest in Nigeria, tagged #EndSARS. The specific questions are as follows:
- What is the audience’s ability to spot fake information relating to #EndsarsProtest;
- What is the audience’s most reliable source of information during the protest;
- Were the audiences ever ready to verify information to which they were exposed particularly in the post-shooting incidents;
- What propels them to still share, retweet, or forward false information even when they know it is false.
Linking News Consumers’ Psychology To Viral Misinformation
In a world where most information consumers are bombarded with online contents on an hourly basis, there is always a tendency to keep looking for quick answers, instead of being critical of what is going viral. Indeed, many people have resorted to finding quick answers, not in the text of any content anymore, but in mere pictures, even when those pictures have little or nothing to add to the truth of the fact on ground. Newman et al (2012) found that nonprobative photos and verbal information help people generate pseudo evidence. People may selectively interpret information gleaned from a photo or description as consistent with their hypothesis. They may also use such information to cue the mental generation of thoughts and images consistent with their hypothesis. It is also possible that the ease or fluency with which people bring related information to mind contributes to a feeling of truthiness.
One major possible explanation for this attitude can be seen in the ease of falsifying online content, from plausible but imaginary newspaper websites to photoshopping images and using machine learning and artificial intelligence to create “deep fake’’ video footage for political or other purposes (Linklaters, 2019).
Another major explanation has to do with the speed with which false information spreads. Experts have claimed that the speed can be up to six times faster than ‘normal news, propelled by instant messaging and, in particular, dissemination not by individuals but also networks of bots, which typically account for 25% of total traffic (Linklaters, 2019).
Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication, was of the view that having access to a myriad of false information particularly on social media can raise our anxiety since we tend to pay attention to bad news (Stanford News, 2020).
As reported by Niamh Campbell (2020), the influence of audience’ psychology on believing false information still revolves around fear and uncertainty and the need to find answers to them. Citing Dr. Babb, a clinical psychologist, Niamh reported from the angle of unhealthy gaps created by closed messaging Apps, such as Whatsapp and Facebook messenger that the “pass-it-on” instructions often attached with such messages tap into people’s anxieties and other emotions, fears and uncertainties which are triggered or evoked during crisis or significant event. It provides certainty (during uncertainty and misinformation) as it offers a solution in the form of information or guidance and offers the forwarding individual a sense of agency and movement (which is a defence against feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness).
For various reasons, which researchers have identified, why conspiracy theories thrive, ranging from political, economic or ego-related reasons, many of these played out in the events that define the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria.
When credible information and enlightenment may be lacking in times of crisis, conspiracy theories easily occupy the missing gaps. For the fact that information audiences want to satisfy their information needs, conspiracy theorists who rate themselves as critical thinkers, are readily available to offer such needs.
Sarah Desmonds (2020) in an article, “Why do conspiracy theories thrive during a crisis?” offers some insights into the gaps conspiracy theories fill in an absence of adequate facts. Part of these are traced to the psychological needs of the news consumers being taken care of. Conspiracy theories are explained to be some kinds of myth that “offer adherents an explanation for the inexplicable in a time of uncertainty”.
In an exclusive interview with Sarah (2020), Dr. Karen Douglas, a professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent, reveals that “people believe in conspiracy theories in the hope that they will satisfy important psychological needs.” According to her, people most times have a need for knowledge and certainty, to feel safe, secure, and in control to feel good about themselves. These needs sharpen in times of crisis and this is why conspiracy theories spike during epidemics, disaster, and geopolitical upheavals.
It is argued that since different myths can satisfy different needs, it is quite difficult to be explicit about personality type or background that makes one person more credulous than another. According to Douglas, people who are on the political extremes are more inclined to believe misinformation. In finding answers to the reason people believe in misinformation, Sarah (2020) reported that “conspiracy theories are a social problem. The question is not those who believe in conspiracy theories, but why, especially in times of crisis and turmoil, conspiracy theories come to be seen by so many as an attractive, plausible and acceptable point of view.”
While a psychologist has cited conspiracy theories as a social problem and one of the major reasons people fall for fake information, a communication scholar, Jeff Hancock (2020) identified fear and anxiety as a factor. According to him, when people are fearful, they seek information to reduce uncertainty. This can lead to believing information that may be wrong or deceptive because it helps them feel better, or allows them to place blame about what’s happening. This is why conspiracy theories become so prominent.
If humans fall for fake information due to fear and anxiety, there is also a reason to think of the roles of emotions and irrationality in the process of information disorder. For katy (2018), humans like to think of themselves as rational creatures, but much of the time we are guided by emotional and irrational thinking. Our responses to events or any content, for that matter, are often guided by an appeal to what psychologists call cognitive shortcuts, otherwise, known as heuristics. We might instead rely on what is known as the familiarity heuristic, our tendency to assume that if something is familiar, it must be good and safe. Propagandists often leverage on this familiarity heuristic. Once news consumers come across a content they have seen in the past, even if it is doctored, or manipulated, the brain uses that as an indication that it is true. As a guide against this, Katy suggests news audiences “will have to take initiative and also be willing to question their prejudices, to second-guess information they might like to believe”. About these events, It is important to understand the roles played by all sorts of information, whether true or false, that went viral.
#EndSARS: Why Audiences Fall for Misinformation: Using Cognitive Reflective Test Theory
Researchers have continuously worked to understand why news audiences fall for fake news. Part of their objectives have been to explain how some people are better at overriding their responses to viral contents than others. These overriding responses help researchers to understand why some are more prone to false information than others.
Adopting a behaviour research method, Pennycook et al (2015) used the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) to measure one’s propensity to reflect on intuitions. The CRT is part of the tools to assess individual differences in intuitive–analytic cognitive styles. To make it work, the respondents must be able to question the intuitive responses. As explained, intuitiveness “conventionally refers to the trust or faith that a person has in his or her gut feelings which is separate from, though not necessarily opposed to, the willingness to engage in analytic reasoning”. Pennycook et al cited instances where it is argued that successful CRT performance relies on rational thinking, or the tendency to avoid miserly cognitive processing. In other words, those who fail to question their intuitions are misers. Cognitive Reflective Test has been successful in its being deployed to explain human reasoning and decision-making. It is used to assess how much individuals have faith in their intuitions and instincts. Contrasting the Faith in Intuition scale and the Need for Cognition scale have been used to assess how much an individual engages in effortful thinking when exposed to certain information going viral. Pennycook et al explained that “both scales have been used to predict (differentially, in some cases) a wide range of psychological measures”; and while Faith in Intuition is a self-report measure of intuitiveness, Need for Cognition is a self-report measure of how much one engages in and enjoys effortful thinking. In other words, those who have faith in their intuition believe they can never go wrong in their conviction when confronted with any information and may not think twice before sharing such, whether true or false and the need for cognition explains why audiences should be critical in their conviction when consuming a piece of information. For instance, the result of the authors show that:
Intuitive individuals may or may not detect the need to think analytically about the problem, but they decide nonetheless to go with their gut…The logic of the CRT requires the assumption that the cued intuitions are common and are available to all or nearly all test takers, but that the disposition and ability to override these highly available tuitions are variable individual differences…(Pennycook et al, 2015)
Robson (BBC Future, 2020) reviewed this theory and observed that, when confronted with any information, whether in print or online, one needs to pause and override that initial gut response. For this reason, CRT questions are not so much a test of raw intelligence, as a test of someone’s tendency to employ their intelligence by thinking things through in a deliberative, analytical fashion, rather than going with your initial intuitions. The people who don’t do this are often called “cognitive misers” by psychologists, since they may be in possession of substantial mental reserves, but they don’t “spend” them. Cognitive miserliness renders us susceptible to many cognitive biases, and it also seems to change the way we consume information (and misinformation).
The import of this cognitive test is borne out of the need for news consumers to engage in critical and effortful reasoning in the process of exposure to any content. In reality, and in most cases, news audiences fall for misinformation because the scale of trust in their personal bias is higher than their ability to override their initial responses. The real task in this research study is to understand the logic behind the inability of news consumers to apply some mental engagement in critical thinking when they are exposed to fake contents. Quite a number of people fail in their test of ability to establish when a piece is suspicious. Even when it is obvious that a particular piece of information is a hoax, audiences still stick to their biases. Why do news audiences fall for fake content? Even when they are suspicious of a content, why do they still share, retweet, or forward to the next person? Why do people do nothing even when they lack faith in a piece of information? These and other relevant questions are the focus of this research study, using the Cognitive Reflective Test Theory.
This study embraces the quantitative research method, through the instrument of a questionnaire as its data collection method. The instrument which contains thirteen questions in google form was launched on October 25th, 2020, a few days after the protesters at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos were attacked by the men of the Nigerian military and the consequent viral pieces of fake contents circulating in the public space. The instrument, which remained in the public domain for a period of two weeks , appeared in eight WH-questions format, three closed-ended questions format and two open-ended format. Meredith et al (2016) found that posing wh‐questions (to respondents) is a challenging type of input, which elicits a verbal response that likely helps build vocabulary and foster verbal reasoning abilities. The open-ended questions were designed to retrieve indepth and robust responses from the respondents. The study used participants (n=47) to examine if variables such as age and education play any role in audience attitude to misinformation during the period under review. In terms of age, 54.4% reported to be within the range of 18-36 years of age, 40.4% reported to be between 37-55 years while only 2.2% were within 56-72 years.
Considering the level of education, the majority of respondents at 63.9% had University education; while 25.5% reported to be educated beyond University degree; 10.6% were educated up till college level but a little below University education.
This study is not without its limitations. These include: (i) insufficient sample size for statistical measurement (ii) Inability of the researcher to employ a triangulated research approach.
The effect of the insufficient sample size is observed on the small amount of responses collected from the open-ended questions which should have enriched the qualitative content analysis for the study.
Again, beyond mere online survey, a triangulated approach, which should include in-depth interviews, would have accorded the research method adopted for the study more credibility; but the limitation was due to limited time and resources available. For instance, the study did not find out the source of false information to which respondents were exposed during the #EndSARS protest. It did not also find out the strategies the respondents used to verify the contents they were exposed to. This would have afforded the researcher to examine the level of awareness and exposure of the respondents to media literacy and fact-checking tools used in the verification process.
Nevertheless, the sample size used for the study was representative enough to answer the research questions. Again, the deductive process adopted for the data analysis would make up for the lapses created by the non-inclusion of triangulated approach. In essence, future research can employ a mix of both qualitative and quantitative research methods that will not only provide enough frequency of occurrences, but also allow in-depth responses from respondents.
Q1. What is the audience’s ability to spot fake information relating to #EndsarsProtest?
Figure 1. Shows that the majority 89.4% fully understand what misinformation means, the form it takes and how it can transform. They also understand that it takes the form of text, photograph and video; a few (10.6%) have a narrow understanding of misinformation as they think it only takes the form of text only.
See figure(1) below:
In figure 2, when asked if they recognised false information during the #EndSARS protest, the majority (59.6%) of the respondents reported to have spotted false information during the protest. While a little more than a quarter of the respondents said they were not sure if they came across fake content, only 12.8% affirmed they lacked the ability to detect fake content.
See figure(2) below:
Q2. What is the audience’s most reliable source of information during the protest?
In figure (3), most respondents (34%; n=16) affirmed they got most of their trusted information via the broadcast media. This was followed by (27%; n=13) who reported having trusted social media for their information. Just a quarter of the respondents (25.5%; n=12) reported trusting newspapers the most while (23.4%; n=11) said they received their most trusted information via online news platforms. Only a few (8.4%; n=4) could not answer the question correctly.
See Figure(3) below:
Q3. Were the audiences ever ready to verify information to which they were exposed particularly in the post-shooting incidents?
In figure (4), the majority (44.7%) affirmed their readiness to verify their information through their trusted news media platforms. At least, a little more than a quarter of the respondents (25.55%) reported their readiness to verify their information on social media platforms, while a few (10.6%) said they hardly bordered to check the veracity of the information at their disposal. Yet, a negligible number of them said they had no reasons to check, while others explored personal instincts to satisfy their curiosity.
See Figure (4) below:
Q4. When confronted with a verified or fact-checked version of an earlier report, did the audience still share, retweet or forward false information?
In figure 5, to answer the above question, respondents were asked to first confirm if they could identify the most common form of misinformation they came across after the Lekki shooting. At least more than half of the respondents (51.1%; n=24) said they were exposed to fake photographs the most after the Lekki shooting. More than a quarter (31.9%; n=31) said fake videos were the most common misinformation they came across, following by those (27.7%; n=13) who said they were exposed to fake narrative the most after the shooting; while only (12.8%; n=6) said they never encountered any false information during the period.
See figure 5 below:
In figure 6, when asked if they changed their minds after seeing a fact-checked version, the majority (76.6%) affirmed they refrained from further sharing the false version. While at least a small percent (14.9%) said they still shared the false version despite seeing the fact-checked report, a negligible percent (8.5%) said they were not sure if the verified version changed their minds from sharing the false content.
See figure 6 below:
In figure 7, majority of the respondents (55.3%) affirmed that false information aggravated the crisis that characterised the #EndSARS protest. While at least more than a quarter (36.2%) said they were not sure if misinformation was a problem, while a very few percent (at 8.5%) disagreed.
See figure 7 below:
This study has shown that an average news consumer has a simple understanding of misinformation. Although the study uses age and education as one of the variables to understand the attitude of news consumers to viral content, the study finds no correlation between these variables (age and level of education) and the attitude of news consumers in relation to believability or otherwise in false information. For instance, out of those (10.6%) who reported not interested in verifying any content they had contact with were those with post-graduate education. Some of them reported that fact-checked versions of a content never changed their mind from initial exposure, saying “because what you call ‘countered’ are still fake”. Again, those (4.3%) that reported they “didn’t need to verify” information they have, were respondents within the age category of 37-55 years.
When compared, the number of those (76.6%) who believed the verified version of an earlier content with the number of those (15%) who reported that fact-check did not change their mind, this study shows that a significantly small section of news consumers apparently fell for false information during the #EndSARS protest. This is in agreement with an existing literature as observed in Nelson et al (2018). Drawing on the theories of audience behaviour, Nelson et al (2018) argue that the online fake news audience, like most niche content, would be a small subset of the total news audience especially those with high availability. They indeed find that “the fake news audience comprises a small, disloyal group of heavy Internet users.”
Although this study did not find out the source of false information to which respondents were exposed during the #EndSARS protest, there was every reason to conclude that social media and other unverified platforms were used as sources of false contents since most respondents reported to have been exposed to fake contents through photographs and videos. This observation corroborates an existing study which finds that “social media, particularly Facebook, are the main drivers of traffic to “fake news” sites and are responsible for about 4/10 of their traffic” (Dr. Ziga Turks, 2018, P 12).
While this study did not also find out the strategies the respondents used to verify the contents they were exposed to, it found that the greatest percentage of news audiences would prefer to verify the veracity of any claim through their most trusted news sources more than social media sources. While Dr. Ziga Turks (2018) finds that the most important source of news sources for the Americans was Television, this study found that the most credible source of information for the audience during #EndSARS was the broadcast media (34%). And the fact that more than a quarter of the respondents trusted newspapers (25.5%) more after the broadcast media, shows that a significant number of the news audiences still maintain their trust in the established news brands rather than social media.
Similarly, the finding of this study shows that news audiences who indicated social media either as their most trusted sources of news (at 27.7%) or as their most preferred platforms to verify news (at 25.5%) are more likely to be victims of fake information than others. This assertion finds corroboration in existing studies. Nelson et al (2018) which finds that “the use of these platforms alone does not lead to the consumption of fake news. Rather, it is the amount of time a user spends (on the platforms) that is likely correlated with levels of fake news use”. Another study (Ziga Turks, 2018) finds that “Fake news is discussed as much on social media as real news…some social media, particularly Facebook, determine what information users are more likely to see, and what people see can be hacked by social bots – software pretending to be human beings”. Stephanie (2019) also reports that “Websites containing hoaxes and misleading information pop up across the Internet and are often shared on social media to increase their reach – by both human users and artificial bots, deliberately or unintentionally spreading disinformation.”
Generally speaking, while the overall findings of a vast majority of news audience show that variables such as age and education play a less significant role in their attitude to news consumption and its believability and otherwise, this study suggests that many news consumers have a general tendency to override their personal instincts and engage more in effortful thinking. This played out in this study as the majority (55.3%) that believed misinformation created a big problem during the protest and more and more respondents (76.6%) affirmed they refrained from sharing false content having been exposed to verified contents.
Which False Information Exactly?
When asked to identify false information they were exposed to during the protest and after the Lekki shooting, respondents were quick to mention the following:
- That Tinubu travelled abroad. This claim was fact-checked to be a hoax by Dubawa, and titled: “#EndSars: Viral video suggesting Tinubu was chased out of France is a hoax” (Oct., 23, 2020)
- That Army denied the shooting in Lekki toll gate, saying is Photoshop.This claim was fact-checked by Dubawa and had its reservation about it in a story tagged: “#EndSARS: Nigerian Army dispels #Lekkishootings as ‘Fake news’ but its evidences continue to shift” (Oct., 31, 2020).
- That A photograph of an NYSC drama scene and also information on the extension of violence to areas which were quite peaceful.This claim was also fact-checked by Dubawa, tagged: “#EndSARS: This viral photo is from an NYSC drama in Akwa Ibom, not Lekki Tollgate gun attack”, (Oct., 23, 2020)
This study has shown some significant improvement around the issues of mis/disinformation in our polity. It shows that there are two categories of news audiences: One with a high scale of effortful thinkers who believe false information is a major societal problem and will do nothing to perpetrate it. The others include those who have a high scale in their instinct and make sure nothing changes their mind from what they believe, true or false. The former refers to people who have demonstrated the need for cognitive thinking. The above is supported by audiences’ response in the survey’, some of whom reported that Sharing false info can mislead people ; it makes no sense to deceive anyone with falsehood for whatever reason (audience responses to survey, 2020). The second category, according to the findings of this study, are those with cognitive miserliness (Pennycook et al, 2015). They are those who confirmed having difficulty in spotting false content (12.8%); those who could not say if they came across fake information (27.7%); those who rarely verify the content they were exposed to (10.6%); those who reported they didn’t need to verify information (4.3%); those who never changed their mind when confronted with fact-checks (14.9%) and those who were uncertain if fact-checks would change their mind (8.5%); those who never believed fake information created problem during #EndSARS protest (8.5%) and those who were not sure if it created problems (32.2%).
Its findings have added some boost to the credibility of the mainstream media as the majority of respondents reported that broadcast media was their most trusted source of information. This supports Lois Ugbede’s (2020) report that “a lot of Nigerians are not on social media. They consume news from Radio, TV and newspapers.” Without these media houses covering the #endsars protests, a lot of Nigerians didn’t understand the real intent of the protests.
Lastly, this study has confirmed the contrasting of the Faith in Intuition scale and the Need for Cognition scale. It is therefore recommended that every news audience must engage in effortful thinking when exposed to certain information going viral. The study also recommends a further investigation into reasons news audiences fail to believe in verified information, even when it is crystal clear it is fake.
This research is conducted for the Dubawa Fellowship programme (2020), and is supported by Heinrich Boll Stiftung Foundation Abuja office.
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