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Viral election-related disinformation across West Africa in 2023

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The year 2023 saw a shift in power in three West African Countries: Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As expected, information disorder upturned the information landscape, feeding many citizens falsehood and misleading content.

In Nigeria, information surrounding the presidential, governorship, and off-cycle elections was fact-checked by members of the Nigerian Fact-checkers Coalition (NFC), which includes DUBAWA.

Here are some information disorder trends DUBAWA observed during our election coverage across the three West African countries, with none peculiar to any country. 

False alarm of violence during elections

During the elections in the three countries, some claims suggested there was or would be violence in some regions. Based on suspicion that such claims could cause panic or discourage voter turnout, DUBWAWA fact-checked a couple.

Military not taking over Sierra Leone election after 24 hours

Before the election in Sierra Leone, a video went viral showing a man dressed in a military uniform who warned that if there is no free and fair election in Sierra Leone, his troops will take over after 24 hours. 

When DUBAWA trailed the TikTok account attached to the video, we observed it was just a skit and had no inherent severe threat. Read here

In Nigeria, DUBAWA also observed claims of violence during elections came in the form of false terrorist attacks or attacks on candidates/party representatives. 

During the March 2023 governorship elections in Lagos state, an image went viral online showing the bloodied face of Olumide Oworu, Labour Party (LP) House of Assembly candidate, with claims that the candidate had been attacked by thugs hired by the All Progressives Congress (APC). 

The claim was fact-checked, and it was discovered that the image had come from a movie set. 

FALSE! Pat Utomi not held hostage

Similarly, during the presidential election, another claim surfaced that Prof Pat Utomi, a Labour Party Chieftain, was held hostage by thugs at a collation centre in Victoria Island, Lagos state.

The Nigerian Fact-checkers Coalition discovered that the alleged hostage claim was false as the Labour Party spokesperson, Yunusa Tanko, debunked the claim. Prof Utomi also confirmed that “he is fine” and described the claim as false.  

False! Boko Haram did not take over INEC’s offices in Kaduna, Kano

Also, during Nigeria’s general elections, some social media users claimed members of the deadly Boko Haram sect attacked offices of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Kano and Kaduna states.

However, the police command of the two states debunked the alleged attack. 

Ethnicity or religion card

DUBAWA also observed how some fake news purveyors played the ethnicity/religious card to make their stories believable to members of a particular sect or group and, in some cases, discredit the person of some candidates. This played out in Liberia and Nigeria. 

Ahead of the run-off election in Liberia, images of the front page of the Front Page Africa and New Republic Newspaper had “No Space For Muslims” and “No Muslims Working In My Government” as headline stories attributed to  Amb—Joseph Boakai of the main opposition party. This could indicate Boakai’s alleged biases against the Islamic religion if he wins the elections.

DUBAWA fact-checked the claim and discovered the images had been fabricated to look like the front page of the major newspapers, as there was no such report in the print edition of the papers. 

FACT-CHECK: Did Kano Islamic preacher describe killings of southern Kaduna Christians as “taming the infidels”?

In Nigeria, it was a similar scenario. In the build-up to the presidential elections, a video surfaced online with an Islamic cleric speaking in Hausa to members of his congregation. Social media users translated it to mean that the killing of some Christians in Kaduna state was ‘taming the infidels’, a narrative a lot of social media users ran with. 

DUBAWA contacted Hausa translators who helped interpret what the cleric had said and clarified that the cleric had been taken out of context.

Peter Obi’s legal team members not only Igbos, as claimed by Twitter users

In another election-related disinformation, some social media users claimed members of the legal team representing Peter Obi, LP candidate in the presidential election, were all Igbos and the same team representing Nnamdi Kanu in court.

DUBAWA’s research showed that some members of the team are from other parts of the country, complementing the others who were Igbos. Also, the legal team was different from that of Nnamdi Kanu.

Tinubu’s embroidery signature has no link to Ouroboros occult vector symbol

In the same vein, social media users linked the embroidery signature on the cap of President Bola Tinubu to an occult sign suggesting he is a cultist. A 2017 BBC report chronicled the symbol’s history in Greek and Egyptian settings. In all, it was explained as the passage of life in a cyclical pattern, a source of life and representation of birth, death, and regeneration.

Further research, however, showed that the symbol on the president’s cap has nothing to do with the Ouroboros occult vector symbol; he had explained in an interview that it was a “broken shackle” that represents freedom. Read here.

False announcements & fake statements

During elections, it is common to come across false announcements on social media suggesting a particular candidate had stepped down for another or that a political party had decided to adopt the candidate of the other party. At other times, it goes as grave as suggesting a candidate passed on (died) or cancellation of elections in a particular area. Here are a few observed by DUBAWA during the 2023 elections. 

In the morning of the gubernatorial election in Lagos state on March 18, 2023; there was a viral post on social media that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had adopted Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour of the Labour Party as its candidate. The PDP immediately debunked the claim. 

In Nov. 2023, during the off-cycle election in Kogi and Imo states, there were claims that candidates were either endorsed or withdrew their candidacy.

The Kogi PDP Governorship candidate Dino Melaye claimed the LP had adopted him as their candidate. Our fact-check report showed this was false. 

A viral video also claimed the PDP candidate in Imo state, Senator Samuel Anyanwu, withdrew from the race and asked his supporters to vote for the candidate of All Progressives Congress, Hope Uzodinma. An analysis of the video showed it was false. 

In Liberia, media reports and a statement from former President George Weah suggested 56 lawmakers, including Thomas Goshua, Grand Bassa County District #5 representative, endorsed the re-election bid of Weah.

In the list shared by the claimant, only 49 lawmakers endorsed Weah, while Mr Goshua denied any such backing for the then-president. Read here.

Still in Liberia, a blog claimed the European Union announced support for Joseph Boakai ahead of the runoff election in the country. The EU, however, debunked the claim.

Similar claims can be found here, here and here

Back to Nigeria. Following the 2023 presidential elections, some Nigerians were not receptive to the result announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and this caused a stir in some quarters. 

Some social media users soon started a narrative that Peter Obi of the Labour Party won the elections, not Bola Tinubu, as announced by INEC. As a result, they claimed results from the IReV showed Mr Obi won in 19 federation states. 

When DUBAWA checked the IReV portal, it was obvious that the results from all the states had yet to be uploaded fully. Also, the image attached to the claim was from a poll conducted by Nextier on January 27, 2023. Read here.

Also, social media users shared a false Associated Press headline suggesting US President Joe Biden called for the cancellation of the 2023 presidential election in Nigeria. Our findings revealed the screenshot resulted from a photo manipulation as there was no such thing on the firm’s website.

Lies against the electoral body

There were also some claims about the performance of electoral bodies across West Africa.

In Liberia, for instance, a newspaper alleged that the National Elections Commission disqualified 27,000 voters. Our findings revealed the NEC only removed 27,192 duplicate entries but did not disqualify 27,000 voters.

A similar claim from Nigeria can be found here

In Sierra Leone, a claim went viral that the Electoral Commission was complicit in electoral fraud by registering minors to vote in the election. However, findings showed that the images were doctored and unreal. 

In Nigeria, a social media user claimed Mahmood Yakubu, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), admitted in court that he declared blurred results from 18,088 polling units, together with another 20,000 in favour of APC presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu. 

Findings by DUBAWA, however, showed the INEC chairman never admitted to declaring blurred results. He was only represented at the hearing. 

DUBAWA observed that the Labour Party had submitted blurred results analysed from the presidential IReV results from 18,088 polling units to the court to admit as evidence.

Another common claim was on pre-marked ballot papers taken to polling units by electoral body officials. Two of such claims were investigated here and here

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