Social media and democracy often share a love-hate relationship in the Global South. In many cases, the blessing of free communication arrives alongside an infectious misinformation curse. In Nigeria, widespread use of WhatsApp makes the two especially hard to separate, putting pressure on the citizenry to preserve their own checks on state power via improved digital literacy.
As in many other countries in Africa and beyond, WhatsApp ‘fake news’ stories have begun to plague Nigerian politics. The 2019 election saw President Muhammadu Buhari use his appearance at a U.N. summit as a platform to dispel persistent rumors that he had been secretly replaced by a Sudanese clone following an extended trip outside the country. While this and other examples of viral misinformation on the app may seem ridiculous, recent American politics demonstrate that the absurdity of misinformation does not dampen its potency.
According to a 2017 study conducted by Weitz-Shapiro and Winters, effective political accountability is a function of both the availability of credible information, and the populace’s aptitude for discerning credibility. Credibility here is defined by the relationship between the source and the information itself: A source is more credible if it has little incentive to fabricate the information being presented. The two main conclusions of their research can be summarized as follows:
- Citizens are more likely to base their beliefs and behavior on information from sources they deem more credible, as opposed to less credible ones.
- Increased political sophistication improves a citizen’s ability to discern the credibility of a source and act accordingly.
The second point argues that a higher degree of “political sophistication” diminishes the overall threat posed by online misinformation and disinformation. Sophisticated citizens, according to the study, are better equipped to contextualize sources of information and therefore draw more informed conclusions from them. Their research measures sophistication by way of one’s education level, political knowledge, and tendency to discuss politics. However, the unique communicational role played by WhatsApp in Nigerian society distorts these relationships, adding another metric in the form of digital literacy.
WhatsApp’s intimate and encrypted nature simultaneously bolsters and erodes political accountability. It differs from other social media platforms in that it uses end-to-end encryption, meaning that the content of a message is visible only to the sender and recipient(s). Because of this, the app is primarily marketed around its personal and private feel. WhatsApp messages always come from named contacts, and people can only be added to groups using their real phone number. That being said, the average Nigerian belongs to several groups at once, allowing them to quickly share thoughts and ideas with large groups of people. These groups are usually made up of family, friends, community leaders, or otherwise familiar faces, increasing the perceived credibility of anything received through the app.
WhatsApp also thrives in places where internet access is often limited, for reasons such as poor infrastructure or lack of net neutrality. Popular providers capitalize on this via zero-rating, a practice wherein mobile data plans are offered at no cost, so long as users exclusively utilize certain sites or services, in this case WhatsApp. Zero-rating makes WhatsApp more accessible and far-reaching, but also discourages the use of other platforms or websites. This, in turn, limits the ability to fact-check information shared on WhatsApp, as messages received often cannot be verified using the web or accompanying links. WhatsApp therefore, by its very nature and presentation, facilitates the rapid spread of false information.
It is no surprise, then, that Nigerian political parties take advantage of the platform’s potential. However, due to the intimate design, using WhatsApp to connect to a vast audience requires significant political organization. In 2017, President Buhari formed the Buhari New Media Centre (BNMC), which employs tech-savvy youths to build networks of several hundred WhatsApp groups across all 36 states. These networks are then used to spread propaganda and disinformation. Photos, messages, and calls to action are disseminated by these young networkers and campaigners, who are paid handsomely or promised advancement in their political careers. The People’s Democratic Party, Buhari’s primary opposition, attempted something similar but were less successful due to fewer available resources. Thus, insofar as it demands greater organization and expenditure, the WhatsApp arena is still one in which incumbent parties have the upper hand.
Nevertheless, it remains a disruptive force considering governments can exert less control over it than traditional forms of media. Popular narratives can propagate as quickly and easily as partisan ones, and WhatsApp’s encryption keeps it from being monitored or censored in the same way as radio, newspapers, and alternative apps like Twitter and Facebook. WhatsApp can therefore guarantee a platform for those who might otherwise have none. Nigerian opposition leaders, for whom censored radio and news are not-too-distant memories, are using the platform to counter state propaganda. They claim it has democratized political media by providing a “right of reply” to government disinformation. By safeguarding the voice of the opposition, WhatsApp also protects the availability of credible political information.
Even more valuable is the platform’s role as a tool of political coordination. The encrypted messages ensure that opposition leaders can safely discuss campaign strategy without worrying about state surveillance, the threat of which is serious enough that some politicians consider WhatsApp safer than normal texts, emails, or phone calls. In these ways, the same qualities of WhatsApp that erode democracy also facilitate its consolidation.
While much of this dilemma is owed to the distinct features of WhatsApp, also unique are the characteristics of Nigerian society that allow it to thrive. Misinformation is of course not new to Nigeria – local newspapers and magazines have been publishing products of its infamous rumor mill as authentic news long before the introduction of social media. With about 30 million social media users and counting, it isn’t fake news that is unprecedented in Nigeria, but the sheer volume, scope and speed at which it can be circulated. This weakens political accountability by accelerating social divisions that predate the internet, affecting people’s ability to properly assess credibility. Ethno-religious as well as partisan identities polarize the populace along many axes that influence their willingness to believe online information. For example, a 2019 video of Hausa farmers applying insecticide to a shipment of beans destined for the Igbo southeast was edited to look and sound as if they were poisoning the food instead. After going viral on WhatsApp, the video caused long standing Hausa-Igbo tensions to flare up over what would otherwise be normal procedure. Additionally, the general absence of Nigerian security agencies from the digital sphere makes WhatsApp a prime avenue for extremist groups like Boko Haram to mobilize supporters and gain traction. In short, partisan issues aside, the social landscape already makes Nigeria ripe for the spread of false information, and WhatsApp exacerbates this by offering a fast and far-reaching avenue to amplify it.
The added challenges presented by WhatsApp’s structure and prominence, as well as its unique interactions with Nigerian society, make it especially difficult to regulate it through usual channels. Many would point to increased government regulation, but in an electoral-authoritarian state like Nigeria, such action risks limiting essential freedoms. As it stands, a Senate bill in late 2019 sought to criminalize the spreading of misinformation, and while it didn’t pass, it was as divisive as the issue itself. Meanwhile, non-governmental bodies like CrossCheck Nigeria win small victories, but are stymied by the inability to read the content of viral WhatsApp messages. Efforts on WhatsApp’s part, while noteworthy, suffer from steep language barriers and a lack of investment outside of election season. This has changed somewhat since the outbreak of COVID-19, but Africa remains on the periphery of parent company Facebook’s concerns.
The solution put forward in a 2020 report by the Centre for Democracy and Development, and one more in-line with Weitz-Shapiro’s political sophistication hypothesis, is that of digital literacy. The CDD report argues that in Nigeria’s nonurban areas, where zero-rating and limited access to the internet is most common, people are generally not very digitally literate. This is especially true for the oldest citizens, who in the United States and Nigeria alike are the demographic most likely to propagate false information online. As Nigeria and other African countries see their populations grow younger and younger, the CDD encourages digital literacy campaigns as being key to the political sophistication of the next generation. These campaigns would be designed to teach internet users to critically evaluate messages received via WhatsApp before forwarding them, particularly now that the world is enveloped in a global health crisis. The report is just barely 6 months old, so the implementation and long-term benefits of these proposed campaigns remain to be seen. That said, given that online ‘fake news’ is currently more common in Africa than in the country the term was coined, a little extra literacy can’t hurt.