For many observers, one of the signs that Twitter was taking its African market seriously was its decision to open an office on the continent. Twitter is the second-most-used social media platform in Africa and has around 5 million Nigerian users. For many Africans, the ease of getting information is perhaps Twitter’s most compelling use case.
It meant that Twitter needed to take the budding problems of misinformation and fake news in its African market seriously. Yet, in 2022, the company laid off its 20-person African team. A decision that left many scratching their heads because the team was so small and served an entire continent. The team had staff for content curation, sales, policy, and communications. That decision also prompted questions about Twitter’s commitment to fighting fake news on the continent.
An absence of oversight
Twitter’s African team was set up to ensure that the content shared on its platform was accurate. The staff were Africans and could identify falsehoods being shared on the platform in African languages, which was a key reason for the team being of African origin. The work of the team would have been essential, as several African countries will take to the polls this year to elect new leaders.
According to Semafor, the former Twitter Africa team had started educating African journalists on how to spot false information and share fact-based responses on Twitter in preparation for the elections. The team also curated tweets to discredit false information during the last election in Kenya and had plans to replicate that in Nigeria.
But the layoffs that happened last year have prevented this from happening and may make it easier for misinformation to spread on Twitter. Twitter’s current stance on addressing misinformation, according to the company, is to rely on “external, subject matter experts”. However, judging by how rampant fake news has become on the platform in Nigeria leading up to the election, this approach may be ineffective.
Fake news and false rumours have always been a staple in African elections, but the hope was that with a team on the continent focused on dispelling false information, things would change. The effects of the layoffs have instead left us with a different reality.
Fake news spread like wildfire
Research has shown that fake or false information, especially political news, spreads faster on Twitter than the truth. These falsehoods are shared 10 times as much as the truth. This week, the Central Bank of Nigeria said that a memo that was circulating on Twitter and reportedly signed by the apex bank was fake. The Association of Corporate Affairs Managers of Banks (ACAMB) has also had to dispel fake news being shared on Twitter that banks would shut down services on the day of the elections.
Beyond the news circulating about the effects of the currency redesign, there have been countless instances of fake political news shared on Twitter. Nigeria’s electoral body (INEC) has had to dispel information that it was considering a postponement of the presidential elections. The electoral commission has also had to debunk rumours on Twitter that it would investigate the APC’s presidential candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, over a criminal forfeiture case. Peter Obi, the Labour Party’s presidential candidate, has also had to debunk several tweets that claimed his son was affiliated with the terrorist organisation, IPOB.
In January, the BBC also revealed that Nigerian political parties secretly pay online influencers up to $45,000 to spread untrue information about their political rivals. The influencers described it as an “industry” and shared that lavish gifts, political appointments, and cushy government jobs were sometimes also given out based on results.
The effect of fake news on elections
The effects of fake news on elections have been well documented. Studies have shown that the proliferation of fake news leading up to the 2016 US elections may have favoured Donald Trump and played a part in his electoral victory.
David Ajikobi, the Nigerian editor for Africa Check, a fact-checking publication, told TechCabal via phone call that fake news might have an effect on the upcoming elections. “Fake news was not really an issue during the 2015 elections, but during the 2019 elections, it caused a few stirs, and now in 2023, it is a major issue.” He added that his major concern was that fake news could lead to violence after the elections, especially when it came to the results of the election.
Stephen Agwaibor, a reporter who has been covering Nigeria’s elections, has similar fears. According to him, “Viral online rumours about wild animals prowling the streets during the Kenyan elections had an impact on voter turnout. The same might happen in Nigeria, where rumours about electoral violence have typically led to voter suppression.”
Both of them also mentioned how Twitter plays an important role in the sharing of information because it is a micro-blogging site, and information shared on Twitter often finds its way to other social media platforms where it becomes more widespread. A recently released report about the effects of misinformation in the upcoming elections found that just 4% of political claims shared online were true, with the majority of the claims being shared by political parties, political influencers, and candidates. As Nigerians take to the polls this weekend, the possibility of fake news affecting their votes unfortunately remains high.
Besides having an effect on the elections, fake news can also be used to incite violence. Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari blamed misinformation on social media for the insecurity and conflicts in Nigeria. “As it is evident in our societies, getting reliable information is a constant battle… Misinformation has been used to aggravate conflicts and crisis, exacerbate insecurity, distort government efforts, fuel apprehension among the citizens, and create distrust between the governments and their peoples,” he said.