NAIROBI — Earlier this month, a wild story claiming Nigeria’s president had been replaced by a Sudanese clone named Jubril circulated within the country on social media, and eventually gained worldwide attention, prompting the president himself to denounce the rumor. Though many people have since written it off as an indulgent conspiracy theory, the moment revealed how susceptible many people in the nation of more than 190 million can be to fake news.
With a general election two months out, local journalists in Africa’s most populous country are already working overtime to fight the spread of fake news that has already proven it can convince people of nearly anything — and can potentially get people killed.
Ajibola Amzat remembers when the false story that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had been cloned started seeping into his everyday conversations, and when he realized he needed to do something about it. Amzat, 44, manages a news verification platform called CrossCheck Nigeria, a collaborative effort of 45 journalists from more than 15 newsrooms across the country. Launched in late November, the young group is funded by tech giants like Facebook, Google, and WhatsApp, and identifies, verifies, and debunks misinformation on its site.
Amzat told BuzzFeed News over the phone from Abuja, the capital, that even though the 76-year-old president had suffered ailments throughout his tenure (and regularly takes long trips out of the country to get treated abroad), that he and his colleagues at CrossCheck had denounced the conspiracy theory so quickly, they hadn’t realized how many people around them actually believed it.
“Initially, everyone was saying it’s very stupid for us to say Buhari has a body double, or that he died in 2016 and was resurrected by some medical miracle,” said Amzat, who is also an editor at the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.
But then he had a conversation with journalists from another newsroom who aren’t involved in CrossCheck Nigeria’s work.
“Those guys asked me, ‘How do you know that this man is not actually dead?’ and, ‘What evidence do you have to actually prove it?’” Amzat recalled. “I was shocked to know that journalists were also thinking that way.” Then, he thought: If reporters were unsure that the president is actually the president, what about people living in rural areas who don’t have the same access to information?
Having seen the way fake news and technology’s intersection have led to chaos and bloodshed in other countries, Nigerian journalists and researchers are diving into their campaign with all the intense focus of politicians running for office. Some of the obstacles they face, like tracking the source of fake news on an encrypted platform like WhatsApp, are universal. But others are specific to Nigeria, whose government is notorious for withholding information from the public, making the task of fact-checking even more difficult. To address these challenges, journalists are teaming up, collaborating across newsrooms to publish debunked stories and correct misinformation, hoping that it’s enough to ensure a safe and fair election on Feb. 16.
The spread of rumors, gossip, and false information is already an everyday part of life in group chats across Nigeria; there’s always a concerned but misinformed relative warning the whole family WhatsApp group against things like drinking Coke after eating mangos because the combination can kill you. (It cannot.) But when fake news takes hold in a country already fraught with ethnic, religious, and political tensions, it is no longer simply a matter of a harmless forwarded message; it becomes a serious, potentially life-threatening problem that could also upend an entire country’s democracy. And to complicate matters further, recent studies show that Nigerians are not only among the most vulnerable to receiving fake news on social media — they are also among the most likely to pass it along to others, even when they know it’s false.
Amzat thinks a few other factors contribute to Nigeria’s susceptibility to fake news. He said that many of the people with access to smartphones and social media in Nigeria are young and often jobless, giving them a lot of idle time online.
“The youth especially get a lot of information that is not correct, and they share it quickly amongst themselves, sometimes without even reading it,” Amzat said. This, combined with the ever-present discord between Nigeria’s ethnic groups, can spell trouble where fake news is concerned.
“When someone hears something unfavorable about another ethnicity, he’s more likely to share it with other people from his ethnic group,” he added.
Sometimes, though, the people behind the spread of false information are the same ones vying for people’s votes when Nigerians head to the polls on Feb. 16.
“People who want their candidate to win will fabricate some kind of fake story about the opposition, try to make them look so bad in the eyes of the public. That is already happening,” Amzat said, adding that he expects that trend to continue as elections approach.
Some misinformation is “lighter” in nature, like a photoshopped image of main opposition leader Atiku Abubakar shaking hands with President Donald Trump with a caption claiming that the US leader had endorsed him. But others are more serious and have already lead to violence. In June, graphic photos claimed to show Christian Nigerians from the Berom tribe who had been brutalized by people from the Fulani tribe, which is primarily Muslim. Tension mounted as the images spread across social media, and eventually led to violent retaliation from young Berom men in the area. Nigerian police reported that more than a dozen people were killed as a direct result of the false images.
And earlier this month, a photo began to circulate online, allegedly of slain Nigerian soldiers who had been killed in a clash with Boko Haram. The photo was real, but the context was false; AFP’s Fact Checker found that the photo was actually of al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia that had been killed by an African Union peacekeeping mission.
After Amzat told other CrossCheck journalists about what he’d heard about the “Buhari is dead” rumor, the coalition decided to look into the story and published an article debunking it on Nov. 30, noting that the rumor “had been fueled by the real life death of a Nigerian diplomat in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum in May 2018.”
Three days later, Buhari addressed the clone rumor at a town hall event in Poland, a result Amzat attributes to CrossCheck’s work. Because the group is made up of journalists from Nigeria’s biggest news outlets, they all convinced their editors to publish the debunked story on their front pages, making it nearly impossible to ignore.
“I think this is what forced Buhari to speak about it,” Amzat said. “He wasn’t going to respond or dignify it until the debunking story was carried by almost all the media houses in the country.”
CrossCheck Nigeria has had the benefit of insight, having watched reporters from other countries like India navigate fake news, Amzat said. Around the time of their launch, they flew in a Brazilian journalist to learn more about how fake news affected their recent elections, which saw a far-right populist and Trump enthusiast rise to power amid a massive landscape of of fake news, especially on WhatsApp.
The Brazilian journalist “talked about how we can use social media and programs like CrowdTangle and Tweetdeck to track down people spreading fake news,” Amzat said. And while many CrossCheck journalists are still getting acquainted with the programs, he’s confident that they’ll be savvy users by the time election season reaches its peak intensity in January.
“It’s our job to counter as much of this misinformation as we can and to spread it far and wide, so that when people vote in February, it will be based on full facts and knowledge, and not false information being peddled by political elites,” he said.
In addition to getting the hang of relatively new apps and programs to chase down misinformation, fact-checking itself often poses a huge challenge in Nigerian media.
Akintunde Babatunde, a program officer at another fact-checking platform called DUBAWA, told BuzzFeed News via Skype from Abuja that the Nigerian government is known to keep information hidden from the public, despite the country’s Freedom of Information Act, which was signed into law in 2011 by the previous administration.
“I can tell you for a fact that the last time the National Bureau of Statistics released information on unemployment was in 2017,” Babatunde said, but that didn’t stop politicians from making bold claims about this year’s numbers while campaigning, either praising the current government for addressing the issue, or chastising them for contributing to it further.
“But it’s very, very difficult to fact-check them because there is no credible database,” the 25-year-old added.
And with elections still two months away, the fake news problem is guaranteed to get worse, said DUBAWA deputy editor Ebele Oputa. But she has noticed another trend growing alongside it that offers her some relief: Nigerians are also becoming more comfortable calling out fake news when they see it in the comments on different platforms.
“People are becoming more aware of it, and I think it’s because they’re realizing how dangerous it is,” she said.
Teaching audiences about how to spot fake news will be the next project of Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organization that operates across the continent verifying and, at times, debunking claims made by those in power.
Africa Check Nigeria editor David Ajikobi told BuzzFeed News on the phone from Lagos that in the final weeks leading up to the election, the organization will channel its efforts towards the public; over the past few months, they have trained more than 400 journalists across the country to on how to meet and uphold international fact-checking standards in their reporting.
“Some plans include public service announcements about how to spot fake news and false videos, and sensitize people about how to know if a website is fake,” Ajikobi said. “We realize that there’s so little we can fact-check. We’re just a team of three or four people in Lagos, so we need to reach more people.”
He added that in 2019, Africa Check will begin distributing stickers and posting banners and billboards around the country reminding people to consume news with a critical eye. They’ll host a few events, too, to teach people how to develop fact-checking skills, and even how to scrutinize voice notes, which Ajikobi said are becoming increasingly popular as a vehicle for fake news.
With just under two months before Buhari, seeking re-election, goes up against a popular former vice president, a former governor, and the co-founder of Transparency International, the Africa Check team has its work cut out for it. But Ajikobi remains hopeful that their efforts now will ensure a fairer election in February.
“The information available to you will determine the kinds of decisions you make,” he said. “People need to be able to decipher fact from fiction. Just because your uncle sends you something on WhatsApp doesn’t make it true.”