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Analysis: The culture of ‘forwarded-as-received’ messages among aged Nigerians

According to the Digital 2020 Global Overview Report, published in January 2020, about 86 million Nigerians are able to access the internet and a paltry 27 million Nigerians are found to be active on social media.

The report, compiled by We are social and Hootsuite, documented that 169.2  million Nigerians have mobile (phone) connections. This represents 83 per cent penetration of the total population of 203.6 million people, of which 50 per cent live in urban areas.

In addition, the report highlights that only 42 per cent of the total population have internet access. Additionally, only 27 million of those internet-enabled Nigerians have social media accounts that they run actively. 

However, there has been an abortive effort to stop the spread of false information on social media in the country as fake-news articles seamlessly circulate, stirring ethnoreligious tensions among an estimated population of 200 million diverse Nigerians

On WhatsApp, which has 1.5 billion in 180 countries, information can go viral in minutes as individuals forward messages along to their friends or groups, without any way to determine its origin.

A report published during the heat of the 2019 election by centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) noted that WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in 40 African countries, including Nigeria, due to its low cost, encrypted messages, and the ability to easily share messages with both individuals and groups.

This low-cost feature has made it so easy for even the uneducated Nigerians to share messages without a second thought or simple internet search/verification on broadcast messages they receive. For instance, MTN Nigeria and other internet service providers have a package (Goodybag) for their customers to get connected to their Whatsapp messenger for as low as N25.00. This small amount, in the case of MTN, allows their customer to get connected to Whatsapp for 24hours. 

In a report by BBC, many old Nigerians have been said to be culprits of forwarding unverified broadcast messages despite limits on message forwarding  to five people.

In a survey carried out in two states (Oyo and Kano) by the CDD and the University of Birmingham on WhatsApp’s role during Nigeria’s February elections in 2019, some respondents made it known that “their parents and grandparents are the biggest sharers of misinformation in Nigeria, owing to their lack of digital literacy, reliance on trusted social networks (which WhatsApp replicates online), and belief in the scientific neutrality of technology”.  

The CDD survey documented a youth in Oyo who recalled that “his father had once sent him a message about a celestial event in which phones were to be turned off before midnight for protection. In his view; older people tend to share these kinds of messages because they feel worried about something happening to someone.”

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Some young Nigerians who spoke to The ICIR complained about the rate of broadcast messages they receive from their parents but said they barely read or just ignored it. 

“Our parents are highly protective. That’s one of the reasons why they are victims of unprotected or unverified broadcast messages. Sadly enough, the BC also comes from someone they trust like pastors, alfas, friends, etc but their high level of sensitivity has caused more harm to promote unverified BC than good.” Gafar Okanlawon, a final year  student of  law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, marshalled

For Elisha Okonkwo, he has blocked his parents over what he tagged as “restless messages.”

 He added in a chat with this reporters: “Yes oo, I have blocked them, make person get peace.”. 

“It’s always fake and spam messages. Some forwarded messages from like 5years ago

That’s what they’ll be sending. My Dad worse, nah messages where they killed someone he will be sending to me”, Hamid Olaniyi poured out his grouse against broadcast messages on WhatsApp.

 While digital illiteracy is mostly responsible for the indiscriminate sharing of broadcast messages on WhatsApp, some youths whose parent are literate hardly ever received ‘forward-as-received’ messages from their parents

“My dad is usually really careful about info so he doesn’t share except he’s sure. But if he sees the story of how a girl was kidnapped, he’ll send,” Pelumi Akintola told The ICIR

Why do old people share broadcast messages on Whatsapp? 

In a phone conversation with The ICIR, Pa Lasisi Adewale, a septuagenarian in Oyo state, explained that “there is always an element of truth in broadcast messages”.

“You see, my children also ask me not to send them WhatsApp messages again, but there is this thing I learnt from my father. There is always an element of truth in false information. These messages extend caution and save lives”, Pa Lasisi said.

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Felicia John, a mother of four and a retired teacher in Abuja, said she believes in the posts as they are from her church’s WhatsApp platform shared by other members. 

“I don’t really know how to check this thing, but I forward them to my family group and children as they are on my church page,” Felicia said.  

Some WhatsApp broadcast messages, for instance, that end with “share with 10 persons” or “share with all your contacts” are most likely to get the attention of old people. Some of these WhatsApp broadcast messages attribute their children’s success and guidance on the number of persons they share the post with.  

Posts that emanate or align with some parents’ religious beliefs are often shared without any second thoughts mostly because of the credence such messages received from the parents. Most African parents are superstitious and do not joke with religious matters. 

According to research published in the Journal, Science has shown that old people are 7 times more likely to share fake-news articles. The study further underscores those older persons because of their age may lack the media literacy to sort out facts from fiction as their memory of tools to check news sources deteriorate as they age. 

However, on the need to find out why people share false information on private social media and platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, and Apple Messages, Leverhulme Trust has awarded a research project grant worth £347,000 to Loughborough University

According to the information available on the university’s website, the project, which is slated to run for three years, titled “ Understanding the Everyday Sharing of Misinformation on Private Social Media” will be based in the University’s Online Civic Culture Centre (O3C) and will provide for significant fieldwork and a full-time research assistant and funded PhD student.

Professor Andrew Chadwick, Director of the O3C, said: “Developments over recent years, including the global Coronavirus pandemic, teach us that getting to the root of the problem of online misinformation requires much richer and contextual understandings of why ordinary people share—and do not share—false and misleading information”.

The professor of Political Communication added that knowing the origin of misinformation is a “growing concern that private platforms such as WhatsApp are playing a major role in the spread of misinformation around the world.” 

“This project will develop and apply a new theoretical and methodological framework combining in-depth longitudinal qualitative fieldwork in three English regions and nationally representative panel surveys of the UK population”,  Andrew Chadwick said. 

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Despite Whatsapp’s efforts and others’, still, fake news continues

 In an effort to rid the platform of false information,  WhatsApp in January 2019, announced it is adding a new feature which would limit the forwarding of messages on the platform. 

According to the administrator, the initiative which would also remove the quick forward button by the media messages is to keep the platform saner, making it what it was meant to be: “a private messaging app.”

Despite this hardline check, false information still festers on the platform as forwarded messages still spread unceasingly across its group chat which can house 256 users. With its group unaffected, free flow of misinformation remains unabated.

But you can help…

Aged Nigerians can be assisted to reduce the spread of misinformation by indiscriminate forwarding of messages.

The social influence and digital literacy knowledge of old Nigerians can be improved by making them understand the need to exercise scepticism, even when a broadcast message or post comes from a trusted friend, relative, religious pages, amongst others. 

While they must be informed about the need for evaluating news, their wards should also make them understand how some faceless fabricators share messages to promote their hidden agenda and manipulative messages.

The report was produced during the 2020 Dubawa Fellowship attended by the reporter. 

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