Disinformation: How social media users launder suspended Nigerian minister Betta Edu’s image on X

IF you were active on X in January 2024, you must have noticed that the word “Dr Betta Edu” trended for days on the social media platform. The name appeared on the trends section of the X platform without significant updates from Nigerian authorities or Ms. Edu regarding her alleged corruption disbursement case. In this analysis, The FactCheckHub findings show that the trend is a disinformation campaign orchestrated and launched by individuals aiming to pressure the authorities into reinstating the suspended Humanitarian Affairs minister.


More than fifty X accounts have been found pushing a disinformation campaign to launder the image of the suspended Nigerian minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu, a social media investigation by The FactCheckHub has shown.

These accounts, which include parody and verified accounts, converge online to simultaneously push similar narratives about the suspended minister on X (formerly Twitter).


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The FactCheckHub observed that the trending hashtag (Dr Betta Edu) is a disinformation campaign launched by a network of social media influencers organised to shape public sentiment and impact crucial decision-makers on her disbursement case currently before the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and President Bola Ahmed Tinubu-led Nigerian government.

President Tinubu suspended Edu on January 8, 2024, following a leaked memo alleging that she approved the transfer of over N585 million into the personal account of one Oniyelu Bridget Mojisola.

Following her suspension, the EFCC invited her for questioning but she was subsequently released after hours of grilling and expected to report daily to the anti-graft commission.

The FactCheckHub uncovered more than fifty X accounts attempting to whitewash the suspended minister and downplay her alleged crimes despite the ongoing investigation. The common factor among these posts is the consistent use of “Dr Betta Edu” aimed at making her name trend and influence topical discussions on the social media platform.

Each account meticulously writes the name and honorifics in the same way. They also avoid the use of hashtags to escape detection. This uniformity, combined with shared content being disseminated and synchronized posting times, strongly suggests a deliberate influence operation to manipulate public perception around the case.

Influence Operations are coordinated efforts by actors to manipulate or spread disinformation, or propaganda to achieve desired goals and outcomes. The primary objective of influence operations is to sway the target audience’s beliefs or actions.

The process involves targeting its audience or population (Nigerians), identifying and creating a suitable narrative or story (Edu’s good deeds) and creating a suitable network of accounts on social media especially influencers to promote the narrative. The goal is reportedly to bring the minister back to power.

The Betta Edu saga

Edu came under criticism from Nigerians for authorising the transfer of the N585.2 million into the private bank account of a civil servant, who is the accountant in charge of grants for vulnerable Nigerians.

The transfer contravenes various sections of Nigeria’s Financial Regulations 2009, which are meant to prevent fraud and other forms of corruption in the country.

According to the suspended minister’s memo, the fund in question was transferred from the National Social Investment office account and meant for disbursement to vulnerable people in Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Lagos, and Ogun states, under the federal government poverty intervention project called Grants for Vulnerable Groups.

The Minister for Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu
Suspended Minister for Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu

Edu said in the memo that the official, Bridget Oniyelu, whose private account with the United Bank of Africa the N585.2 million was paid into, is the project accountant.

In response to the public outrage, President Tinubu suspended the minister and directed a thorough investigation of the transfers by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

Tinubu said his decision to suspend her was in line with his pledges and commitment to uphold integrity, transparency, and accountability in managing the commonwealth of Nigerians.

She was at the EFCC a day after the former minister of the ministry, Sadiya Umar-Farouq, submitted herself to the commission in Abuja for grilling over alleged abuse of office under former President Muhammadu Buhari.

While the outcome of the investigation is still pending, the social media networks are putting the investigators in a tight spot by shaping public opinion using the power of social media.

The FactCheckHub observed that there has been a surge in the mentioning of the suspended minister’s name on social media and the internet since the issue began.

For instance, posts containing the name of the suspended minister had over 500,000 interactions on Facebook in January, according to data obtained from CrowdTangle. The trend shows that her name attracted more interest in January 2024 when her travail began.

Using Media Cloud, an open-source platform, The FactCheckHub monitored the digital news attention or coverage of the suspended minister, and we found out that the name gained more news coverage in January 2024. With over 3,000 published stories, the interest in the case rose within the time-frame earlier mentioned. Her name appeared in over 600 media reports on January 8, 2024, when she was suspended.

Media coverage of Betta Edu in January 2023

Enters a social media campaign 

The FactCheckHub observed that these accounts post simultaneously, using the same fliers, images and videos to portray the suspended minister as hardworking and divert the attention of the public from her corruption case. However, they vary their captions to evade detection.

They make their posts simultaneously to ensure it is among the top trends at a particular time. This is to ensure that the narratives they are pushing gain enough visibility. The FactCheckHub also observed that the campaign became more coordinated from January 11, 2024.

On that day, more than 50 social media accounts circulated a flier claiming Edu empowered over 400 displaced persons in Niger state among other claims, found to be false. Even though media reports showed that the minister paid a visit to the IDP camp in the state in September 2023, there was no evidence of any empowerment.

Some X accounts shared fliers whitewashing suspended minister in a coordinated manner.

The social networks included a parody account of Chioma Roland, the wife of the popular Nigerian Afrobeat artiste, David Adeleke, popularly called Davido. The account has shared numerous posts and has been consistently involved in the campaign.

Another X user, @Anitasmily_ also posted the flier claiming the suspended minister built over 1 million homes for poor and displaced people.

“Dr Betta Edu good works and great service to humanity have always been her age long trade mark. The humanitarian minister ensured that over 1 million homes were built and completed to shelter the poor, IDPs & refugees across Nigeria,” @Anitasmily_ posted.

The FactCheckHub found out that this claim is also FALSE as no credible media platform reported the stride. The post was also shared by @callmemichaels and other X accounts in the network around 8 am and 10 am the same day.

Between 5pm and 6 pm, on January 21, 2024, some X accounts such as @Tykun_Grey, @MotundehBaby, @Onlysamson, @Activityqueen and @frankdozi shared a video of a public affairs analyst, speaking in support of the suspended minister and asking the Nigerian president to reinstate her.

Some X accounts shared an interview with an Analyst in a well-coordinated influence operations order.

Around 2pm to 4pm on January 23, 2024, the X accounts shared a screenshot of a publication titled “Betta Edu: A resilient leader amid controversy” and a letter to the president urging him to reverse the suspension of the embattled minister. All the X users in this network such as  @TheChefChifan, @Tykun_Grey, and @its_heady_again shared the content.

On January 24, 2024, these social media accounts disseminated a video of the suspended minister during a visit to patients in an hospital and an image of her giving out a grant. A few of the posts can be found here, here and here.

Around 7pm on January 26, 2024, the X accounts promoted a social media card highlighting the strides of the suspended minister such as conditional transfer and empowerment programmes. The social media cards were posted by X networks including @Sirbaloo_Naija, @jenifa_, @Hass_Szn and @iam_lakays.

A similar flier showcasing the list of some achievements of the suspended minister was simultaneously shared on January 29, 2024. The flier contains images of the suspended minister collaged with the image of President Tinubu. It also consists of several achievements reportedly accomplished by the minister. A few of the posts are archived here and here.

Some X accounts shared video of the suspended minister sharing food items to some less privileged as part of the disinformation campaign.

What was used on January 31, 2024 was the video of the suspended minister sharing food items with some less privileged. The video was posted by these social networks with captions showcasing her achievements as minister. The content was shared around 2pm that day by some X users including @Tinuola_baby, Minat_mk, @lotanna_obi, @callmemichaels and @sharllousbaby, among others.

Who are the people behind the campaign? 

On the day this disinformation campaign started on social media, a certain X user, @Oserume1 raised an alarm alleging that social media influencers were being paid to launder the image of Ms. Edu.

The account posted a screenshot of a WhatsApp group where the social media influencers were allegedly being given directives to post contents in favour of the minister. He reportedly linked the campaign to Bulama Muhammad Bukar.

He posted, “Betta Edu Media Center is working with “Dr. Betta Edu”. We see the work they are doing today ooh.”

Bulama was appointed as Borno State Coordinator of the Betta Edu new Media Centre in October 2023.

But The FactCheckHub couldn’t confirm the authenticity of that chat (WhatsApp screenshot).

A look at some X accounts involved in the disinformation campaign shows that they have a minimum of 1,000 followers; thus meaning they might have been carefully selected. A keyword search on these accounts showed that most of them started posting about the suspended minister on the same date – January 11 and the intervals between their posts are often short, our fact-checker observed. This has been shown in the earlier instances.

Topping the list of social media accounts running this campaign is an X account, @its_heady_again. The account has 14,000 followers and it has a telegram link where pirated Nollywood movies are distributed attached to this account.

Analysis of the account showed that he has trended the keyword 15 times in January 2024 alone. The account hardly posts about politics before the campaign started.

Another X account at the campaign’s frontline is Chioma’s parody account. The account name bears Chioma but has a different X ID. The account posts majorly entertainment content but the posts about the minister stood out on her timeline. The account posted the keyword 15 times within the time frame analysed. Though the account has a few followers, her posts get reasonable engagement. That likely explains why the account was chosen for the campaign.

Several other accounts involved in the campaign also share some similarities – They have a high number of followers and engagement and they hardly post about politics until the disinformation campaign kicked off.

Nigerians frustrated over ‘promoted’ trend

Meanwhile, Nigerians using social media have raised concerns about what they are describing as “paid PR” in favour of the suspended minister. They are expressing dissatisfaction with the narratives continuously appearing on their timelines, courtesy of social media influencers promoting these narratives.

An X user, Cyril Idoko Agbo expressed concern over the prevalence of promoted content on his page. He said, “Paid PR for Betta Edu all over my TL. We don’t talk about them enough. A good number of influencers are part of the problems we are faced with in the society today.”

Similarly, another X user, Nikky Perry, alleged that the suspended minister paid the influencers for image laundering.  “The money Dr Betta Edu stole is enough to change the poverty of this country. Dr. Betta Edu paid some influencers on X to cover up her failure!!!!,” she posted.

Another X user, Lola Okunrin, wondered why the minister allegedly decided to engage influencers rather than coming out clean and facing the investigation squarely.

He posted: “Why do Nigerians always run to PR whenever they do something wrong instead of apologizing and doing the needful? Isn’t it madness? When Bolt passengers were dragging Bolt online that year, instead of putting measures in place, they quickly engaged hungry influencers.

 

“Dr Betta Edu” trending on X on January 31

“Betta Edu, after being caught in the midst of mismanagement, she engaged all these 500 Naira for 3 tweets influencers. Ify, after being dragged for owing, wrote a long epistle to fine tune who she is without being sober or planning rectification on the allegation. Must it always be about your image? What about the people you wronged?”

Another X user, Victor Emeadi believed the coordinators are exploiting the poverty in the country to recruit ‘hungry’ influencers into such a disinformation campaign.

He said, “The reason Dr. Betta Edu is trending is just because Nigeria is the world’s capital of poverty, if not for poverty. Why will an educated human being accept to trend her for money? if job opportunities were plentiful? This nonsense will never happen. hungry influencers everywhere.”

The action of these social media accounts involved in the disinformation campaign violated the  X’s manipulation and spam policy which prohibits using its services “in a manner intended to artificially amplify or suppress information or engage in behaviour that manipulates or disrupts people’s experience or platform manipulation defences.”

The policy lists the forms of platform manipulation which include “inauthentic engagements that attempt to make accounts or content appear more popular or active than they are.”

It also includes coordinated activity that attempts to artificially influence conversations through the use of multiple accounts, fake accounts, automation and scripting.

Ikulajolu Adesola, a former Managing Editor with RoundCheck, said the campaign may sway the attention of the public and distort the investigation by the EFCC.

“It is obvious that there is actually a deliberate social media push to paint the Minister in good light despite her case with the EFCC and her suspension as well,” he said.  “The whole mission is simple, just to make her name trend as a hardworking Minister. There is nothing wrong, just that it is coming at a time she has been suspended for financial malpractices that could distort the fact which the anti-graft agency is working on.”

“The issue is related to finance and it is one aspect everyone especially public office holder wants to wash their hands off. This public campaign with the name of the minister will gear people towards overlooking her misdeeds.”

He noted that the international community may also call for her reinstatement based on the narratives being promoted on social media.

“They are all orchestrated to divert the attention of the agency from focusing on her offence – it is just a call for public sympathy,” he concluded.






     

     

    On his part, Vahyala Kwaga, a Senior Research and Policy Analyst at BudgIT Nigeria, highlighted the need for the anti-graft agency to investigate the matter professionally regardless of the pressure from social media.

    “I think there is definitely a coordinated attempt at whitewashing the scandal and diverting attention away from it. Unfortunately, social media users tend to have short attention spans and the scandal may likely fritter out of public consciousness soon enough.”

    “The bright side is that if the investigating agencies handle this professionally, the social media campaign will be of no effect. The facts remain what they are and without a calculated campaign, they can still carry out their investigation. The real question is whether or not they will follow through,” he concluded.

    This report is republished from FactCheckHub.

    Nurudeen Akewushola is an investigative reporter and fact-checker with The ICIR. He believes courageous in-depth investigative reporting is the key to social justice, accountability and good governance in society. You can reach him via [email protected] and @NurudeenAkewus1 on Twitter.

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