© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Fact-checking social media influencers who shared fake news during Nigerian general elections
Ahead of the 2019 Nigeria’s general elections, many Nigerians knowingly or ignorantly shared misinformation on the social media. Some of these purveyors of fake news have large followings on the social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Damilola BANJO and Shola LAWAL sifted through some of the widely shared posts that turned out to be fake news. Here is the excerpt of the report:
NIGERIA’s tightly contested general elections held three months ago amid pockets of violence and unrest. In Lagos, Rivers and Kano States, there were multiple reports of voter intimidation, assault, and even death. Across the country, at least 39 people died during that period.
These unrests have become characteristic of Nigerian elections and therefore are hardly surprising. But the chaos this year were also likely fuelled by violent propagandist messages spread on social media by agents of political parties, particularly supporters or opponents of the two major parties and their candidates: Incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
Photographs and videos of purported rigging and violent attacks by political thugs littered the walls of Facebook and Twitter. Many more were circulated on WhatsApp messenger – the most used messenger in Nigeria and across Africa, according to WeAreSocial.
We have analysed five of the most interesting and the most widely circulated propagandist messages in the form of videos and photos.
Professor of Falsehood?
One of the videos shows a woman thumbprinting several ballot papers while casually chatting with a friend. The video was shared by several users on Twitter and WhatsApp.
But a high-profile account share seems to have garnered a high number of views and engagement. Mr. Farooq Kperogi, an associate professor of Journalism at Kennesaw State University – according to his Twitter profile – shared the video with his over 30,000 followers. A quick scroll through Kperogi’s Twitter reveals he’s a staunch critic of the Nigerian Government led by President Muhammadu Buhari, and that gave us an idea of his political leanings. Mr. Kperogi also shared another interesting video – this one shows about 4 Hausa-speaking men thumbprinting massively, but we’ll come back to it.
In the first tweet, Mr. Kperogi claimed the woman in the video was an INEC official “thumb printing on an industrial scale”. The tweet, posted on February 25, implied rigging during the February 23 elections. It came just in time: Nigerians were anxiously waiting for the election results and violence in states like Rivers and Kano had already spiralled out of control. Those elections had to be put off till later dates. Many Twitter users pointed out that the video was fake, that it had no relation to the 2019 polls, but Mr. Kperogi paid them no mind. One seemingly frustrated user asked Mr Kperogi, “Are you a professor of falsehood?”
It was tough to know exactly where this video was filmed. It had appeared on social media dozens of times with different captions, claiming a number of far flung locations. Apart from Mr. Kperogi, and some 1,414 people who retweeted the video from his account, we found the video across multiple social media platforms with a plethora of claims.
One Twitter user, @chrysaloy, who tweeted it two days after the elections claimed that the “INEC official”, was rigging for the APC, in favour of President Buhari.
We were fascinated by all these, so we dug deeper. Several image reverse searches later, coupled with repeated scrutiny on Google Maps, we cracked it.
Our investigations revealed that this particular clip is actually a favorite for fake news accounts. The same video was shared on Youtube during the 2016 Edo State governorships and was captioned ‘INEC Officials rigging in Edo state’.
It turned out this video was that of an INEC official rigging elections. Only it was neither the 2016 nor the 2019 elections.
We know this because we found the original version of the video, and possibly the first Youtube upload, back in 2015.
As expected, the original version was sharper, with better resolution. We were able to look closely at the ballot paper and evidence that this is a ‘fake news’ video became clearer.
First, the ballot papers used in the 2019 elections were definitely different – bigger and a bit longer. The papers in the video are smaller and less colorful, closer to the ones used in the 2015 elections.
Also, since we now have a higher resolution video, it was easier to make out the exact party the official was thumbprinting for. If you look too, you’ll see that her thumb pressed on the logo of the first party on the list. We checked the 2015 ballot papers to confirm which party that was. It’s the Accord Party. The bright yellow logo of the party is unmistakably the same one the official repeatedly presses on. Besides, because the parties are listed in alphabetical order, the Accord Party often comes first on the ballot paper.
This clearly debunks the claim that the woman was thumb printing for the APC. But we were not done. We still wanted to know exactly where this incident happened.
Our search took us from Youtube to Nairaland. We discovered the Nairaland account of the original Youtube uploader, a blogger named Alex Report. Alex wrote on his page that the video was filmed in Ward 4, Aniocha North Local Government Area in Delta State. We believe this to be true because there wasn’t any information about the clip predating Alex’s report.
Other voters in that area left helpful clues in pictures posted on Twitter that helped us narrow the location possibilities. They showed pictures of polling units in other schools in Aniocha North. From Alex’s video, we already guessed that the woman was sitting on a school chair and desk, the type used in many government schools in Nigeria. In Ward 6, for example, the school blocks share the same colors with the class block in the video.
Alex, the original poster was kind enough to leave the number of the Ward 4 supervisor. We used the Truecaller application to confirm the supervisor’s identity. Her name was revealed as Faith Nkechi Chiejile. We even called her. She denied knowing the person in the video but admitted being an ad hoc INEC staff at that ward during the 2015 elections. We pressed further. Surely, as the team leader, she must recognise the culprit. We sent her the video and followed up with questions. At this point, she stopped responding.
So, we concluded that the video was not recorded in 2019 as Mr. Kperogi would want people to believe, neither was the rigging in favour of APC as claimed by several Twitter and Facebook users.
Inferno During Election?
We analysed other interesting videos but none was as intriguing as that of a fire allegedly set off by Yoruba APC members in Oshodi, Lagos to intimidate Igbo PDP voters. It was first posted by Twitter user @iamchiomaa. The video circulated widely on WhatApp messenger with the same claim.
There had been political tensions among the Igbos living in Lagos, a predominantly Yoruba state. High ranking party officials of the APC had stoked this tension with comments suggesting that the Igbos should go back to eastern Nigeria. So this tweet played on emotions that were already running high. It was shared severally among Igbos who believed that shops of their kinsmen were getting burnt to the ground.
The same video was posted on Youtube; the caption implying it was taken during the elections, but this time, in Adamawa State. People fell fast for it on Facebook too, where it was similarly linked to violence in Adamawa.
It’s easy to see why this video was easy fodder for propagandists. The fire in question raged with intensity, taking a whole row of shops with it. A Twitter codec that distorts audio uploaded on Twitter affected the video. This meant that the versions uploaded on Twitter were not audible, making it harder for unsuspecting sharers to discern what the people in the video were saying. Luckily, a media researcher who had received the video on WhatsApp sent it to us for verification. The version sent on WhatsApp has better audio and we were able to analyse the voices from this version.
Not Lagos, not Adamawa, but where?
We knew the location of the burning shops was not Oshodi in Lagos, neither was it Adamawa. We pored over the video frame by frame. Our multiple reverse image searches only brought false positive results. But we kept looking because we had clues from the video that convinced us it was shot anywhere but Lagos or Adamawa.
For one, the language spoken in the clearer versions of the video was neither the Yoruba or Hausa spoken in Lagos or Adamawa. The women screaming as the fire raged were not covered with hijabs, as would be the case in majority-Muslim Adamawa.
Residents in Oshodi confirmed to us that there was no recent fire incidence in the area. We already had our doubts. But we still didn’t have a location.
The MTN signboard visible in the video points to somewhere in West Africa, where the telecom company operates. But the ‘POS withdrawal’ business sign post in the video is mostly found in rural communities with no bank presence. Again, this greatly reduces the possibility that the fire was in Oshodi, where banks are within proximity.
On the other hand, these withdrawal businesses are common in Nigeria’s south-south region – where customers POS machines serve as ATMs. We know because we’ve reported from the area and we’ve seen them. But at this point, we were still guessing. The presence of fuel kegs at the site of the fire outbreak reinforced our guess: It’s common to sell illegally-refined oil and petroleum products cheaply in roadside markets in the oil-rich Niger-Delta.
Still, all these were at best circumstantial. It didn’t point us to an exact spot.
So, we put the open source principle to use. We sought help within the open source intelligence community. People pointed us to Togo, Ghana, and Cameroon. But two Anglophone Cameroonians we spoke to said: ‘That’s definitely not Cameroon.’ Another said: ‘We don’t have those POS things’. Therefore, Cameroon was out.
We continued to look. We took screen shots and did several reverse searches again, while following trails left on social media and by the OSINT community.
Weeks after we put out the call, we stumbled on a clue on Facebook that would lead us to where the video of the alleged Oshodi fire was filmed.
A commenter on one of the many posts claiming the fire was from the 2019 elections said the fire had no connection to the polls and that it had, in fact, occurred in her locality.
We investigated this claim like hundreds of other pointers we had followed to deadends. We found that truly, a devastating fire had occurred in February in Bomadi Local Govt Area, Delta State. Only one news website reported it. Two children had been cooking noodles on a kerosene stove when it exploded, burning the shop they were in. Sixty more shops were razed in that incident, according to the article. The fire happened along Bomadi Gbaregolor Akugbene Ezebiri road.
The article led us to another video of the fire that we had missed earlier. This new video was shot from a different angle, northwest of the location of the first filmer, who was standing right in front of the inferno. Fifty-two seconds of footage confirms that the fire was also in Bomadi, but doesn’t confirm the street. We are convinced that the two videos show the same fire because of matching clues in both.
The burning structures in the videos have similar triangle-like patterns, that matched.
Vegetation behind the structures in both videos are similar too.
We matched similar electricity poles, and the curves of the streets.
Note too, that the filmer in the second video says nothing about elections. It’s perhaps because the video was posted on the 21st of February, 2 days before the elections. That puts the fire on or before the 21st of February. It most definitely had nothing to do with the February 23 polls.
Although the initial poster on Twitter deleted the video due to pressure from those who would not stand for tribalism and misinformation, the damage was already done. The video had already spread on other sites, including WhatsApp. And the truth, sadly, could not catch up.
Before we go back to the second video we linked to Mr. Kperogi, let’s talk photographs.
There were scores of pictures shared depicting violence during the elections. Things got worse during the turbulent supplementary elections in Kano State. Many of the posts were gory, showing stab wounds, fresh blood and dead bodies. It is hard to tell just which ones were real or fake – the pictures revealed nothing after reverse searching. But a few shared on the official Twitter accounts of the PDP and Senator Dino Melaye, a Nigerian lawmaker, caught our attention.
Senator Melaye, an already controversial politician, tweeted out the photo of a dead man laying in his own pool of blood. He claimed the man was killed in election-related violence that had erupted in Kano.
He went ahead to call for the suspension of elections in the state, using the photo as the basis for which he called on the electoral commission to cancel the Kano State governorship elections.
This tweet – retweeted by 655 accounts and liked by double that number – is in fact, deliberately misleading. It took us just one image reverse search to unravel the truth. We found a 3-year old article with the same image now posed off as a casualty from Kano State elections. The picture first appeared in a 2017 article detailing a clash in Nairobi, Kenya.
We contacted Senator Melaye to know who his source was and how he got the picture. We got no response. We left him text and Whatsapp messages. The double, blue ticks that signified message had been read came up on Whatsapp, but no response followed. We did contact Mr. Kperogi for information on his sources too but we were ignored. We tried to reach Mr. Kperogi through his social media accounts – Facebook and Twitter – where he commands over 76,000 followers combined. Although his Direct Message, DM as commonly called, on Twitter is not open, meaning that only those he follows can send him a direct message, the same message was sent to his Facebook messenger. We also requested comment through his WhatsApp messenger, like Senator Melaye, we only saw the blue ticks.
Senator Melaye, an already controversial politician, tweeted out the picture of a dead man laying in his own pool of blood. He claimed the man was killed in election-related violence that had erupted in Kano. He went ahead to call for the suspension of elections in the state, using the picture as the basis for which he called on the electoral commission to cancel the Kano State governorship elections.
This tweet– retweeted by 655 accounts and liked by double that number– is in fact, deliberately misleading. It took us just one image reverse search to unravel the truth. We found a 3-year old article with the same image now posed off as a casualty from Kano State elections. The picture first appeared in a 2017 article detailing a clash in Nairobi, Kenya.
The next photograph we looked at was uploaded on the official Twitter handle of the PDP.
The opposition party tweeted out the photo of an injured man and claimed that “APC thugs brutally attacked PDP agent in Kibiya Local Government Area of Kano State”.
The opposition party tweeted out the photo of an injured man and claimed that “APC thugs brutally attacked PDP agent in Kibiya Local Government Area of Kano State”.
This particular picture was shared on 23 March, the day of the supplementary elections. It is important to note that our analysis of these photographs is hardly open source investigation, but we thought it interesting anyway.
The appearance of these wounds raised suspicion: for purported fresh wounds, it is unsettling to see that the wounds were dry. There’s no blood gushing from the man’s head, but there’s somehow blood on his shirt.
Granted, they could have cleaned up before taking the picture but take a look at the wounds again. Does anything appear amiss? We thought so, too. We spoke to medical doctors for their expert opinions. The first doctor we showed the picture to said the wounds don’t seem fresh.
“Maybe a few days old,” Dr. Samuel Ezekwesili said, before adding that only close examination can truly reveal how long the wounds were before the pictures were taken.
Dr. Joshua Adeoye also thinks the wounds have been treated previously, contradicting PDP claims that the attacks happened “this morning”. “They’re not really fresh. At least, they’ve received some medical attention. You can see the first one has had cotton wool applied. And the second one, that wound on scalp and neck would not stop bleeding except it receives attention.
“Those places are vascular– very well supplied with blood. However, if the wounds were older than 2 days, you’d start seeing scabs on them, which seem absent on these ones. So, best guess is between 1 to 2 days.”
The experts’ opinions were clear; the wounds are not as recent as handlers of the PDP Twitter page would want Nigerians to believe. Again, even if the men were attacked “this morning”, as claimed, can PDP Twitter handlers, at least, acknowledge that the men have had a clean up and only wore their clothes back for photo session?
Senator Dino Melaye shared the pictures in question too. We asked again how he got them, and again, we got no response.
The online atmosphere in Kano State, where the injured man’s photos allegedly emanated from, was awash with political misinformation and misrepresentation, according to recent research funded by WhatsApp. With the surge of cheap internet enabled phones in northern Nigeria, the researchers found that social media users in the region were particularly vulnerable to propagandists motivated by personal gains, and who pay no attention to accuracy.
One of the machineries used by both APC and PDP, according to the research, were photographs wrongly captioned or outright falsehood. Our own findings corroborate this. “Accuracy is not always prioritised over political point-scoring, especially as these online operators are looking to illustrate their value to the party or candidate by creating viral content that increases their visibility,” the researchers wrote.
Now, back to videos
We mentioned a second interesting one shared by Mr. Kperogi. Watch it here.
In this video, some men and one woman wearing what look like official tags appear to be thumbprinting massively for a party. The reason we found this interesting is because we set out to debunk many videos we believed to be old or not related to the elections. We were not prepared to deal with actual, blatant rigging, not with the PVCs and not with the improved vigilance that was supposed to be a key feature of the 2019 polls. We had to know where this happened and what was really going on.
So, we checked the video for clues. One of the officials is wearing a 2019 tag, which immediately signaled to us that this is a recent case. On the tag, we could make out the phrase “Ward Supervisor”.
While we cannot emphatically state that those stamping and thumbprinting the ballot papers are INEC officials, we know for a fact that it is a recent voting exercise. Two people wear similar vests as won by INEC officials during the 2019 elections and there are materials on the table with ‘INEC’ printed on them.
We could not distinctly make out the party being thumb-printed but we could see from the video that it was the second party on the first column that received this illegal votes. We checked this information against the ballot papers used in Borno and Yobe. But, it is hard to tell.
We analysed yet another video of men rigging in what we presume is a northern state because of the Hausa language being spoken. Twitter user @thechefchii with over 18,000 followers, posted a video showing illegal thumb printing of ballot papers. The user claimed that the rigging was in preparation of the February 23 elections, in favour of the ruling party, then urged Nigerians to “RT”.
The same video was shared by @LLumamba, another Twitter user. The caption was a bit different. “APC plus INEC rigging elections in Nigeria”, the handle claimed.
But more importantly, we found that the video was uploaded on Youtube in 2018 with the caption “Zaben kanana Hukumomi Ta Jahar Kano”. The phrase translates from Hausa to mean “Watch how Kano state vote today”. It had nothing to do with 2019. And so, we cracked another old ‘fake news’ video.
In the end, we only analyzed a few of the hundreds of fake photographs and videos shared during the elections and used as weaponry by party propagandists and loyalists. It is unclear how successful their work was or just how big the machinery that fueled the attacks is: and to be clear, these fake posts were attacks on the ordinary Nigerians who only wanted to vote, however you look at it.
The 2019 elections recorded the lowest turnout in Nigeria’s 20-year democracy. [Data for 2019 archived here, and 1999 here] Fear of violence caused many to shun the polls, and social media messages like the ones we’ve analysed here did nothing to allay people’s fears.
To get a sense of the scale of online attacks during the elections, we must connect these incidents to a recent development. Just last month, Facebook pulled 265 Instagram and Facebook accounts linked to Archimedes Group, an Isreali campaign agency. The accounts, posed as locals and local news agencies to spew fake election news in targeted West African countries, especially Nigeria. They reached a combined followership of almost 3 million people and spent almost a million dollars on advertising. The Digital Forensic Lab specifically found posts targeting both Atiku and Buhari’s supporters, suggesting Archimedes was lobbying for both sides simultaneously. The account managers were traced to locations in Israel, United Kingdom, Portugal and Senegal.
Twitter has failed to do a similar sweep, meaning there are likely hundreds more fakes on the platform. None of the Twitter or Facebook accounts we listed in this report have been linked to Archimedes Group and therefore have not been removed or sanctioned – to the best of our knowledge. But without a doubt, political information warfare is being commercialized and weaponised, and Nigeria remains highly vulnerable to such attacks because of low media literacy levels. High profile Twitter account holders such as Mr. Kperogi and Senator Melaye are still active on social media and it is conceivable they will share more fake news in the future. That makes us worry. What will they post next?