How foreign-linked accounts amplify disinformation about gunmen attack in Nigeria’s Plateau state

THE widespread public condemnation following the Christmas eve’s gunmen attack in Plateau state has paved the way for the dissemination of false information amplified, not only by local citizens but by foreign-linked accounts on social media, especially X (formerly Twitter). In this report, The FactCheckHub debunks some of these claims and exposes some foreign-linked accounts using their influence to amplify disinformation narratives about the incident.

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The joyous Christmas season turned into a nightmare for some residents of Plateau State when armed groups attacked remote communities in the Nigerian north-central state and left a trail of tears and blood.

Many lives were lost. Families were devastated and communities were thrown into mourning. The onslaught affected various communities in the Bokkos and Barkin Ladi local government areas of the state, resulting in the tragic death of over 150 individuals and the displacement of more than 29,000 residents, according to media reports.

As usual, the attack prompted public outcry, condolence messages, and promises by the Nigerian authorities to arrest the situation and prevent a re-occurrence.  Not only that, the attack was heavily criticized by foreign governments and citizens some of whom linked the incident to the persecution of Christians and the Israel-Hamas war, among other global conflicts.

However, findings by The FactCheckHub show that the agitation has birthed the spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media which was not only amplified by Nigerian citizens but also by people with vested interests from outside Nigeria. Experts have said this situation can escalate tensions and undermine social cohesion in the country.

Heightened interest from foreign authorities and citizens 

Unlike several other insecurity incidents that occurred in recent times, the recent violent attack attracted wider attention and condemnation from citizens and influential figures from outside Nigeria.

Though herders and farmers have been locked in a decades-long conflict over access to land and water over the years in the state. The recent attack was the worst violence in the central Plateau state in more than five years.

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Following the tragic incident, the President of Hungary, Katalin Novák, condemned the killings and called for an end to the massacre. Novac while appealing for aid for the affected victims also attributed the attack to the persecution of Christians making her the first president to tie the incident to religion publicly.

https://x.com/KatalinNovak_HU/status/1739969157502775716?s=20

Her post read, “Brutal attack on #Christians at #Christmas in #Nigeria🇳🇬. According to certain news outlets, more than a hundred people were killed. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims. This massacre must end. Persecuted Christians must receive help.”

Similarly, French Diplomacy in a condolence message released through the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs also strongly condemned the attacks and killings. They called for the identification and prosecution of the attackers and assured the Nigerian government of its full support.

 “France utterly condemns the attacks carried out over the past several days on several villages in Plateau State, located in central Nigeria, which resulted in a large number of casualties. France calls for the identification and prosecution of the perpetrators of these attacks, and assures the Nigerian authorities of its full support,” it stated.

Similarly, several foreign citizens expressed concerns over the attack on social media. 

Foreign actors amplify misinformation, propaganda

Checks by FactCheckHub show that various social media accounts used unrelated images and videos to depict the attacks in a seemingly coordinated manner. Some false claims shared about the incident were amplified by accounts from outside Nigeria. 

Those managing these accounts frequently link the incident either to the persecution of Christians, attribute the attacks to Islamic groups, or connect them with religious violence even when they are not related.

The administrators of these accounts are found to be from foreign countries such as United States, Israel, Australia and Italy. Let’s take a look at some examples.

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1. Image of Owo attack shot in 2022

A few days after the incident, a photo collage showing the interior of a church and a floor stained with blood was circulated online to depict the attack. The photo collage was largely amplified by people who believe the attack was targeted at Christians.  

When this researcher subjected the images in the collage to Google Reverse Image search, the results revealed that the photos show the inside view of St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State which was attacked by bandits in June 2022. An earlier version of the pictures was found in these reports by Al Jazeera and AP News.

The photos were credited to the Associated Press photographer, Rahaman A Yusuf and were shot on June 5, 2022, inside the church after the gunmen attacked worshippers who gathered for weekly service.

Social media Analysis showed that many primary pages that shared the claim have administrators outside Nigeria.

For instance, @RonEnglish based in the United Kingdom posted the video claiming it shows over 150 people killed recently on the eve of Christmas. He further linked the incident to Israel-Hamas war while also claiming the mainstream ignored the incident.

His post read, “Nigeria – New photos from within a church where at Christmas Christians were massacred in the name of Allah. Around 150 are confirmed dead so far, properties & farms were looted and burned. This is on par with what Hamas did, but the MSM & dancing Western Hamas fans ignore it.

Similarly, Nile Gardiner; who claimed to be a foreign policy analyst based in Washington DC reposted the video alleging that the president of the United States, Joe Biden and Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak did not address the issue.

S/NX IDUsernameCountryFollowers
1.@laraloganLara LoganUnited States749,700
2.@DrEliDavidDr Eli DavidUnited States553,100
3.@NileGardinerNile GardinerUnited States47,600
4.@nelsonepegaNels OnepegaUnited States58,400
5.@leonskeeLeonskeeIsrael4,642
6.@BreeadailBree A DailItaly75, 200
7.@nogulasagainStevenAustralia28,600
8.@oliakleinOliaUnited States15, 500
9.@@cherylE59628Cheryl EIsrael5, 950
10.@HananyaNaftaliHananya NaftaliIsrael413, 400

List of some influential X accounts amplifying misinformation about the Plateau attack.

Cherryl E from Israel posted the photos saying the United Nations, United Nations and Arab community are silent on the matter.

“These are photos from the aftermath of the massacre at a church in Nigeria where Islamic terrorists slaughtered 150 Christians on Christmas. This isn’t about Jews. This isn’t about land. This isn’t about occupation. This is about a psychotic cult and ideology hellbent on destroying our world. 

“Not a single protest on the streets of Europe, Australia or the US. Not a single tweet by the United Nations. Not a single mention in the MSM. Not a single outcry from the UNSC. Not a single murmur from the Arab world. Just silence.”

Other foreign X accounts that shared the video include  Hananya Naftali; an  Israeli. A check of Naftali’s account shows that he has a keen interest in Nigeria’s security situation and often links it to religious violence.  For instance, just recently,  he posted about the recent attack in Kaduna state and claimed that over 41 Christians were killed.  The figure he quoted roughly doubled figure reported by credible media platforms like Punch and Thisday.

2. Video of dead bodies lying on the ground 

Few days after the incident, a video emerged online, supposedly depicting lifeless bodies. The footage portrays primarily women lying lifeless on the ground, with some of them carrying infants strapped to their backs. Findings show that the video is unrelated to the incident as it depicted an incident that occurred in Burkina Faso.

Meanwhile, social media analysis shows that the video was largely amplified by foreign social media accounts which include Steven;  based in Australia who blamed the account on Islamic extremists. 

“Another 200 Christian Nigerians massacred yesterday.  There was no Oct 7 massacre from them, were no used as Human Shields and there are no protests in London or New York. Islam is the problem.” he posted. 

The video was also shared by Lara Logan( @Laralogan), an American journalist turned to troll opinionist and @Nelson Epega who claimed that Islamic extremists carried out the attack.

3. Unrelated video showing coffins and people in mourning state 

Similarly, another video showing people gathered around a coffin was widely circulated with a claim that it showed people who were killed in the attack. Findings show that the video has been online since February 2023. An earlier version of the video can be seen here

Meanwhile, the misleading video was also shared by several foreign citizens on X. For instance, an Italian journalist with Daily Wire, Bree A Dail shared the video claiming that Fulani herdsmen are the suspects. 

4. Video showing people mourning over dead bodies inside a church 

One of the misleading videos that went viral after the incident and was largely amplified by foreign accounts is a video showing dead bodies inside a church. The video was one of the videos that was shot after the attack on worshippers in Owo in 2022. 

The video was posted by US X account, @leeonskee based in Israel who alleged that the attack was carried out by Islamic radicals. The post generated over N1 million views and was amplified by over 4000 social media accounts based in Israel and other countries. For instance, @Oliaklein, a US-based X user reposted the video linking it to the persecution of Christians in the world.

 

How misinformation impacted violence in Plateau

Plateau state is home to about 40 ethnic groups and has been a hotbed of conflict. The clashes, mostly between Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers is often painted as ethnoreligious. However, analysts have said climate change and scarcity of pastoral land are pitting the farmers and herders against each other, irrespective of faith.  

The Fulani, traditionally nomadic pastoralists primarily from the northern regions, have migrated to central and southern parts of the country in pursuit of better grazing grounds for their livestock. While some Fulani herders establish permanent settlements in host communities, challenges such as pastoral land shortages exacerbated by growing urbanization have compelled herders to encroach upon farmlands and restricted areas like national parks and preserved forests over the years. 

This encroachment often leads to crop destruction, escalating tensions and conflicts between herders and local farmers. In response, aggrieved farmers and members of farming communities occasionally retaliate by attacking the herders and their livestock, creating a cycle of violence in these areas. 

As pointed out by Human Rights Watch, one of the major challenges with Plateau violence is difficulty in identifying the orchestrators of the attack. Unlike bandit groups in the Northwest and Boko Haram in the Northeast, no individual or organization has openly claimed responsibility for the killings in the state. This gap is fuelling speculations, false narratives and conspiracy theories about the identities of the attackers.

Misinformation, fueled by ethnoreligious sentiments, has frequently obscured the attacks in Plateau state, contributing to the prolonged and escalating violence. This is partly responsible for the escalation and persistence of the violence over the years. For instance, in 2018, a disturbing series of images and videos circulated on Facebook, alleging that Fulani Muslims were targeting Christians from the Berom ethnic minority in Plateau. 

These visuals depicted burnt homes, corpses in mass graves, and children murdered in their beds. However, upon investigation, it was revealed that these images were unrelated to the incident, grossly exaggerating the situation. Shockingly, one video even portrayed an incident from Congo-Brazzaville in 2012. 

The dissemination of these misleading visuals sparked a new wave of violence, as many failed to verify the context, resulting in the death of dozens of people. The images fueled animosity between groups, leading to brutal incidents which claimed lives and properties.

The then public relations officer for the Plateau State police, Tyopev Terna Matthias confirmed that the killing was a result of the misleading images seen by people on social media.

He was quoted by BBC as saying  “It was the pictures, the supposed pictures that emanated from the attack [in Gashish]. Jos South was not under attack. But because of those images, they saw, the next day, roads were blocked. People died. Vehicles were burned. So many people died. Fake news on Facebook is killing people.”

 

Experts say misinformation may escalate crisis

While the perpetrators of the latest attack are yet to be fished out, experts in the information ecosystem like Kunle Adebajo, investigations editor at Humangle are worried about the potential repetition of history noting that the spread of misinformation regarding the incident may escalate the crisis and birth a new wave of violence.

“I understand that people are always itching to blame someone, especially for tragedies that are this big but it is always good to exercise restraint until all the facts are investigated and verified,” said Adebajo. He continued, “Otherwise, we risk escalating the crisis or even giving birth to a new round of violence.” 

Adebajo explained that the crisis in Plateau state has always been worsened by the spread of misinformation and disinformation, as far back as 2000 referencing documentation by Human Rights Watch. However, the situation continues to persist.  

“In 2018 as well, nearly a dozen people were killed in Jos after misleading pictures of an allegedly ethnically-motivated attack were shared on Facebook. People who are not living in these areas and have no knowledge of the nuances should especially refrain from jumping to conclusions and inflaming passions. What we post and share online have real-world impact, “ he said.

He noted that the symbolism of the attack taking place on Christmas Eve was also a significant factor responsible for the attention it attracted across the world. 

“It made it easy to interpret it as a religiously motivated or jihadist massacre,” Kunle noted. “We’ve also seen many instances of religious interest groups helping to amplify campaigns that suggest that a certain group is being persecuted because of their faith, even though many of the claims and statistics are exaggerated.” 

Adebajo called for a thorough investigation to unravel the motivations, cognitive biases, and possible ulterior motives for the deadly attack.

Complementing Adebajo’s view, Silas Jonathan, Head of Digital Investigations and Open Source Intelligence at DUBAWA noted that the influx of misinformation and disinformation surrounding attacks can erode people’s trust in the government and undermine confidence in the justice system.

“They have the potential to exacerbate ethnic tensions, widening existing divides in society,” he added.




     

     

    Speaking on the public outcry on social media, Jonathan noted that the people have realized the power of social media as the centre of information and a channel they can use to express their grievances.

    “Similar attacks in the same region, on the same people have been happening for over ten years now. Remarkably, these will be the first under the new administration, as the attention. Aside from these, the recent issues in other African countries such as Niger, Burkinaso etc., are not far-fetched. If democracy is failing in the most populated country in Africa, people will ask questions in such a time.”

    Jonathan stressed the importance of adopting a strategic approach to address the harmful effects of disinformation actors, both at the local and international levels.

    “While I don’t advocate for social media censorship, collaboration between the government, disinformation experts, and media professionals is crucial. Media experts need to remain vigilant, exposing these schemes and relevant government agencies also need to take action upon uncovering such misinformation. Collaborative efforts are key to combating this issue effectively,” he concluded.

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    He urged the media to rise to their watchdog role by countering false messages designed to exacerbate the crisis.

    This fact-check was republished from FactCheckHub; the original article can be read here.

    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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