Fake News Is Fair Game in Nigerian Social Media Battle for Votes

(Bloomberg) -- As Nigeria’s presidential candidates travel around the vast West African nation holding rallies and making speeches, behind the scenes their supporters are engaging in a hot social media battle for the minds of mainly young voters.

Nothing is sacred in the fight as volunteers for President Muhammadu Buhari hunker down in a building in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, trying to neutralize adverse reports on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Across town, a similar group of social media warriors is busy fending off attacks on Atiku Abubakar, the main opposition challenger in the Feb. 16 elections.

At stake is the support of Nigeria’s youth, who account for about half of the almost 200 million people in Africa’s top oil producer and more than half of registered voters. At least 111 million surf the Internet, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission, with almost 26 million Facebook users last year. Both camps agree social media helped Buhari in 2015 become the first opposition candidate in Nigeria’s history to win power through the ballot box.

“In 2015 new media played a big role,” Bashir Ahmad, Buhari’s social media adviser, said in an interview in Abuja. “Social media is getting bigger and bigger every day.”

Fake News Is Fair Game in Nigerian Social Media Battle for Votes

Facebook Inc. recently named Nigeria among four countries with elections this year where it intends to restrain ad spending to local buyers in a bid to curb foreign meddling, like the alleged Russian interference to help Donald Trump win the U.S. presidency in 2016.

Given the huge amounts of information, frequently fake news, shared on its WhatsApp messaging app, Facebook has also restricted the forwarding of messages in Nigeria to no more than five contacts at a time.

Party members close to the campaigns aren’t shy of using fake news to score points. Twitter users in September called out Lauretta Onochie, a presidential aide, for passing off stock photos of road construction taken off the Internet as government infrastructure works.

Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party was accused of using a photo of soldiers killed in Somalia on its Twitter handle, saying they were Nigerian troops slain by Islamist militants in the country’s northeast.

PDP supporters have shown clips of Buhari falling, committing verbal gaffes or endorsing the wrong candidate on the campaign trail to make the case the 76-year-old president is infirm and unable to continue in office. The APC shows videos of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo denouncing Abubakar, his former deputy with whom he fell out previously but now supports.

“These days people rarely read newspapers, so you can’t do without the social media in any campaign,” said Eta Uso, head of new media for the Abubakar campaign. “If you’re not on social media or your supporters are not there to debunk the fake news, everyone will take them for the truth.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.