A dive into the dark underbelly of Nigeria’s social media space uncovers a hateful anarchist universe that is a direct opposite of the one we see on our normal feeds. That ‘world’ is not flooded with music videos or banter, but disturbing videos and images and inciteful, hateful content propagated by countless accounts.
Despite Twitter’s stringent policies against false news and hateful content, in African democracies, disinformation appears to fly under Twitter’s radar. On the platform, the global south is the proverbial Wild West.
The party at the heart of this misinformation campaign is the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a Nigerian separatist movement founded in 2012 that wants the formation of a breakaway state of Biafra for the Igbo population in the south-east of Nigeria. The movement’s tactics have been described as “violent” on many occasions with many of its protests ending in bloodshed as authorities violently try to quell the uprising. The Federal Government of Nigeria took it a step further in 2017 when IPOB was listed as a terrorist organization under the Nigerian Terrorism Act for, according to the government, ‘violent acts against the army and members of the public’.
IPOB through its official Facebook group and website claims to be; “ A human rights political movement of the Biafrans anchored on freedom of speech where everybody can express his political opinion without being tagged saboteur.”
But the movement has been dogged with allegations of murder, kidnapping and incitement. A case in point is this video posted by an account with the username IPOB_unit. After a frantic search, we established that it was first shared on YouTube on May 20, 2022. It is from a sermon by a radical Nigerian preacher called Prophet Ritabbi openly advocating for violence to be committed by his congregation and ‘Christians’. The clip is part of an answer he gave to the question, ‘If someone should kill a Christian, should the family of the Christian retaliate?’
Quoting the Bible, the animated preacher answers, “Any devil that refuse to go, the thunder from my mouth and my hand will take them out from you.” In the full video shared here on Facebook and YouTube, the preacher adds, “Whoever kill you as a Christian, kill them.”
To show just how far-reaching content can be, the video was retweeted 19 times and has 131 views as of July 7, 2022. Such content can have fatal consequences.
A BBC investigation into IPOB activities links Facebook users it terms as IPOB “’media warriors”’ to the brutal murder of a couple in the South East of Nigeria. Many IPOB-affiliated accounts and the IPOB itself through its website continues to deny the accusations.
But that’s not all, an army of IPOB accounts launched a sustained information war against the broadcaster by spreading propaganda in the form of images aimed at tarnishing BBC’s reputation. Many of them accuse the BBC of colluding with the Nigerian Government to “help Fulani terrorists take over the community.” This post for example. Repeatedly call the broadcaster “zoo media”. See screen grabs below.
Disinformation is at the center of all this. The posts we’ve seen either allege sectarian or Igbo violence. More often than not directly linking the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari or the Nigerian Army with Islamist groups. This post for instance falsely attributes CNN veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour for allegedly accusing President Buhari of terrorist attacks, a claim that was clearly fabricated.
In another post, the same account falsely quotes former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo making inciteful statements regarding the upcoming February, 2023, presidential general elections. According to the post, Obasanjo said to have supposedly said that “Fulani has surrendered Nigeria” and that Nigerians should get their “Guns” as “No one will defend them.” Both posts contain false information but have gone on to rake a combined 1,158 likes and 1411 retweets since they were posted as of July 2 and July 5, 2022. No credible news organization in Nigeria reported Olusegun Obasanjo to have made such remarks.
This is a pattern we have observed in posts shared from accounts affiliated with IPOB meant to dissuade or threaten voters from taking part in the upcoming presidential elections. The movement has repeatedly declared its stance against elections taking place in the South East. It is calling for a referendum in lieu of the presidential elections. In April 2022, the Federal Government of Nigeria accused IPOB of attacking a voter registration center in the State of Imo, resulting in the death of one electoral official. IPOB denied the allegations.
Here is a list of 100 accounts exhibiting inauthentic coordinated behavior on Twitter. All are affiliated with the IPOB as per their retweets and following.
When we flagged our first false claim shared on one of IPOB’s accounts, we were bemused by the sheer number of accounts that looked identical, shared similar views and opinions, profile pictures and even hashtags. Save for the usernames, they were one and the same. They retweeted, liked and reposted similar content.
Most posts are related to IPOB’s controversial leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu. The British-Nigerian political activist is presently under arrest in Nigeria where he is facing charges of terrorism and treason. He has increasingly become the campaign’s symbol of unity. Most accounts use his image as the profile picture. See screen grab below.
The Mazi Nnamdi Kanu profile pictures were difficult to ignore, but the intentional use of hashtags was even harder.
An account with that profile picture has used #FreeMaziNnamdiKanu and #FreeMaziNnamdiKanuNow a combined 1,636 times.
Another that was created in February 2022 has already used the same hashtags 644 times.
Hashtags feature in almost all tweets by these accounts, a tool assumedly used by these accounts to increase visibility and maintain the echo chamber established by repeated use over time. Thus allowing space for radical thoughts, incitement and inaccurate information that could further disrupt peace in a country already grappling with terrorism.
A fundamental difference between human accounts and bots is the unusually high frequency of retweets, tweets and spamming bots exhibit. Majority of these accounts have unrealistic posting frequencies. In an article titled ‘Bots and Misinformation Spread on Social Media’, the National Institute of Health notes that, “Bots have fewer original tweets than humans but retweet others tweets more frequently”, and have a shorter time interval between tweets.”
Majority of these accounts registered a daily average of 100 tweets per day when analyzed using TruthNest. While this alone does not prove that these accounts are automated, when coupled with the alarming hashtag use, their activity raises questions. See screen grab below.
The danger of all this
Social media is a powerful mobilization tool, especially in the face of injustice or upheaval. In 2019, tens of thousands of young Nigerians marched in the streets demanding the disbandment of the brutal anti-robbery squad by the name Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in what’s now known as the #EndSARS movement. A lot of the mobilization for those protests was done online via Twitter and WhatsApp.
An article published by Quartz Africa in the heat of the protests noted, “The protests have spread to other states across the country in similar fashion with social media also deployed as a key tool for organizing.” This represents unimaginable possibilities for change but leaves open the door to havoc and destruction as a result of these false narratives.
Recently, Facebook came under increasing pressure from the Nigerian Government for allowing IPOB to use its platform. “For whatever reason, they seem to have now chosen Facebook as their platform of choice. And their tools include disinformation, incendiary statements and hate speech,” Nigeria’s Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed stated.
To counter this dualistic nature of social media, Twitter says that it ‘works to mitigate detected threats and also empower customers with credible context on important issues, but little is yet to be seen from the efforts made by the social media giant to combat online hate and disinformation on the continent.