Image: CrossCheck Nigeria

In the run-up to the Nigerian election in February 2019, 16 Nigerian news organisations are being trained in a collaborative effort to fight mis- and disinformation spreading online, with a focus on the messaging platform WhatsApp.

The International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) spearheads the project, working with non-profit organisation First Draft. Both organisation have also set-up CrossCheck France and Comprova in Brazil for their respective elections in 2017 and 2018.

Dayo Aiyetan, executive director, ICIR, said that the lessons learned from the 2016 American election and the role of disinformation are the driving force of the project. He added that the politicians will be held to their word by scrutinising what they have said during the campaign and after the elections.

“What we want to do is make Nigerian politicians accountable on social media, in particular as younger politicians are coming into the fray, social media has become a pillar for politicians to communicate with their audience.

“This is part of a bigger project, it is about accountability, it’s not just about fact checking. The bigger danger is misinformation that is carried by the ordinary Nigerian on WhatsApp or social media.”

Indeed, Aiyetan said that because of the popularity of the messaging app, the project will specifically look to clamp down on politically motivated rumours that are forwarded absent-mindedly.

“We know that politicians everywhere weaponise information, but increasingly WhatsApp is becoming the biggest purveyor of misinformation whether it is text or video online.

“Even things which are not directly related to the election, politicians are now using them out of context. Imagine that there is bomb blast or an attack on the military in the north, they can capitalise on that by suggesting the government is not doing enough. Or if you show a video of several people lying dead on the floor, and say these are soldiers killed by Boko Haram insurgents.

“Imagine that goes out on WhatsApp and many people are terribly irresponsible: just forward and receive. What we have to do is not wait for people to contact us on WhatsApp — though we do have a WhatsApp group for tips — if any journalist in the cohort sees this, we can quickly start working to verify. The trick is having a situation where we nip any misinformation in the bud before it goes viral and does harm.”

During the Comprova campaign, WhatsApp granted API access to First Draft in order to help sift through the 70,000 tips that came flooding through. It meant that the entire team had access to the back-end data on one dashboard coming into that single phone number. This has now been extended to the CrossCheck Nigeria project.

Aiyetan said the majority of tips that come through 'do not require serious journalistic examination', so the API access allows them to demonstrate strong editorial judgement and hone in on selected verification stories worth publishing. As every organisation has access to the data, as soon as users start sending in their tips, they can begin contributing to the fact-checking process.

A minimum of five newsrooms must approve a verification before it is published on the website, and that goes out with their logo beside it for the final authentication step.

A debunked story, as verified by eight Nigerian organisations

45 journalists from the 16 organisations attended a two-day bootcamp in online verification techniques as part of the project. This also helps them to look at video and audio leads, using resources such as the social media tracking tool Crowdtangle to verify the sources of rumours and monitor subsequent interactions.

A recent study claims that Nigerians are more exposed to misinformation than American audiences, and Aiyetan points to the low levels of literacy in the country and sudden access to the internet as a way to explain the phenomenon.

"The culture is that people want to do harm to other people with just a click of a button and a little bit of data. It doesn’t even have to be political, sometimes it just mischief-making.

“That’s why we look particularly to WhatsApp and we have a partnership with all the tech giants: Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative, WhatsApp. We can quickly put this to rest before it goes viral and does any kind of damage. We are looking at all platforms.”

Aiyetan gives an example of a recently debunked rumour that claimed President Muhammadu Buhari had been cloned as proof of the power of collaborative verification.

“There are media houses that have carried this story before on their own, nothing happened. When a coalition carried the story, it had more weight and bite. Immediately, the President reacted, so I’m saying that is the power of a coalition,” said Aiyetan.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).