As Nigeria’s Feb 16 presidential election approaches, tensions are ramping up across the country and like elsewhere around the world social media has become one of the most fraught battlegrounds.
Online, candidates and their respective political parties are engaging individuals, usually young men and some women, who have been creating fake accounts daily to direct conversations, promote agenda, expose the shortcomings of opponents, and test the ground for Election Day when unofficial results will be emerging on social media.
The moves are very similar to Russia’s alleged interference in the recently held elections in the US and Macedonia.
It’s understandable. The presidential election is now being predicted to be a tight call between incumbent president Muhammadu Buhari, 76, and the leading opposition challenger Atiku Abubakar, 72, a former vice president.
It means the stakes are much higher especially in reaching the all-important youth vote, but also for engaging and mobilising young people at various stages of the campaign.
In Ilishan, a suburb community in Ogun state, southwest Nigeria, John (not his real name), a 24 year-old graduate of agricultural engineering at the nearby Olabisi Onabanjo University was asked by a friend to consider handling digital media for his uncle, one of the state governorship candidates.
John, who asked not to be named to avoid alienating his clients, was given the task of improving the candidate’s online presence. He’d previously gained experience involved in online fraud scams so this felt good and honest to him.
John said he’s been earning on average around 60,000 naira ($165) monthly from the candidate and his campaign team.
“I felt I was doing the right thing – even though I could make more money from internet scams,” he says.
According to John, as few as 12 people on his team are involved in running more than 600 Twitter accounts and are constantly creating new ones, thanks to the relative ease with which new accounts can be created on Twitter.
John said he now provides similar services for other political candidates vying for other offices including legislative and senatorial positions.
“I get paid by each candidate and I am now recruiting people under me to create accounts and talk about our various clients’ political agenda while putting the spotlight on their opponents’ shortcomings in the race,” he said.
Beyond bringing the local races on social media, individuals like John working across the country for various candidates also align their posts and strategies in line with the party’s central agenda and digital communications strategy.
These fake accounts typically are opened in the last month or two and follow hundreds of people with few followers of their own.
They also don’t have that many original tweets, very often the few tweets they’ve posted are tweet replies to celebrities or news outlets.
They’re almost always young individuals with close up photos and a string of numbers as part of their account name, such as @Paul23436649.
The creation of the accounts, while unethical, is not illegal in Nigeria and many other countries.
But the obvious risk is how they are eventually deployed with the risk of so called fake news and misinformation being the high profile examples.
This is why social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have finally been trying to get ahead of the issue as more governments around the world blame the huge global tech companies for the untended negative consequences of their reach.
In Nigeria, the professional internet trolls or influencers manage all these accounts by creating tweet sheets that contain the messages that should be copied, pasted and shared on social media using the various accounts.
Lagos-based new media strategist Isaac Adeoye told Quartz the recruitment and mobilisation of political digital trolls goes to the highest levels of government and opposition parties.
They use them to recruit and mobilise users with many followers (social media influencers) and accounts (trolls) to share pre-written messages with a designated hashtag and success is measured by impressions and trend rank.
In addition to making a topic trend on social media, the much sought target for trolls is going viral. Once in a while, they hit gold.
Instead of employing trolls, either side could just pay Twitter for sponsored posts but a social media influencer frequently engaged by a state government says the major reason they are being used is to ensure government officials are not held responsible for whatever is shared on social media.
He added that when government officials use their personal accounts, the information they are trying to pass across will naturally be perceived as biased.
“They sometimes do both but we have found that engaging social media influencers…is more effective here,” said one of the influencers, who asked not to be named. “They make people think it is the ordinary people that are talking about the issues,” he added.
As the elections get closer, experts say the numerous troll accounts could pose greater challenges to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) whose current and past leaders repeatedly called for stiffer laws against fake election results.
Broadcast regulators are often hard on traditional media houses for announcing unconfirmed results. Experts say this actually pushes candidates and their parties to consider less risky avenues to reach people directly.
Flooding social media with messages has become one of the highly effective channels in disseminating political information. This is why many of the fake accounts being created tend to sit dormant for a while till they need to be deployed to spread vital data points or misinformation in the tense period following voting.
Damilare Ibikunle, a political scientist at University of Jos, noted that by deploying social media troll accounts, candidates and political parties are a step ahead of the country’s laws. He said they are deploying an approach that is much cheaper and feeds right into voters’ curiosity. “Nigerian government cannot shut down Twitter, in the same vein it cannot convincingly identify those behind the troll accounts. Even if it could, Nigeria’s electoral laws don’t have provisions for Twitter trolls,” he says.
Some influencer account owners think the challenges their activities pose could be seen as a way of forcing the country’s lawmakers and policymakers to update the country’s electoral laws, compel INEC to release results in real time to quench voters’ thirst for results, and for tech companies to make it more difficult to create and operate fake account.
This tension around early electoral results is perhaps the biggest concern for the Nigerian government and other African governments. The concern is that unverified electoral information is used by opposition parties to stir unrest.
But opposition parties are also worried their victories might be suppressed by the government of the day.
All this has led to a genuine concern building in Nigeria the government might follow other African governments and shut down the internet or block social media if early or unverified results start being shared on Twitter or WhatsApp.
WhatsApp has promised to put in place restrictions and checks around the sharing of misinformation in general around the world, it will be difficult to control its encrypted system.
Twitter says it is aware of challenges posed by trolls, adding it has introduced new measures to fight abuse and trolls, while also bringing in new technology and staff to fight spam and abuse.
“But we know there’s still a lot of work to be done. Inauthentic accounts, spam, and malicious automation disrupt everyone’s experience on Twitter, and we will never be done with our efforts to identify and prevent attempts to manipulate conversations on our platform,” says Del Harvey, VP, Trust and Safety, Twitter.