Following the bloodiest attack on farmers by herdsmen yet, which left up to 200 people dead in Plateau state, and an unrelated tanker explosion in Lagos days later that left another nine dead, it appeared as if the country was coming apart at the seams. At the very moment we should've been united as a nation in calling out the terrorists for their actions, we retreated into our ethnic, religious and partisan corners, instead blaming the government.
I admit, it was tempting to capitalize on the tragedy and the ensuing tepid response, to drive home my own political narrative, but then it occurred to me the dangers this divisive rhetoric posed. So I shelved the story I had been working on, to instead sound the alarm about the real possibility of a Russian-style disinformation attack on our elections, what we are doing to contribute to it and how we can stop it.
In the run up to the 2016 US elections, a poll showed Americans were more divided on issues like abortion, race, gender, change, air and water pollution, healthcare and jobs than at any point since their 1861 civil war. The indictment released by the US Department of Justice last week details how the Russian Government through its intelligence service the GRU, successfully exploited this chasm to elect Donald Trump who they deemed would be friendlier towards Russian interests. The 3-prong strategy created fake stories designed to inflame passions in unsuspecting Americans and used fake social media accounts to spread them.
While most people blame Russia for the attack; and they bear most of the blame, it is the deep-seated divisions, the proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories coupled with a motivated adversary that made it successful. The same factors exist in Nigeria today and are creating the perfect storm for an outsider influence campaign.
The politicization of tragedy is not new or novel; after all President Buhari rode the wave of Boko Haram attacks into office in 2015, but when the general populace starts to consume and regurgitate news like the "Buhari - Fulani Herdsmen tribal affiliation" narrative created by partisan hacks, it blurs the line between what is legitimately outrage-worthy, and what is politically motivated. It also deliberately distorts the cause of the problem and amplifies our anger so as to divide us in situations where we might otherwise be united in our rejection of evil.
The second ingredient - the proliferation of fake news (or disinformation as it is referred to in intelligence circles) is already alive and thriving. Just look at your family whatsapp group chat. Elaborate hoaxes with plausible but false or misleading messages masquerading as fact, are circulated with the speed of light. Spreading fake news without taking the time to verify the source or accuracy of the content. In the era of democratized news, it is already difficult to distinguish real from fake news, but when you add low literacy rates, baked-in ethnic and religious sentiments to it, you have a population that is extremely gullible.
While we may not have as obvious a motivated adversary as Russia in the case of the United States, there are several nations and corporations that would love to see a friendlier President in power. Regionally, Nigeria has allegedly been a major hindrance in Morocco's bid to join ECOWAS. As is evident from the massive parade King Mohammed VI threw President Buhari during his visit last months, they are willing to pull all the stops to get their way.
Continentally, there's the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, which 44 African nations signed, excluding Nigeria. The nations with the most to gain might be open to helping influence the elections in Nigeria if it brings us to the fold.
Internationally, and perhaps most plausible is Israel which has the motive and the capability to execute such a mission. In June 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first non-African head of state to attend the ECOWAS summit in Monrovia, where he started heavily courting African nations in an effort to convince them to vote for Israeli interests at the United Nations.
While there is no evidence that a foreign influence attack on our upcoming election is in the works or underway, the toxic environment we have created and nurture make us an easy target for it. While our government has a role to play in protecting us from such an attack, the very nature of these cyber attacks means that most of the work lies with us. We must dial down the rhetoric especially around trigger topics like ethnicity and religion. Understanding that while our right to free speech is protected by the constitution, it is our responsibility to use it conscientiously.
Lastly we must put every bit of information we get through the "fake news test" before sharing. Consider the source, check the author, check the date, check you biases, read beyond the headline, check to see if the story has supporting sources, check if its a joke or satire, and ask the experts.