Nigeria: 2019 Elections - How WhatsApp Strengthens, Undermines Nigeria's Democracy - Research

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WhatsApp

WhatsApp, a cross-platform messaging and voice over service owned by Facebook, strengthens accountability and promotes inclusion in Nigeria's democracy, particularly in the conduct of the 2019 general elections, according to Uk-Nigeria research findings.

It, however, also promotes the spread of "fake news" around the elections, the findings said.

The research which was jointly conducted by the Centre for Democracy and Development (Nigeria) and University of Birmingham (UK) presented key findings from a WhatsApp-sponsored research project on the role of WhatsApp in Nigeria's 2019 elections.

Drawing on citizen surveys and interviews with political campaigns, the report underlines the ways in which WhatsApp has promoted the spread of "fake news" around elections but had also strengthened accountability and promoted inclusion in other areas.

WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in 40 African countries, including Nigeria, due to its low cost, encrypted messages, and the ability to easily share messages with both individuals and groups.

The aim of the research project was to shed light on how the app is influencing Nigerian elections, particularly in light of concerns - in Nigeria, and across the globe - about social media usage and the spread of "fake news".

The report, released on Monday in Abuja, titled, WhatsApp and Nigeria's 2019 Elections: Mobilising the People, Protecting the Vote, highlighted how politicians and their aides deployed the app in reaching a large group of followers.

While presenting the report at the Yar'Adua Centre in Abuja on Monday, leader of the research team, Jonathan Fisher of the University of Birmingham, said the app helped less traditional power players to enter into the political arena, especially tech-savvy youth.

The team also included Idayat Hassan of CDD Centre, Jamie Hitchen (Independent Consultant) and Nic Cheeseman (University of Birmingham).

The research consisted of 50 interviews with political campaigns, activists, scholars and experts in Abuja, Oyo and Kano and a citizen survey (n=1,005) and focus groups in Oyo and Kano states.

In terms of organisation, the report noted that the political use of WhatsApp was increasingly sophisticated and organised at the presidential level.

It stated that by setting up multiple overlapping WhatsApp groups, organisations such as the Buhari New Media Centre (BNMC) and Atikulated Youth Force (AYF) - set up to support, respectively, the campaigns of President Buhari and his main opponent, Atiku Abubakar, could send messages to tens of thousands of people at the touch of a button by forming hundreds of groups of 256 members.

It, however, noted that things were very different below the national level, where a significant proportion of activity remains informal, which limits the ability of formal structures like parties to set and control narratives at the local level.

"Our research shows that while WhatsApp replicates existing political patron-client networks to some extent, it is also helping less traditional power-players to enter the political arena - particularly tech-savvy youth," said Mr Fisher.

As it affects content, the report said the different types of content shared via WhatsApp had varying impacts depending on who they had been shared by, and how they are presented to the user.

"The format, style, source and the content of a piece of information shared or received on WhatsApp all have a critical impact on how far they reach, and how far they are believed: pictures and videos are increasingly influential," said Ms Hassan.

The research also observed that offline and online structures were interlinked, reinforcing and building on each other in ways that are important to understand. As a result, in many respects, WhatsApp amplifies the significance and influence of networks that already exist within Nigerian politics and society.

"The interaction between information shared on WhatsApp and the offline context is a crucial part of the digital eco-system, and challenges claim that the platform has revolutionised political campaigning," says Mr Hitchen.

In underscoring the impact of the platform, the research recalled one of the most notorious messages of the election: the false story that President Buhari had died and been replaced by a clone from Sudan, was widely circulated on WhatsApp.

It stated, however, that candidates also used WhatsApp to alert citizens to false stories and to "set the record straight".

"Social media platforms are both a threat to democracy and a way to strengthen it," Mr Cheeseman said.

"WhatsApp is being used to spread 'fake news' on the one hand, and run fact-checking campaigns and election observation on the other.

"The challenge is to reduce risks without undermining the way that social media can strengthen accountability and promote inclusion."

The research further observed that while WhatsApp gives candidates an electoral advantage, especially at the sub-national level, social media alone cannot win an election, adding that instead, the most important thing for a candidate is to be an authentic leader of the community - to be present and accessible.

"This means that a candidate's ground campaign remains the most important thing to get right. Thus, while WhatsApp has transformed the electoral environment, it has not revolutionised it," the research stated.

The research recommended that WhatsApp should make it easier to leave groups and report disinformation; reinforce the ability of group administrators to set standards; target digital literacy training to social influencers and strengthen WhatsApp's ability to understand the risk of misuse by opening an office in the African continent.

It also recommended that state and federal governments should invest more in digital literacy as part of the national curriculum, while political campaigns should develop social media codes of conduct for future elections.

"Online protection of data and civil liberties should also be enhanced in Nigeria, and beyond," the report added.

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