Research by a UK-Nigerian research team examining the role of WhatsApp
in Nigeria’s 2019 elections has identified the opportunities and
threats posed by the messaging platform for Nigeria’s democratic
process.

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 has also strengthened
accountability and promoted inclusion in other areas.

Researchers from the Centre for Democracy and Development (Nigeria)
and the University of Birmingham (UK) recently presented key findings
from a WhatsApp-sponsored research project on the role of WhatsApp in
Nigeria’s 2019 elections.

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.

According to the team, 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 so-called “fake news”.

Dr. Jonathan Fisher (University of Birmingham) led the research team,
which included Idayat Hassan (Centre for Democracy and Development),
Jamie Hitchen (Independent Consultant) and Professor Nic Cheeseman
(University of Birmingham).

With a particular focus on governorship races in Oyo and Kano, the
research found that: the political use of WhatsApp is becoming
increasingly sophisticated and organized at the state and presidential
level.

A statement by the research team noted that by setting up multiple
overlapping WhatsApp groups, organizations 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 – can send messages to tens of thousands of
people at the touch of a button by forming hundreds of groups of 256
members.

The research also observed that things look very different below the
national level, however, where a significant proportion of activity
remains informal.

This limits the ability of formal structures like parties to set and
control narratives at the local level.

Research team lead, Dr. Fisher, said of the findings: “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.”

Subsequently, the researchers observed that the different types of
content shared via WhatsApp have varying impacts depending on who they
have been shared by, and how they are presented to the user.

Idayat Hassan a member of the research team, and Director at the
Centre for Democracy and Development observed that:“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.”

Another key issue, which the report brings to the fore has to do with
the nature of networks, deploying WhatsApp as a tool to influence
political behaviour.

It notes that offline and online structures are 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.

Another member of the research team Jamie Hitchen noted, “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 revolutionized political campaigning.”

However, in terms of impact, the research found that WhatsApp is used
to both spread disinformation, and to counter it. An example is found
in 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.

The story was widely circulated on WhatsApp. But candidates also used
WhatsApp to alert citizens to false stories and to “set the record
straight”.

This point was stressed by Prof. Cheeseman of the University of
Birmingham, who said: “Social media platforms are both a threat to
democracy and a way to strengthen it. 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.”

Based on these findings, the research went on to proffer long and
short term recommendations to wade off the threats, while harnessing
the opportunities posed by Whatsapp to the democratic process.

The research recommends that in the short-term, possibilities should
be explored to make it easier for individuals to leave WhatsApp groups
and report disinformation while reinforcing the ability of group
administrators to set standards.

The research also talks about targeting 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.

"In the longer-term, 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 team recommended.

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