We will blame platforms for the spread of fake news and leave out the fact that people actually make the effort to ensure those false news items are spread. That is one conversation. The other is that we usually ask if fake news affects an election.
This question is not an easy one to answer. To attempt, we examine two things: First, how many people are exposed to fake news and, second, how many people change their opinions in reaction to it?
No doubt social media – and the texting app, WhatsApp – is an easy medium for the spread of fake news. You could be simply scrolling and see news that a presidential aspirant is donating $100,000 to the pockets of party delegates. In another post, you see that another delegate has already shared $50,000 to about 50 delegates.
When you think that is all there is to the news, you begin to see articles and more posts about the electoral body, the electoral commissioners, the ‘real reasons’ why elections were moved and how the presidency met with the governors to threaten residents in their respective states to vote a particular candidate or be drowned.
But, people do not read, right?
Not everyone who is presented with fake news headlines necessarily read the stories, consciously consider them, or is affected by them. However, even if only a fraction of those who saw the posts or news items opened and read, the goal of the ‘newscaster’ has been achieved.
In a country like Nigeria, you may observe that fake news causes more conversations than the real news because people like to validate their bias. Or are easily disappointed at the target of the fake news item.
Yet, it is difficult to determine who can be influenced by fake news.
Interestingly, there is an ‘other side’ who do the actual work and find out that those news items are fake. However, there is usually a very strong link between the belief that they are true and the way people vote – that is if they eventually go out to vote.
In the 2019 elections, the incumbent president, Muhammadu Buhari, of the All Progressives Congress (APC), and his rival, Atiku Abubakar, running for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), were the target of videos containing dubious or inaccurate information, being shared on the internet.
“There has been some efforts by the PDP campaign to push disinformation,” Tolu Ogunlesi, head of digital communications for President Buhari said.
“The APC is predicated on propaganda – they have manipulated pictures and words,” Paul Ibe, a media adviser to Abubakar said.
Both parties denied any knowledge of people inside the party spreading disinformation.
Another typical example is a story shared online by Lauretta Onochie, an aide to President Buhari, who posted a photo of boxes wrapped together with Nigerian currency notes in Sokoto.
“Keep them in poverty, then give them handouts – Atiku in Sokoto yesterday,” Onochie wrote.
The other one was the claim that Leah Sharibu had died in the custody of the terrorists who had kidnapped her.
It was a cycle of misinformation spread across all social platforms and digested by the receivers.
Fake news occurs more often nowadays, and that raises concerns, especially when the possible influence of fake news on election outcomes is concerned. After all, voters may base the choice of their vote on the wrong information.
So, when elections are close, fake news can impact who ultimately wins and who loses and cause voter apathy. Finally, whether it was through fake news or provocative advertising, the use of social media seems to be able to affect elections differently than we’re used to seeing.