Nigerian trolls defend government and gaslight victims

It was a day of trouble and terror.

By 9 a.m. on May 17, Bashir had already seen four bodies emerge from the rubble of a standing building in the Sabon Gari area of ​​Nigeria’s northern Kano state. He had seen blood-soaked children spilling out on the streets and crying. He saw body parts scattered in the same streets and victims’ families searching for their loved ones.

The businessman, who asked me to use only his first name, was on his way to work when an explosion occurred in the dense neighborhood. He ran to the voice, recorded the massacre on his phone and posted the footage to Twitter.

Witnesses told him how minutes earlier, a suspected suicide bomber, who failed to exit the primary school gate, detonated explosives in a structure in front of the school. Bashir tweeted: “Bomb blast in Kano.”

He was not ready for the cruel reaction of his compatriots. Bashir had found himself on the wrong side of an information war that exposes the Nigerian government’s sometimes desperate attempts to slander the dirty stories around the country’s worsening insecurities. And he’s still battling the effects.

While the government can be hopelessly opaque and unpredictable in its responses to crises, what Bashir didn’t realize was that there was an entire online community of trolls, many of whom were based outside Nigeria, who spread the government’s version of events. made it his business. Even if it means denying the lived experiences of other Nigerians.

Government officials who arrived at the scene that day immediately denied that there was an attack, let alone a suicide bombing. Kano Police Chief Samika Dikko told reporters that “it was a gas explosion,” and inexplicably scolded those who were spreading “false lies” about a bomb.

That’s when the social media army backing the government decided to attack Bashir. “Agent of darkness,” wrote one, accusing Bashir of escalating tensions in the country by the alarming increase in violent incidents in recent months.

“I swear it was a bomb,” Bashir tweeted Again, trying to impress the skeptics that he was a witness, that he had seen for himself the barely-there bodies, as they turned in and out, that he had inflicted heavy damage on the epicenter for himself. Saw The Blast.

it did not work. As big media houses raced along the government line about the gas explosion, Bashir was tagged as a liar on Nigerian Twitter.

Then, a few days later, with the news agenda moving forward, Nigeria’s police released a forensic “finding” – a jumble of words that neither confirmed nor dismissed the bombing, but what Bashir knew to be true. confiscated as its verification.

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Materials “suspected to be used to make Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs)” were found on the site, the statement read, and “certain arrests have been made.”

“I received a lot of abusive messages,” Bashir told me, still hurt by his experience. “I wrote the handles of all the people who accused me, but when I wrote to all of them after the police report, no one responded.”

It hurt them that, in an ethnically and religiously fragmented Nigeria, many people on social media seemed to discount the news especially because it affected one of the minority Christian areas of Kano, from the south of the country. Tribes live – Sabon Gari loosely translates to “stranger”. Quarter” in Bashir’s Hausa language.

“It seemed that this was the truth of what was happening but the authorities were trying to change that,” Bashir said. “And seeing people twist the story really demoralized all of us in the neighborhood.”

The Kano incident is one of many in response to which Nigerian authorities have chosen to stick their heads in the sand. They are aided in their efforts by partisan social media debates in which point of view and ideological position are far more important than facts or witness accounts.

But this is not a new strategy nor is it unique to this administration, argues Cheta Navanz, lead researcher at SB Morgan, a Lagos-based intelligence firm that tracks such violence.

“Nigerians like to see things go wrong and pretend it’s not happening, so it’s been a systematic thing,” explains Navanz, what some scholars describe as a culture of impunity in the country. has done.

There is little accountability, few consequences and seemingly no appetite to discuss a horrific history. And attacks such as the May 17 bombings that are believed to have targeted the southern Igbos in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority north can create chaos – they are reminiscent of the beginning of the 1967 civil war.

Many of Nigeria’s contemporary objections stem from the war in which the majority Igbo and Christian South attempted to create their own separate state of Biafra. They were beaten with bombs, isolated and starved. By the end of all fighting, in 1970, two million people had died.

Little time is spent on civil war in Nigerian schools, nor has the process of repair and reconciliation been initiated. In fact, since the war, the Igbos have been politically marginalized in a country where it is the third largest tribe and constitute over 15% of the population.

Yet no meaningful national dialogue is taking place on these issues. Instead, silence pervades. And many other groups and tribes claim that justice has been replaced in a similar manner, with only furious anger and outrage.

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“What we do is that if we sweep it under the rug it will go away and the way our governments operate,” Navanz continues. “What happened now is that the floor of the rug is full.” Denial as a method of official communication is a form of propaganda. It is designed to mislead.

A June 2022 study on fake news by the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development (CDD) noted that Nigerian authorities often employ deliberate denial tactics on social and traditional media platforms, or in some cases, face-saving methods. As in, silent silence.

Particularly in the Kano case, experts believe that it was intended to reduce panic, although it inadvertently caused confusion.

In a similar case to the one in Kano, authorities ruled out a suicide attack in Lagos at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2014, refusing to acknowledge that the militants, whose home bases are in the northeastern regions of the country , had infiltrated Nigeria’s commercial nerve center.

Boko Haram has been trying to create a caliphate in Nigeria since 2010 and has been behind several suicide bombings and kidnappings. But the Lagos explosion was also blamed on gas canisters – a common cause of accidents in the country.

But the worst case of government denial – or more accurately, propaganda – will come in October 2020. Nigerian youth protest the brutality of an infamous, bribe-taking police unit, popularly called SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad), shot down by security. Army in Lagos.

Authorities then denied – and still denied – the killings, despite video evidence from eyewitnesses who streamed the shooting on Instagram.

The incident sparked a worldwide social media campaign, with millions using “#ENDSARS” in solidarity with Nigeria’s youth, shaming President Muhamadu Buhari and his government.

Young Nigerians march to mark the first anniversary of the 2020 “ENDSARS” protest, calling for the disbanding of the notoriously corrupt and brutal Special Anti Robbery Squad. photo:
nurphoto / contributor

“ENDSARS was when the government deployed all of its fake news arsenal,” says Idayat Hasan, CDD chief and co-author of the fake news report. Like Bashir, the government trolled the testimony of concessional witnesses online, gaslighting even the wounded who barely survived. “They all went out,” Hassan says.

The consequences of official lie-pedaling online could be far-reaching in a currently divided Nigeria with 122 million internet users, 24 million of whom are active on social media. Already, online and offline, discourses, as citizens with tribal and religious sentiment experience both escalating violence under Buhari and a deteriorating economy.

His leadership has failed to emphasize unity in the multi-ethnic nation and has given rise to calls for secession in several quarters. Unlike the fake news spread by the state, fake news is flourishing, which sometimes leads to death.

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The perpetrators of propaganda are often everyday users, online influencers, foreign companies hiring in expatriate companies, or Nigerians. One of the persistent recent conspiracy theories is that Buhari is in fact a fraudster, and that the real president died in 2018 after traveling abroad for medical treatment. A much better looking man who returned to Aso Villa, the President’s home in Nigeria’s capital. Abuja, is actually a Sudanese man named Jubril, or so the theory goes.

As Buhari’s eight-year term ends in 2023, his race to succeed is in full swing, as are the fake news campaigns. In previous elections, politically motivated groups and troll farms were fixtures, campaigning for their favorite candidates. Supporters of former President Goodluck Jonathan were known to have hired the infamous UK firm Cambridge Analytica to run their election campaigns.

In large areas of West Africa, propaganda tactics are also becoming common. Although internet penetration in the region is at least 17%, many West Africans are vulnerable to online and offline fake news. CDD researcher Hassan says news spread rapidly from platforms like Meta-owned messaging app WhatsApp to real-life impact. Online rumors are often fodder for serious debate on TV news stations.

Sometimes, official gaslighting tactics turn into repression. Abuja resorted to banning Twitter in 2021 after President Buhari was flagged for provoking a tweet. Indeed, except Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, all 15 West African countries have ordered internet shutdowns over the past decade, according to the CDD.

Nine people were killed and 27 injured in the Sabon Gari blast – the highest civilian death count of Nigeria’s 14 IED blasts this year. The last bombing in Kano was in 2015 at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency.

But no group has yet claimed responsibility for the May bombings. The silence adds to the confusion about the incident. Even government officials, says Hassan, who privately admit there was a bomber, don’t know who to blame.

There are still traces of May 17 in Bashir’s neighborhood. The primary school building is now empty – the school authorities have moved the children to another location. In front of it, the building in which the bomb exploded, remains of rubble.

The Kano police chief, who had initially sworn there were no bombs, could not be contacted for comment. There is little indication that officials will ever explicitly state the results of their analysis.

Around the February 2023 general elections, heated ethno-religious political campaigns rely on the spread of propaganda. “No one knows what the truth is,” Hassan says. “And it can only get worse.”

Bashir, so intrigued by the scale of trolling he faced, would undoubtedly agree.

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