ABIDJAN — Campaign season for Nigeria’s February 2019 general election has begun — but alongside the usual posters and gatherings, humanitarians say they are concerned about rising levels of hate speech and the spread of false information.
“We are seeing a higher degree of election violence across the entire country … It’s pretty clear that things are really heating up,” said Mercy Corps’ Nigeria Country Director Darius Radcliffe.
Security alerts have become more frequent, he said, with more incidents in more places, influencing Mercy Corps’ programs and operations. “It’s certainly something we are on the lookout for programmatically — to determine areas where we can make a difference and contribute to election peace — and operationally, so we can ensure the safety and security of our own staff at the sites [where] they work,” he said.
Campaigning for presidential and national assembly candidates officially began on Nov. 19, but unofficial campaign posters and rallies have been appearing since early fall.
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Media reports have already revealed an increase in political violence. In the oil-rich Rivers State, for example, an explosion hit near an All Progressives Congress party office in September, and an October shooting killed two members of the Peoples Democratic Party. These incidents come against a backdrop of other violent crimes surrounding campaign season, such as kidnappings and armed robberies.
Since it impacts both opinions and participation, “elections can be won or lost based on the issue of security,” Idayat Hassan, director of the Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development, told Reuters.
The spread of misinformation is also expected to rise in the coming months. One recent instance saw a spat between opponents over comments made about the number of Nigerians who suffer from mental illness. In another, the Nigerian army claimed that “several social media, print, and online publications have been brandishing false casualty figures as well as circulating various footages of old and inaccurate… propaganda videos.”
To tackle the issue, a coalition of news organizations have collaborated with the United Kingdom-based First Draft — which works to combat misinformation worldwide through fact-checking — to establish a verification project. The aim is to help improve the quality of information available to the voting public, while attempting to build the credibility of local news outlets.
Fifteen newsrooms in Nigeria will work together to investigate claims and rumors circulating on social media. Verified reporting will be submitted through a central portal before being dispersed by project partners and media outlets.
Mercy Corps entered into Nigeria on a peace-building platform in 2012, with its efforts focused on the Middle Belt region and Northeast Nigeria, building ties between Christian and Muslim leaders through dialogue and violence prevention training. Radcliffe told Devex that election peace-building interventions have been derived from existing programming adapted to fit the election context.
“Part of what we are doing is not so much expanding our work, but utilizing the platform that we already have with our peace-building activities,” he noted. “Where we already have a close relationship with religious leaders, we are working with them to develop election scenario planning and also looking at Christian-Muslim joint platforms where religious leaders can talk about peace and peaceful elections.”
In Borno State, where Mercy Corps champions the development of civil society and uses radio messaging as a peace-building strategy, current radio messages include language that demystifies the elections, explains what they are about, and provides factual information in an effort to counter the hate speech and rhetoric around them.
Later this week, a hackathon will allow a group of 30 shortlisted candidates to develop a strategic program that can be implemented and scaled. The three-day event will include a training session by Twitter on counternarratives and campaigning. The winning concept will be awarded a cash prize and could be adopted nationally by Mercy Corps.
“There is a lot of false information that is being broadcast around elections so with a very small investment, we've started looking [at] how more collaborative thinking [can] come up with solutions to counter some of the negative rhetoric,” Radcliffe said. “While the violence spreads as campaign season hits full swing, our goal is to use our resources to minimize its impact however possible.”