Political parties in Nigeria are secretly paying social media influencers to spread disinformation about their opponents ahead of February’s general election, a BBC investigation has found.
The BBC’s global disinformation team spoke to whistleblowers working for two Nigerian political parties and high-profile influencers who described them as “an industry”.
Whistleblowers say political parties offer cash, generous gifts, government contracts and even political appointments for their work.
We changed their names to protect their identities. “Yemi” is a brilliant strategist and “Godiya” is a statesman.
“We’ve paid up to 20 million naira ($45,000; £37,000) in influence to deliver results. We also give people gifts. Others prefer to hear: ‘What do you want to do in government, be a board member, be a special Assistant?’,” Godiya said.
Situation rooms are common on election eve. This is where political parties strategize, formulate plans and monitor campaign success. But in the room that the whistleblower described to us, there was another function: tracking how the false narratives assigned to influencers worked.
Yemi, the strategist, says that fake stories are made to improve a candidate’s chances: “You can deliberately mislead in a way that suits you.”
The BBC spoke to a number of influential people who confirmed that money in exchange for fake political posts is widespread.
One influencer – who has nearly 150,000 followers on Facebook – on condition of anonymity told us he was paid by political parties to post completely false stories about political opponents. He said he would not do this publicly, but instead spread false stories through other micro-influencers he hired.
Separately, Rabi’u Biyora is a key influencer known for supporting the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) party.
He told us that he was “coaxed” by an opposition party to stop promoting the APC’s candidate and support theirs instead.
Posts on his Facebook timeline confirm that he did just that. He told us he didn’t receive any presents. But we found Facebook posts from 2019 in which he said he received a car and money from a party in exchange for his support on social media.
We told him about the discovery, but he stopped replying to us.
With an estimated 80 million Nigerians online, social media plays a huge role in the national political debate. Our research uncovered different strategies for reaching more people on Twitter. Many games deal with divisive issues such as religion, race and regional differences.
In July, influencers widely shared posts linking APC vice presidential candidate Kashim Shettima to members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
This false narrative gained momentum on Twitter, was shared thousands of times, and spread to WhatsApp and other platforms.
Using a reverse image search, we found that those pictured with Mr. Shettima were Fulani nomadic parents who enrolled their children in secular schools in 2017, not members of Boko Haram.
A month later, influential figures claimed, without evidence, that Labor presidential candidate Peter Obi had ties to and obeyed the orders of the Biafra Indigenous Peoples (Ipob) – a group designated as Separatist movement of terrorist organization. His party denies this.
Those who shared the information included Reno O’Mockley, special assistant to former opposition president Goodluck Jonathan, who has more than two million followers on Twitter.
Asked for comment, Reno Omokori said he stood by his allegations but insisted the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had not paid him to run on their behalf.
Meanwhile, false claims that Atiku Abubakar, a PDP presidential candidate, fell ill and was rushed out of the country have been circulating on Twitter several times.
Gordia, a politician we interviewed, said political parties tell influencers to use their paid posts to generate as much emotion as possible.
“The images we use may not even be relevant to the story we’re trying to make. We can take pictures of East Africa in a war zone in the 1990s and attach them to a tweet about how my group was killed. When people get emotional They retweet, they like, and it gets traction,” she said.
According to whistleblowers, hired influencers are sometimes told to use their own words. At other times, they receive actual tweets that need to be posted at a specific time.
They say influencers are paid based on the number of followers they have. They also said payments were mostly in cash to avoid paper trails.
In Nigeria, it is not illegal for political parties to hire social media influencers, but spreading false information on social media is against the country’s laws and Twitter’s policies.
The BBC has questioned Nigeria’s main political parties, the APC, PDP and Labor, about the whistleblower’s allegations. They did not respond to our request for comment.
In response to our findings, Twitter removed some of the accounts we reported to them and said it had a responsibility to protect the election conversation from interference, manipulation, and disinformation.
However, there have been concerns about the platform’s ability to handle misinformation in Africa after Elon Musk took over the company, when the company’s mainland headquarters in Ghana closed and nearly all its employees were laid off.
Following these changes, the BBC contacted Twitter again but did not hear back.
Idayat Hassan, director of the Center for Democracy and Development, said the activities of these influential individuals amounted to “political interference”.
“It’s undermining trust in democracy, it’s undermining trust in the electoral system, it’s fomenting conflict,” she said.
But the politician Gordia sees it differently and defends the strategy: “It’s a game. Someone has to win, God help me, I can’t lose.”