Stop Using WhatsApp to Spread Fake News, Jega Tells Political Parties

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By Adedayo Akinwale in Abuja

A former National Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, has urged political parties and their candidates to desist from using the social media platform, WhatsApp, in spreading fake news as was prevalent during the 2019 general elections.

He added that it was important that WhatsApp be used to add value to the integrity of the country’s electoral process.

Jega spoke on Monday at the launch of a report titled, “WhatsApp and Nigeria’s 2019 Elections: Mobilising the People, Protecting the Vote”. The research was carried out by the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) in partnership with the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom (UK).

He acknowledged that the social media could be a good platform, but stressed that a lot of other people abuse or misused it during the 2019 elections, adding that the key challenge was to keep on looking and understanding how best to put WhatsApp to good use, whether for political mobilisation for election or and political education.

Jega stressed that the platform could be used for sharing credible news rather than what is obtainable now which is to circulate fake news.

He stated: “This research basically tried as I said earlier exploratory basis to help us understand how Nigerians are using WhatsApp as a platform for either electioneering campaigns or for general political activities. I think it is good that we begin to pay greater attention to that, I believe they are pace setters, they have started something good and many researchers now can go into that.”

On what reform he would like to see going forward, he said, “definitely, I will like to see a situation in which increasingly credible news is used on the platform rather than fake news. “Obviously political parties and candidate can use this platform to inform voters and to inform the public about their policies, about their programmes, about what they can do rather than use it in a manner in which they are abusing opponents or casting aspersions and using fake postings.

” It is very important that we use it for the good in terms of how it can add value to our political development and how it can add value to the integrity of our elections.

“Some of the contributors were raising issues about how small the samples of the study is because they focus primarily on Kano and Oyo States, other researchers can come in and look at other areas and the more we are able to do the research the better we will be informed both the good uses and the bad uses of social media and how best we can improve the old uses and mitigate the bad uses.”

On his assessment of the usage of the WhatsApp platform, Jega noted: “I did not study the research but from what the researchers have said, you can see that some used it for the good, but many other used it negatively in terms of fake news or disinformation. The challenge is how can political parties or candidates continue to use this platform positively, and I think that is what can add value to our process.”

Giving an overview of the report, CDD Director, Ms. Idayat Hassan, said the aim of the research project was to shed light on how WhatsApp was influencing Nigerian elections and the spread of so-called “fake news”.
She explained that WhatsApp was used to both spread disinformation, and to counter it, stressing that one of the most notorious messages of the election was the false story that President Muhammadu Buhari had died and been replaced by a clone from Sudan and as widely circulated on WhatsApp.

Hassan stressed: “The most important thing that the government has to do in terms of countering fake news and disinformation is always been open and making information available to all parties including the press.
“Most times, what happens is when there are these kind of news that are going all over platforms, you reach out to the government through their spokesperson and you say is this true or not?

“The processes, the time within which they respond, that is if they respond, allows fake news to spread wider, and you know this is just like a wide fire that you care actually dealing with

“There must be promptness, their must be openness…they have to consider information a right to the people, they have to see that we are living in a world where disinformation is fast eroding democracy.”

Also, Dr. Jonathan Fisher of University of Birmingham, said that the research found that the political use of WhatsApp was becoming increasingly sophisticated and organised at the presidential level.

According to him, “By setting up multiple overlapping WhatsApp groups, organisations 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 however recommended in the short-term the reinforcement of the ability of group administrators to set standards; target digital literacy training to social influencers and strengthen WhatsApp’s ability to understand the risk of misuse by opening an office on the African continent.

In the long-term, it recommended that 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.