WhatsApp is ablaze with fake news in run-up to Nigerian election

Facebook-owned WhatsApp has found itself in the midst of yet another fake news storm in the run-up to Nigeria’s elections. The West African country, whose population is on the cusp of 200 million, will see elections held in February 2019, but concerns are piling up regarding the dissemination of fake news on WhatsApp.

Research undertaken by the Poynter Institute has found that false rumours regarding local political candidates are abounding on the platform. One such rumour claimed that presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar was not permitted to enter the US because of corruption charges. Other misinformation doing the rounds is more visual; images of Nigerian soldiers purportedly slain by terrorist organisation Boko Haram turned out to actually be recycled photos from another incident involving the Kenyan Army in Somalia.

It’s not the first time WhatsApp has been embroiled in a fake news epidemic. India has fallen victim to the rapid dissemination of fake news via the platform, with tragic consequences. The country, which is home to more than 200 million WhatsApp users, has seen a spate of mob lynchings connected to misinformation spread on the platform. Things got so bad that, back in September, the company appointed a grievance officer at the behest of the Indian government, which demanded the company take steps to curb the trauma.

But while Zuckerberg’s billion-strong messaging app is partly to blame for the quick and easy spreading of fake news, it looks to be a broader problem across the African continent. A recent survey revealed that over one in four Nigerians acknowledge having shared news stories which turned out to be fabricated. Over in the US, where concerns about fake news have abounded, the figure is a relatively modest 16%. Troublingly, 20% of Nigerians responded that they had shared a political news story online that they thought was made up at the time – indicative of a distressing online throwaway culture.

Current constraints in India, which limit users forwarding messages to just five recipients, in addition to flagging messages which have been forwarded, might not go far enough. With Nigeria’s 2019 elections just around the corner, it’ll be interesting to see what WhatsApp comes up with in order to curb the pernicious trend.

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