Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Sojojin Baka: Media influencers misinforming electorate, questioning electoral integrity in Kano State

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By Aliyu Dahiru

As the election approaches and political debates turn sour, the activities of Sojojin Baka in sharing unfounded claims with the intent of calling into question the integrity of elections increase.

“Kano is Nigeria’s political heavyweight,” said Rabiu Biyora, a social media influencer with over 100,000 followers on Facebook and a promising network on other platforms, “which is why political activities begin here.”  As of 2019, the state had 5,457,747 registered voters, second only to Lagos, which had approximately 6 million registered voters. The numbers are increasing.

Politicians have since realised Kano’s power in steering local and national elections, which is why people like Biyora have become their agent of political campaigns and propaganda dissemination on traditional and social media platforms. They help the politicians in ascending to popularity using their pages and profiles and they get rewards in return.

Political discussions continue unstopped throughout election cycles on more than 15 radio stations currently operating in Kano state. Sojojin baka (literally: mouth soldiers) use those platforms to work for politicians they barely know but who can sign a contract with them to work as if they’ve known them their entire lives. “One of them was here last time complaining about a politician he was asked to defend but he was not yet paid for his work,” said Bashir Sharfadi, a journalist with Freedom Radio, a local FM station that hosts Kowane Gauta, a political magazine program.

Sojojin baka are a group of media influencers who frequently appear on radio and television to speak about politics, defend their political godfathers and attack their opponents, mostly by mixing facts and fiction. In an article published by Freedom Radio, these people have been accused of spreading hate speech and misinformation, which could inflame tensions and jeopardize the integrity of electoral institutions.

Previously, sojojin baka relied on traditional media to air their views and opinions; however, due to media regulations and other restrictions, they have shifted to the ubiquitous and low-cost social media, where they share disinformation, gaining large number of views and shares but that, at times, comes with a price. Several of them have been arrested for false accusations. Others go scot free. A Facebook post by Hafizu Alfindiki, one of the prominent misinformation peddlers in Kano state who spread that EFCC had arrested former governor of Kano state Rabiu Kwankwaso, for example gained thousands of reactions, but when found misleading, he only deleted it and nothing happened to him. He is currently a local government chairman enjoying the reward of his propaganda.

Aside from Biyora, who was rewarded with money and other valuables by politicians who enjoy his work, there are hundreds of others who are compensated in some way for their services. “They are given 20,000 Naira for each radio appearance with which they give half of the money to the radio stations and retain the remaining half,” said Aliyu Sufyan, a journalist working with the sojojin baka in a political program on Express Radio, another local radio station in Kano.

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Alfindiki was one of the habitual disseminators of misinformation in Kano state who were rewarded with political appointments and backed for political office. Despite being the chairman of a local government, Alfindiki has continued to spread false information on his Facebook page, which has over 200,000 followers.

Although sojojin baka are not new to the hybridization of social and traditional media, 2019 was the year politicians recognised the value of new media sojijin baka for political manipulation. It was the year Rabi’u Biyora met with two presidential candidates, who took pictures with him in a competition to demonstrate that he was on their side.

How Do They Work?

“Politicians buy airtime for sojojin baka,” Biyora explained. When they feel like defending their godfathers or spreading propaganda, they go to radio stations, and the airtime is deducted from the politician’s account or added to his monthly bill.

It wasn’t always like this; sojojin baka used to pay for airtime “with their money before they could get noticed,” he explained. As politicians realised the importance of media in propaganda dissemination, they began funding radio stations. “Three of Kano’s radio stations are currently owned by politicians,” Musa Rayyahi said.

Politicians from all parties have their own sojojin baka who they rely on to spread propaganda and misinformation. However, sojojin baka do not appear in the media as if sent by anyone. They pose themselves as independent opinion influencers. Listeners consume their opinions as if they were their own. At the most extreme, sojojin baka work for politicians they barely know for a small amount – less than $30 per appearance.

As traditional media regulations proved to be stumbling blocks for sojojin baka, they gradually shifted to social media, where they now dominate political discussions. They occasionally record themselves in radio stations and create short videos for online distribution.

Sojojin baka have gained popularity on WhatsApp. One of them stated that he is a member of approximately 200 WhatsApp groups where they coordinate and disseminate information that they want to see trending. During elections, WhatsApp groups were a major platform for disseminating election misinformation and propaganda, which eventually made its way to Facebook and, in some cases, Twitter.

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According to Salisu Hotoro, WhatsApp groups served a variety of functions. There are high-level groups with major politicians that design and coordinate what is said; this is where the majority of misinformation is coordinated. “Other groups are just for sharing what was discussed,” he explained.

As the election approaches and political debates turn sour, the activities of sojojin baka increase. Many unfounded claims are shared on traditional and social media, with the intent of calling into question the integrity of elections and raising tensions.

Sojojin baka now use popular Facebook pages and groups to share misinformation. They sometimes created pages with the names of popular politicians or media houses to spread misinformation. In 2019, Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) found hundreds of fake pages on Facebook that were created to spread misinformation.

Election and Misinformation: What Happened in 2019

Kano state’s gubernatorial election in 2019 featured heated discussions in the media and drew a lot of attention in the public. On the one hand, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) attempted to retain its seat at both the national and state levels, as well as to prepare for the 2023 election. On the other hand, Kano State Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje has split with his former political godfather, Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso, who helped him to power in 2015. The grassroots followings that Kwankwaso enjoys posed a serious danger to Ganduje’s gubernatorial seat.

The political battles between Kwankwasiyya and Gandujiyya became so heated that many false rumours and accusations were made against each other, accusing each other of attempting to manipulate the election. The first round of voting was declared inconclusive, and a second round was declared to be held in some selected polling units, most notably Gama Ward in Nassarawa Local Government Area.

Many false claims were spread between election sessions. First, the ruling Gandujiyya APC faction accused the police of assisting the Kwankwasiyya and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in its attempt to rig the election through intimidation. The PDP, on the other hand, claimed that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) was paid by the state government to manipulate the election.

Photo of a paper that circulated showing how APC bribed INEC officials with plots of lands.
Photo of a paper that circulated showing how APC bribed INEC officials with plots of lands.

“All this misinformation is designed from WhatsApp groups not with the intention of causing violence, but to send a message that we are aware of whatever may come when we become suspicious,” said one of those who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity.

A screenshot of a Facebook post claiming that INEC was trying to rig election in Kano state - 2019
A screenshot of a Facebook post claiming that INEC was trying to rig election in Kano state – 2019

During the inconclusive elections, old photos and videos were widely circulated, implying that INEC officials were rigging the vote. “These pictures and videos were purposefully shared from WhatsApp groups in order to incite tensions and prepare people to defend their votes,” he added.

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Questioning the integrity of electoral bodies didn’t start in 2019. Northern Nigeria, particularly Kano state, has a history of accusing INEC of rigging elections. A popular song was once made against the former INEC Chairman Prof. Attahiru Jega in 2011 after he was accused of manipulating elections in favor of the then ruling PDP. “That’s why people don’t really trust INEC,” Rayyahi added.

As 2023 Election Approaches

INEC has set February and March 2023 as the dates for Nigeria’s general elections. Politicians have already begun declaring their intentions to run for various seats and assembling media influencers to assist them in influencing electoral decisions and wooing popular support. The “third social media election” will be held in 2023, and we may see a significant use of social media to win the election.

As the election approaches, social media users like Biyora have already begun preparing for whatever work they may be assigned. In one of his Facebook posts, Biyora stated that he is willing to work with any politician, regardless of party, indicating that he has recognized his influence in the media influencer circle.

Various trends and hashtags have emerged on Twitter to show support for candidates. According to Abubakar Sani, a Twitter user from Kano, this is a preliminary stage of preparation for an intense digital campaign as the election approaches.

“As the competition for positions heats up,” he predicts, “this election will become much more interesting.”  “It will be interesting to keep an eye on the surge of propaganda, misinformation, and factual distortion, particularly within the parties struggling to have a single candidate,” he added.

The battle for tickets from the incumbent APC, the party with the highest ratings so far, is heating up. The party is dealing with various competing demands for tickets from strong contenders who are attacking one another. They are all using their media teams to attack one another in order to gain support.

Sojojin baka have already begun their work of promoting politicians that pay well in Kano state. “It’s all about who pays better,” one of them, who prefers anonymity, admitted. Tens of candidates have already emerged to replace the current governor, whose term expires next year.

This report was supported by the Africa Resilience Network (ARN), a project of Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)

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