How Disinformation Deepens Hate among Nigerians

The term ‘disinformation’ is receiving significant global attention primarily because of the risks it poses to almost every sector, from health and agriculture to security.

The term ‘disinformation’ is receiving significant global attention primarily because of the risks it poses to almost every sector, from health and agriculture to security. While civil society, tech companies and researchers search for effective mechanisms to address it, disinformation continues unabated.

Disinformation is even more dangerous when it fuels hatred, especially in multi-ethnic and religious countries like Nigeria.

In this article, I share my perspective on hate-based disinformation and how it exacerbates divisions among Nigerians, particularly on social media. In the 2018 seminal work Journalism, ‘Fake News’ & Disinformation’, UNESCO defined disinformation as “deliberate (often orchestrated) attempts to confuse or manipulate people through delivering false information to them. This is often combined with parallel and intersecting communications strategies and other tactics like hacking or compromising persons.”

Nigeria is a multi-ethnic country in the West African sub-region, with over two hundred million population. Nigeria is commonly divided by ‘north and south’ in the regional description. However, grouping the 36 states in the six geopolitical zones would be more accurate.

Although Islam and Christianity are the most practised religions in the country, many also follow traditional religions. People of the northwest and northeast zones are predominantly Muslims, with Christians concentrated in the north-central zone. Those from the southeast and south-south are Christians, with the southwest evenly divided by faith.

Although Nigeria’s official language is English, it is not commonly spoken in rural areas or among people with lower education levels. In fact, according to Reporters Without Borders, Nigeria is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, with over 500 languages spoken.

How Disinformation Generates Hate

Nigeria’s multi-ethnic, religious and regional foundations and some citizens' underlying grievances create an environment where hate-based disinformation thrives. When certain events occur, disinformation peddlers take advantage and promote hate through disinformation. This breeds enmity and threatens national unity and peaceful coexistence.

For example, in 2018, a Facebook user posted a gory image showing people lying in pools of blood. Below it was written: “Just in. Herdsmen attacked a bus along Lagos-Ibadan expressway and got this figure dead”. The post went viral, and the BBC even published an article about the alleged incident. Panic ensued as ‘Herdsmen’ is a pejorative term used to refer to nomadic Fulanis from the north. At the time, there was lingering tension between them and farmers, specifically across most southern and north-central states, mainly due to competition over grazing land and water. The Facebook post was fictitious, exacerbating tensions, jeopardising resolution efforts, and fuelling communal hate.

The image used by the disinformation-spreading, as mentioned above, Facebook user, was captured in 2010.

The use of fake images to tell stories daily among social media users is also used by mainstream media and conventional newspapers. The farmer-nomads crisis, for instance, has been a frequent recipient of fake images in Nigeria. Photos of Kenyan and South Sudan herders are extensively used to depict Nigerian herders, which compounds the problem. In 2018, the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) collated and analysed fake images used by bloggers and newspapers to report conflict situations in a publication titled ‘Fake Images as Dangerous Speech: An Advisory’.

While some believed the mispresented Facebook photo cited above or expressed their sympathies, many challenged the author and condemned his actions. However, the perpetrator has not (at the time of writing) removed the piece from his profile.

Many people peddle or promote hate-based disinformation throughout the country, negatively affecting unity, tolerance and mutual coexistence amongst Nigeria’s diverse population. It is apparent we are in a ‘disinformation pandemic’, and no sector is spared from suffering the consequences. Disinformation is pervasive and rampant in health, security, economy and business sectors. Many can still recall how the spread of disinformation created resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine in Africa.

From comments and reactions on social media platforms, one can quickly tell that Nigerians are polarised along tribal and religious lines. The media, especially online newspapers, often trigger conflict. Many of these online media outlets increasingly publish sensitive, salacious, over-sensational, hate-provoking and false content to force readers to engage in ‘dirty’ discussions. It is believed that the motive behind this is to create traffic, gain followers and increase engagement to make more money from the giant tech companies.

It is common to see a call to action or violence promoting comments in coded language, especially on Twitter. Sometimes online newspapers capitalise on issues with a tribal, religious or regional angle to create and sell their disinforming or misinforming narrative. Other times, they develop parody or misleading content to project hate-based disinformation.

Recently an online newspaper published entirely hate-based disinformation content on their website and amplified it with a tweet on their page. The headline read: BREAKING: ISWAP Claims Responsibility for Killing of Two Igbo Traders in Kano. The fictitious article claimed that unknown gunmen had shot and killed an Igbo businessman in Kano (a predominantly Hausa-speaking city) in late September 2022. It alleged that according to several security reports, the killing bore the hallmarks of a targeted assassination, where the killers came on a bike, shot the man, and fled the scene. The article stated that ISWAP had claimed responsibility. However, the report failed to clarify where this ‘claiming of responsibility’ had occurred or to give proof of this claim.

In all likelihood, the killing had nothing to do with Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) as they did not associate themselves with the incident, and it bore no resemblance to their modus operandi. However, the story generated a lot of hate and violence-advocating comments from different sections of the country. Those disinformed by the level from the south and of Igbo extraction made several comments and threats against northerners or Hausas living in the southeast region.

The two images accompanying this article also hint at misdirection – one is a screenshot of Islamic scripture, and the other is a picture of insurgents. The scripture’s interpretation is omitted and has no bearing on the article.

The story generated many hate-based comments on Twitter, some of which leaned towards inciting violence. One Twitter User wrote: “Sabon Gari is an Igbo-populated area in Kano state. If you continue on this path and one Igbo son or daughter is killed in your people’s madness, be rest assured that there will be no living Hausa man or woman anywhere in the Eastern part of Nigeria in 48 hours”. Another Twitter User wrote: “We are going to give Fulani people that war they are looking for one day”.

These reactions are just a few of the numerous ones posted. They clearly show the danger and extent to which hate-promoting disinformation can go in sparking violence, primarily when online threats and calls to violence manifest offline. The two above replies show how disinformation deepens hate among Nigerians, instigating one tribe for violence against another while eliminating understanding, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

The spread of disinformation is of great concern to all, including governments, civil society, activists and communities. The situation becomes even more alarming when online newspapers profile certain groups and use disinformation to mobilise hate and promote ethnic and religious polarization. Attacks and reprisals have occurred because of disinformation spread primarily in north-central Nigeria, which has suffered communal and religious clashes. Therefore, hate-based disinformation jeopardises peace-building efforts, heightens tensions, and ignites further clashes.

When media outlets publish deliberate hate-based disinformation, it emphasises the unprofessional conduct of some journalists. The African Media Barometer for Nigeria, 2011 stated, “There is no adequate and visible attempt by journalists to provide balanced reports or to fact-check nine out of ten stories. Attaining acceptable standards of accuracy and fairness is hampered by factors that include the inability of journalists to grasp the essence and even the basic facts of news events. Many journalists do not have the basic skills required for news reporting and are unaware of the profession’s ethical principles.”

Any media with nearly five million followers on Twitter and over three million on Facebook influences its readers. Hate-based disinformation spread via the media space threatens media freedom. By abusing the freedom of expression, purveyors of disinformation attract the wrath of government control on the channels of communication, whether intentionally or not.

Any restriction to freedom of expression threatens the development of a healthy democratic culture. After decades of authoritarian rule, Africa needs a free press, freedom of expression and open contestation of ideas to hold leaders accountable. Disinformation of all categories must be halted significantly in the build-up to Nigeria’s 2023 general elections.

There are ways in which disinformation can be addressed. People must be cautious and subject every information they receive to checks before consuming or passing it on to others. This can be done by checking with numerous credible sources and fact-checking organisations. The most important thing that citizens can do to turn the tide against disinformation is to stop sharing information that is not verified.

About the author

Hamza Ibrahim is a researcher, journalist and disinformation analyst who has monitored and countered fake news and hate speech in Nigeria for many years.

The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

fesmedia Africa

95 John Meinert Street
P.O. Box 23652
Windhoek, Namibia


African Media Barometer

African Media Barometer

Our flagship African Media Barometer provides a home grown analysis of the health of the media landscape across 31 countries in Africa. More



fesmedia Africa has teamed up with international experts to develop online courses to support Access to Information in Africa. More

Find out more about our latest News. More