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Nigeria’s Separatist Keyboard Armies Using Twitter, Facebook To Amplify Propaganda

Nigeria is facing a separatist campaign over 50 years after the country’s brutal civil war with the then breakaway state of Biafra. This time, the struggle for an independent state is taking place on social media alongside the streets of southeastern Nigeria.

Keyboard armies of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) exploit Twitter and Facebook in various ways to shape conversations and spread inciting messages, fake news, and separatist propaganda. 

The microblogging site has become an integral part of IPOB’s campaign, supporting its agitation for the breakaway of Nigeria’s southeastern region. However, Twitter’s reach and gaps in the filtering system have made the platform suitable for running troll accounts and disseminating misinformation. 

The group is linked with the rapid deterioration of security in the Southeast. Armed conflict in the area and the frequent attacks on security forces and government facilities surged after forming a militant wing in Dec. 2020. This happened despite the designation of IPOB as a terrorist group and security interventions, including raids and the arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the group’s leader. 

Kanu was initially arrested in 2015 in Lagos and arraigned on 11 counts ranging from terrorism to treasonable felony, publication of defamatory matter, and conspiring to commit treason. He would later spend months in detention before getting bail and disappearing in 2017. Last year, Kanu was rearrested and deported to Nigeria. 

IPOB’s online vanguard 

Nigeria’s months-long suspension of Twitter last year was initiated after the platform deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari threatening secessionists that the government would treat them in the language they understand. 

The government accused the site of allowing the dissemination of information that undermined the country’s stability. Minister of information and culture Lai Mohammed was quoted to have said, “We found out that Twitter is the platform of choice for a particular separatist leader who resides outside the country and issues directives to his members to attack symbols of government authorities such as the police, military, electoral commission offices, correctional centres, etc.” 

The separatist keyboard armies continue to exploit social media services to propagate their activities, become more visible, and influence conversations. In mid-May, the information minister complained to a Facebook team about the use of the platform by “separatists and anarchists, especially those of them based outside the country, to instigate violence and ethnic hatred in Nigeria”. 

A recent BBC investigation revealed that a network of Nigerian separatists across Europe, the U.S., Asia and other parts of Africa openly promoted disinformation and incited violence and ethnic hatred on social media. The report investigated IPOB social media activities on Facebook and found out that one of the ways the media warriors avoided the platform’s censorship was to switch to local languages that are less moderated.

Shifting blame, twisting facts

These online armies have provided cover for foot soldiers by manipulating information to shift responsibility for violent incidents to state authorities, particularly the domestic intelligence agency and so-called Unknown Gunmen (UGM), a label enabling deniability and casting a cloud of conspiracy around the violence plaguing the region.   

In April, the group’s tactics of shifting responsibilities for atrocities were evident in the conspiracy pushed after the brutal murder of Army private Gloria Matthew and her fiance, retired Master Warrant Officer (MWO) Linus Musa Audu, while on transit for their traditional wedding. 

The Nigerian Army, in a statement, blamed IPOB and the Eastern Security Network (ESN) wing for the murder. It added that “though the dissident groups have continued to live in denial while masquerading as unknown gunmen in their violent criminal campaign in the region, the NA will ensure the perpetrators of this dastardly act unleashed on its personnel do not go unpunished.”

Following the incident, the BBC Disinformation Unit disclosed that Facebook conspiracists and supporters of the IPOB were actively pushing the narrative that the video was doctored and the killings occurred in Cameroon. This narrative also appeared on Twitter. 

On May 7, one account, @GoldenBalance86 posted a tweet with the caption: “Breaking News. IPOB & ESN vindicated again. Reports have found ‘The barbaric video of a military couple alleged to be killed by the youth of South East is fake and never happened in the SE. The incident happened in Cameroon, and THE Voiced Over was done by hungry igbo men.” 

Another conspiracy linked the military with the killing. A post by @EzembaMicah on May 11 insinuated that the Army had killed the couple for disobeying internal policy on marriage. One of the captions read, “So likely they disobeyed the policy, And the consequences is to terminate their relationship by discrediting IPOB/ESN with a #Fulani Igbo speaking residing in Imo as organized crime between Hope Uzodinma and the military commander commanding the batalha.”

Relentless misinformation

On Twitter, the online network is notorious for targeting accounts belonging to the diplomatic community, particularly the account of British High Commissioner to Nigeria Catriona Laing (@catrionalaing1). They also run fake news and disinformation campaigns such as fabricating and misrepresenting events. For instance, on April 28, a user with the account @ubasinachimbia uploaded a group of pictures that showed equipment seized by Boko Haram, a terror group that operates in the north of the country. 

“Boko Haram releases photos of newly acquired armoured tanks, operation vehicles, others captured from Nigeria Army,” the post said. It added that “the vehicles were captured on Sunday when the group attacked a Nigerian Army location. And yet the Nigerian Army is in the South East killing, kidnapping innocent Biafrans.”

HumAngle fact-checking revealed that the pictures were initially shared in 2021, and the context differed. The military vehicles in the photographs were from an Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) attack on a base in Borno, northeastern Nigeria, while the burnt pick-up truck was from mob violence in Sokoto in the northwest. 

In Aug. 2021, IPOB Twitter accounts posted photos showing an attack in Jos, North-central Nigeria, involving 230/250 Igbo passengers. After fact-checking, HumAngle discovered that the images were from a bus crash in Zimbabwe in April 2017, while the second bus was shot in Umuahia in southeastern Nigeria, according to a March 2019 report. AFP Fact Check found that the other pictures were initially published by The Nation newspaper during a marketplace fire and a 2016 blog about political unrest in Ajaokuta town in Nigeria’s central Kogi state.

A review of the keywords; Bus, Igbos and Jos on May 26 showed that multiple Twitter accounts with IPOB links used the text and pictures during that period. 

Misinformation campaigns of this nature have the potential to fuel hate and create panic in fragile environments with a history of ethno-religious violence. They could also create conditions for hate and, in a worst-case scenario, reprisal attacks by individuals believing their kin were killed by members of the other ethnic group.  

The forthcoming national and state elections in 2023 are also in the storm of IPOB online activities. A popular foreign-based separatist member, Simon Ekpa (@simon_ekpa), with over 48,000 followers, recently warned about declaring civil disobedience against elections in the region. However, IPOB accounts claim Simon leads the fractional autopilot group responsible for the violence.

Twitter’s new policy to step up its fight against misinformation and the spread of false allegations on the social media platform could help mitigate the risk associated with IPOB’s activities on the site. However, the effectiveness of these approaches would depend on the capacity to understand the local environment and detect, flag, and swiftly respond to abusive behaviours and troll activities. 

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Murtala Abdullahi

Abdullahi Murtala is a researcher and reporter. His expertise is in conflict reporting, climate and environmental justice, and charting the security trends in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. He founded the Goro Initiative and contributes to dialogues, publications and think-tanks that report on climate change and human security. He tweets via @murtalaibin

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