A network of Twitter accounts acted in an organised fashion to harass, bully, and spread disinformation on Natasha Akpoti, a politician seeking a federal legislative position in central Nigeria, HumAngle has discovered.
The coordinated harassment on the microblogging site is an aspect of a broader onslaught against her, which includes physical violence. In Dec. 2022, the House of Representatives mandated the country’s police chief to investigate an attack on her campaign train and prosecute those directly and remotely responsible.
During the last election in 2019, Natasha, then the governorship candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in Kogi state, was attacked by thugs reportedly linked to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). “On my way to participate in the INEC’s organised political stakeholders meeting … I was attacked and harassed by the APC thugs,” she said.
An analysis of data retrieved from Twitter related to conversations on Natasha showed thousands of mentions reaching millions of users between January and Dec. 2022.
Engagement from a total of 7,944 tweets posted by old and new accounts promoted specific messages about the politician, with the accounts often interacting with each other.
To amplify their vicious campaign, the accounts retweeted and commented on tweets portraying her as a bad person responsible for immoral acts and with links to terrorism.
A review of the tweets around her showed the presence of dedicated trolls, supportive networks and ambulance chasers, leeching off the spreading viral nature of the comments to extend the range of their posts. An example of this could be seen when Twitter users began using the subject to promote the aspiration of Peter Obi, a presidential candidate, in Nigeria’s upcoming national elections.
The objective is to use the trend to get visibility and enhance reach; that way, many more people will see the message. But it also increases the general virality of the conversation or the intensity of the attack.
The online attacks are sometimes an extension of offline events around her or confrontation with the state governor, Yahaya Bello, and individuals associated with him.
This was evident after HumAngle processed and cross-referenced periods of spikes in the metrics collected from Twitter.
The sharp spike and protracted traffic in early Nov. 2022 resulted from several actions, including a ruling by the Division of the Court of Appeal in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, affirming Natasha as the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) for Kogi Central senatorial district.
During the same period, she called for the questioning of Governor Yahaya Bello over alleged links to a terror suspect.
Similarly, in November, her legal team filed a court case describing a state government statement in October asking security forces to invite her for questioning over alleged terrorism-related activities as defamatory and injurious. The move to link Natasha to terrorism was also conducted online, as shown by a Twitter query.
For example, an account frequently sharing materials on the governor posted on Oct. 31 that “the fact that Natasha Akpoti is coming out to publicity [sic] support a terrorist that was is suspected to have killed so many innocent should raise an eyebrow she should be behind bars not in a senatorial campaign”.
Her marriage was also a subject used for blackmail and accusations. One such account, @Samuelchudi, which regularly shares content to spotlight the governor, accused her of snatching another woman’s husband. A few days earlier, the handle had posted a video of women echoing similar lines.
HumAngle’s deep dive into the operations show similar traits and patterns of behaviour associated with the network, including marketing and artificial boosting of tweets. The presence of “Social Media strategist” in @Samuelchudi’s profile indicates the operator’s agenda is to push certain content on social space and shape conversations.
A similar account, @lanreadetona, described as an investigative journalist, also pushed harmful materials and propaganda about her. The account retweets sales content, indicating it’s likely part of the larger PR community.
On Dec. 6, the account offered some handles with thousands of users for sale, tweeting, “For sale, serious buyer should DM”. These tactics of growing accounts and selling accounts to provide a false impression of having lots of followers constitute a problem because of their psychological impact on users and the way they process information from them.
The account handler told HumAngle, “Well, I’m just a concerned Nigerian looking out for his people in the little ways I can”. Adding that “Natasha Akpoti has been on the news about quite a number of negative things ranging from blackmailing to spreading false propaganda”.
The two notable accounts @lanreadetona and @Samuelchudi share similar methods of operations, and at least 32 other accounts were identified as part of their amplification group.
On Feb. 1, the same network of accounts pushed an #ArrestNatashaAkpoti campaign. They asked that she should be put behind bars for reasons ranging from being a “menace to society” to destroying people’s names or being the “best liar in Africa”.
HumAngle reached out to the Chief Press Secretary to Kogi State Governor, Onogwu Muhammed, to inquire about the various allegations against his principal. After we mentioned the focus of our research, the call abruptly ended, and subsequent attempts to connect to his telephone line failed. He has also not replied to a text sent to him when this report was filed.
An attempt to reach Natasha to get her side of the story has been unsuccessful.
The investigation shows the potentially dangerous tradecraft of hired guns employed by political actors to spread disinformation and shape public perception of candidates. In January, the BBC published insights from whistle-blowers and influencers working for two political parties in the country.
“The whistle-blowers say parties give out cash, lavish gifts, government contracts and even political appointments for their work,” the report stated. It also revealed that situation rooms, commonly used for strategy, planning and monitoring, serve another function of following how false narratives assigned to influencers were performing.
This article was produced with mentorship from the African Academy for Open Source Investigations (AAOSI), to tackle disinformation that undermines our democracies, as part of an initiative by the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and Code for Africa (CfA). Visit https://disinfo.africa/ for more information.
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