The time was exactly 8:27 a.m. on Saturday, October 10, the date of the just concluded Ondo governorship election. Voting had not started, nor had accreditation. News trickled in that the candidate of the Zenith Labour Party (ZLP), Agboola Ajayi, had withdrawn from the race.
Mr Agboola is the state’s deputy governor, and he eyed the governorship seat after he fell out with governor Rotimi Akeredolu.
Mr Agboola’s purported withdrawal message was contained in a letterhead that bore his name, lending it some seeming credibility.
When Ebunoluwa Olafusi, a journalist covering the election, saw the letter, she was curious about the source, so she called this reporter.
She would later call other reporters to “be sure it’s not misinformation, because it is hard to believe and the man (Ajayi) has not made any public statement.”
About nine minutes later, she sent this reporter a message to say, “Yusuf, it’s fake news,” and that was it.
Also, quoting Tope Okeowo, Mr Ajayi’s spokesman, Dubawa, PREMIUM TIMES’ sister organization, and Nigeria’s foremost fact checking platform, said the message was false.
— Dubawa (@dubawaNG) October 10, 2020
Mr Ajayi himself would later debunk the claim.
Early as the misinformation came, it was the first of the more to come during the election.
Voting continued nonetheless. Incumbent governor Akeredolu of the APC would be reelected after he saw off competition from his closest rival, Eyitayo Jegede, of the PDP by a margin of over 97,000 votes, according to INEC.
Although the election had 17 candidates gunning for the number one job in the state, aside Messrs Akeredolu and Jegede, only Mr Ajayi was tipped to stand a chance of winning. He placed far third in the results announced on Sunday.
But in between declaring a winner by the state’s returning officer, Idowu Olayinka, the vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan, many pieces of misinformation made rounds, some having far-reaching effects.
The rumour mill that claimed Mr Ajayi had backed out of the election again went the way of another governorship hopeful, Mr Jegede.
He too was rumoured to have opted out of the race in the eleventh hour. But he never did, Dubawa found.
A mobile message from a number posing as @inecnigeria claims that Ondo State PDP candidate, Eyitayo Jegede, has stepped down from the Governorship race. This claim is false and the mobile message is in no way affiliated with INEC.#DubawaChecks #FactCheck #OndoDecides2020 pic.twitter.com/edcnys2NG5
— Dubawa (@dubawaNG) October 10, 2020
Meanwhile, perhaps the direst of all was the video that made rounds on social media which claimed that there was violence in Owo, the hometown of Governor Akeredolu, and one of the victims from the clash was first lady, Betty Akeredolu.
She came out to debunk the claim, and so did ChannelsTV whose past video was doctored and was “edited for mischief.”
The video, it was found, was shot during the 2018 House of Representatives election primaries of the PDP in Asaba, Delta State.
In countering the same fake news, Idayat Hassan, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), said her team also used “physical fact-checks.”
“We were present at the spot, so (we) could timeously debunk asides from using other fact-checking tools,” she told this newspaper on Wednesday.
Although the news might have been debunked on paper, its effect was far-reaching.
As the video spread and panic brewed, the state’s commissioner of police, Bolaji Salami, swung into action. His team patrolled Owo to know where the crisis portrayed in the video happened, or if it ever did.
They soon swooped on Olu Taiwo, a campus reporter covering the election. Mr Taiwo had the official media jacket for the election on, but the commissioner’s team were not convinced.
He told PREMIUM TIMES that when he was stopped, the police demanded his election ID card. Unfortunately, he had none, “because my accreditation was not completed by INEC.”
He showed them his school ID card instead, but the patrol team would have none of that. Mr Taiwo was held from around 12 p.m. till evening when voting was over and all that remained was counting.
“I was tortured, made to sit on the floor and was treated like a criminal,” he said on Sunday.
Other attempts, checks
Other shots at misinforming the public also followed, each one of them was false.
Referring to the earlier doctored video, a twitter user falsely claimed that Mr Akeredolu dispatched police officers to disrupt the voting process in his polling unit because he was losing.
Another twitter netizen claimed some APC leaders were arrested with N10 million in cash in their attempt to induce voters.
Ms Hassan said her “team of six that monitors and counters fake news online” do so by monitoring the social media “for breaking news using hashtags and also following some handles previously collected ahead of the election.”
Countering those claims in real-time and especially during election seasons does not come easy, but her team relies on its established a local structure in the 18 LGAs in Ondo State.
“This enables us to receive any circulation information,” she explained. “We utilise our nonpartisan observers to also monitor what is happening and to pay a visit, if need be, to areas where the fake news supposedly is from.”
“Our alliance with newsroom also helps in amplifying our fact-checks during the elections. While the informal network of state-based fact-checkers are effective in reaching the micro-level,” Ms Hassan added.