The Lake Chad Basin is one of the most enduring conflict zones worldwide, plagued by alarming levels of violence that have inflicted a devastating toll on millions of individuals in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. Despite some positive developments, like massive security concentration and aid supplies in the region, armed groups continue to spread their reign of terror, leaving a staggering 11 million people in dire need of assistance after nearly 13 years of conflict.
The number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) has reached 2.9 million, with 2 million of them concentrated in Nigeria alone, based on data from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This blood-sucking catastrophe has been exacerbated by climate change, political instability, economic challenges, and armed conflicts, resulting in immense human suffering and a volatile security landscape. Yet, amidst these crises, another significant concern has emerged: information disorder. The concept describes several disruptions and pollutants that have pervaded the information environment. Therefore, this report examines the state of information disorder in the Lake Chad basin, its forms, and the factors stimulating it.
The Concept of Information Disorder
Information disorder is a whole spectrum that covers all sorts of misleading information. Based on definitions by First Draft, information disorder covers satire and parody, clickbait headlines, propaganda, misleading use of captions, manipulated visuals, and statistics, and genuine information or content shared (taken) out of context or fabricated. All these forms of misleading content are categorised as misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. The deliberate act of conveying misleading information while knowing it to be untrue is known as disinformation. On the other side, misinformation refers to false information that is disseminated with no ill intention. The third mal-information is information based on reality leaked out of context or used to inflict harm on a person, organisation, or country. Notwithstanding the intention, the consequences on the information ecosystem and society may be similar.
Image source: Firstdraftnews
These three terms, i.e. misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information, form the cellulose for the term information disorder and, ultimately, the information ecosystem.
The cold war of information disorder in the Lake Chad Region
The Lake Chad region is brimming with a plethora of information that comes from various sources. Whether it’s the authorities striving to maintain peace, the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) working to manage the severe impact of the region’s crises, or the insurgents vying for control, information plays a pivotal role in their respective missions, and they are acutely aware of its power.
Abubakar Shekau, the deceased leader of Boko Haram, an Islamist militant organisation based in northeastern Nigeria, which is also active in Chad, Niger, northern Cameroon, and Mali acknowledged his awareness of information warfare in one of his speeches released in 2020, stating, “We are cognizant of the ongoing information war.” This statement underscores the understanding that terrorists do not fabricate false information in isolation but rather manipulate facts in a manner that may challenge people’s comprehension, thus forming their strategy of disseminating disinformation.
This manipulation of information was exemplified in Boko Haram’s use of archival footage to portray the destruction of a Nigerian fighter jet in the northeastern region. Such tactics have been central to the messaging of the Islamic State, where casualty figures, particularly injuries, are selectively combined to create an impression of a significant number of enemy forces being eliminated. Another associated reason for spreading disinformation is to propagate their ideologies, sway public opinion, and recruit new followers.
These groups have also been exposed for disseminating false narratives, manipulated content, and doctored information to garner support for their activities. A noteworthy report published in the National Library of Medicine sheds light on Boko Haram’s deliberate propaganda strategy, which is predominantly spread through various social media platforms. The report also examines the core messages and stylistic techniques these groups employ to convey their agenda. One such technique involves sharing disinformation that exaggerates their regional activities or claims victories against the armed forces.
According to a report by Humangle, in addition to Boko Haram, Ansaru, a terror group based in Nigeria, has developed tactics to evade Facebook’s monitoring systems. They aim to spread disinformation in local languages, making their content more appealing to potential recruits.
The other side of the sphinx: one head, different face
This issue is not one-sided; the authorities and the military have faced criticism for spreading disinformation to showcase their power or manipulate public opinion. In 2014, the Nigerian Army claimed to have successfully eliminated Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau. However, just a month later, a video emerged online showing Shekau confidently asserting his well-being. This incident caused significant controversy, raising doubts about the credibility of the military’s claims. Despite the ongoing scepticism, Shekau remained alive until 2021, when he was ultimately killed, not by the military but by a rival insurgent group, Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP). This particular narrative further fueled doubts surrounding any future information that the army would release.
Subsequently, in 2021, the Nigerian Army unveiled photographs displaying the wreckage of vehicles, firearms, and ammunition that were reportedly retrieved following their successful operation against ISWAP militants in Damasak. However, an investigation conducted by DUBAWA, a reputable West African Fact-checking initiative, revealed that the pictures were actually circulated on the internet before the date provided by the army.
The Lake Chad region and environmental information disorder
In its February 2023 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged the prevalence of disinformation and its profound influence on how nations and individuals address the climate crisis. This marked the first instance this year (2023) that the panel specifically addressed the issue and recognised its impact. For example, the notion that the current crisis in Lake Chad is solely due to the lake’s disappearance is a myth. The real issue is climate change’s influence, including extreme weather events and unpredictability. Recent scientific analyses have challenged the commonly held belief that the lake is drying up and causing various social problems. Instead, these studies reveal that lake water levels fluctuate and have increased since the low points in the 1970s and 1980s.
Also, common beliefs in the region birthed from religion and culture may harm the information ecosystem. Over 99% of peer-reviewed climate studies agree that climate change is real and predominantly caused by human activities. Despite this overwhelming scientific consensus, many diverse narratives denying climate change persist, infiltrating the global political discourse.
Although the insurgent crises in the region appear to be the more prominent concern, there is a gradual rise in environmental information disorder that requires climate change fact-checking and media literacy as a response.
Over the years, the prevailing form of information disorder concerning matters in the Lake Chad region has been identified as disinformation. It is evident that various entities are actively engaged in a deliberate campaign to manipulate the information ecosystem at any cost. Heralding realities in the information ecosystem of the region can largely be referenced to many factors, such as social media, confirmation bias, etc.
Factors Influencing Information Disorder within the Lake Chad Region
The proliferation of social media, the internet and online warfare
Over the past decade, Africa has witnessed a notable surge in the proliferation of social media, resulting in a substantial rise in the number of users, exceeding 384 million by 2022. This phenomenon can be attributed to the pervasive influence of mobile technology and Internet connectivity, facilitating broader access to various social media platforms.
This increase in the number of social media users, which also encapsulates the Lake Chad region, opens so many people to all sorts of information disorders. Since social media often lacks strict editorial guidelines or gatekeeping mechanisms, misinformation and disinformation can spread unchecked to this wide and heterogeneous audience. This potent influence social media wields is not unnoticed by the conflicting parties in the ongoing information warfare in the Lake Chad region.
As noticed in the latest edition of the Voice Khorasan, the fifth publication by the Islamic State in Khorasan, an affiliate in Afghanistan, the importance of employing social media for disinformation was summarised. Followers were urged to consider disinformation as an integral part of their “war policy” and a solemn duty. The English article explicitly stated, “Disseminating rumours is thus a responsibility entrusted to Muslim armies to fragment the enemy, as this disunity will significantly demoralise them,” this solemn call extends to the insurgent groups in the Lake Chad region.
The speedy nature of “fake news” in reaching wide audiences
Misleading information often spreads quickly among the general populace. False information can spread faster in social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp. According to researchers, misleading political news spreads “three times” as quickly as other false news. On Twitter, fake tweets are considerably more likely to get retweeted than genuine ones. More so than bots and click-farms, people are to blame for the spread of fake news and information.
In a typical instance, netizens were quick to reshare claims about the manipulated footage shared by Boko Haram to portray the destruction of a Nigerian fighter jet in the northeastern region; within 24hrs the post generated over 22 thousand reactions on different social media platforms.
Lingual diversity in the Lake Chad region
The Lake Chad region is also estimated to have over 200 languages. These myriad languages are spoken across different ethnic groups and pose massive information dissemination challenges. Fact checks and media literacy targeted to debunk misleading information or inform the population in the region sometimes goes unseen. Even more, disinformation campaigns designed in the local language are difficult to track by journalists or by social media guidelines.
Absence of sufficient critical thinking skills
Factors contributing to information disorder within the Lake Chad region vary, and with the advent of the digital age, such information is often disseminated very quickly before facts can even be confirmed. Studies conducted by the University of Southern California show that popular misconceptions and misinformation spread because users lack the critical thinking skills necessary to discern truth from falsehood or because of their confirmation bias that is tight to their strong political and ethnoreligious beliefs in the region. These biases and beliefs have the capacity to skew the judgement of information consumers.
This situation is fuelled by the dwelling level of literacy in the region. According to a report by UNICEF, the ongoing conflict, displacement and fear of attacks on schools is putting the education of more than 3.5 million children at risk in the Lake Chad Basin, with almost 1,000 schools closed or non-functional due to violence or unrest in northeast Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
It should also be noted that creating fake news targeted at people’s ignorance is very relevant for actors aiming to influence a thought process.
The sensational and enticing nature of information disorder
Human behaviour is a contributing factor in the propensity for people to propagate false information. According to a study, people are drawn to events and information that are unexpected and novel, which raises brain activity levels. Moreover, it was discovered that motivated thinking contributes to the propagation of false information. As a result, people often repost or distribute incorrect material, which is frequently characterised by clickbait and attention-grabbing names. This keeps individuals from pausing to check the accuracy of the information. Therefore, without any prior fact-checking or verification of the content’s veracity, sizable internet communities spontaneously emerge around a piece of false news.
Even worse, education, the one potent solution limiting ethnoreligious and political biases is under massive threat in the Lake Chad region. A UN report related to the challenges of ideological information in the region suggests that education supports children and young people’s lifelong learning, giving them the necessary skills to comprehend better information and how it affects the peaceful and prosperous continuity in their communities.
Strengthening Media Literacy and Critical Thinking: Combating Information Disorder in the Lake Chad Region
Strengthening media literacy and critical thinking skills is crucial in combating information disorder in the Lake Chad region. It is imperative that individuals have a clear understanding of misleading information, how to identify it, and why it is significant. The Mihai Viteazul National Intelligence Academy, in a research publication on ResearchGate, emphasised the importance of developing critical thinking skills specifically tailored to recognise and mitigate the impact of fake news on personal beliefs and values.
While promoting responsible journalism and fact-checking initiatives is vital to respond to the information issues in the Lake Chad region, it is equally important to ensure that these messages reach the local communities in the region. Effective communication necessitates the translation of such messages into local dialects and the utilisation of appropriate channels. Both the content and medium should be purposefully designed to resonate with the target audience. Encouragingly, there is a growing trend among fact-checking and media organisations in the region to deliver targeted content in local languages and through audio-based formats. Still, more targeted and urgent interventions are required for maximum outcomes.
This report attempts to situate the information ecosystem in the Lake Chad region within the realities of information disorder in the past years. Information is a powerful tool, and its weaponisation through the spread of false versions holds even more significant influence. This tactic has not gone unnoticed by opposing actors in the Lake Chad region, as demonstrated by the prevalent and audacious display of propaganda, targeted disinformation, and manipulation of facts. However, amidst this information warfare, the grassroots communities suffer the most, while the fighting elephants remain largely unscathed.
The people in the region face a scarcity of reliable information, which makes them vulnerable targets in this battle of misinformation. To address this issue, it is crucial to prioritise effective reporting on matters in the region, taking into account the subtle nuances such as beliefs and culture that contribute to confirmation bias. Additionally, promoting fact-checking and media literacy through relatable mediums and language can pave the way for a solution on the arduous path to peace and stability in the region.