How young Nigerians’ distrust of political leaders is fueling COVID misinformation

Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global public health emergency in January 2020, there has been a need for studies that help explain what people understand by public health messages.

Researching the nuances of communication is particularly important when conspiracy theories and misleading rumors about the pandemic are in circulation. Misinformation can be dangerous.

At the start of the pandemic, young people (adolescents, 20s and 30s) were found to be at low risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection or serious illness from COVID-19. Yet the number of infected young adults has increased.

Measures to contain the spread of the virus, such as physical distancing and hand hygiene, have also been a challenge in low-income communities around the world. Residents of these communities therefore appeared to be an at-risk group.

I thought it was important to study how young adults in low-income communities in Nigeria perceived information and messages about the pandemic. It’s important to hear their responses, as it could help counter misinformation and help stop the pandemic.

In Nigeria, public health campaigns and preventive measures appear to have played a role in reducing the rise in new infections. But studies have reported that there are also misconceptions and misinformation about COVID-19.

Social networks as a priority

I enrolled 11 young adults, aged 21 to 24, who reside in Ajegunle, a low-income community in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria. In March and April 2020, we held focus group discussions and individual interviews, with the aim of obtaining in-depth qualitative insights and insights.

Respondents’ education levels ranged from a high school certificate to a college diploma. At the time of the study, they said they had some form of paid employment, but this did not meet their basic needs.

I asked them what they thought of COVID-19, where and how they got updates and stories about the pandemic, who they shared and discussed it with, and what they thought of the function of government agencies to mitigate the spread of the pandemic.

The findings indicate that social media platforms are central to how young adults make sense of COVID-19 news and messages. They all mentioned Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp as their main sources of information on the pandemic. They obtained and shared between them reliable and less reliable information on these social media platforms.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, social media was an integral part of the daily activities of these young adults. Thus, it was natural for them to turn to these platforms to make sense of the pandemic. This aligns with studies that highlight the pervasiveness of social media use among young Nigerians.

While study participants also obtained information from traditional media (print and broadcast), they often accessed it through the social media channels of these mainstream outlets.

Despite complaints about their financial hardship, they prioritized their ability to receive communications anytime through their social media accounts. And this, even if the networks and Internet subscriptions are expensive.

Read more: Cultural factors are driving the misinformation pandemic: Why it matters

Disbelief, Skepticism and Sharing Misinformation

The discussions revealed the varying levels of skepticism and disbelief of respondents to the realities of COVID-19. Some have called the pandemic “propaganda” and called the government’s response “dumb”, “over-hyped” and “dumb charade”. They argued that the lockdown was an over-the-top response that was unnecessary:

We defeated Ebola without locking down everywhere, so why do we foolishly have to copy other nations and lock down everywhere because of this overrated propaganda?

Respondents said the lockdown had reduced their income or caused them to lose their jobs. Some said that while COVID-19 was real, for them hunger was much more real and more deadly.

During discussions, respondents downplayed the seriousness attached to the pandemic by various media reports and government authorities.

It appeared that their skepticism and disbelief stemmed from their long-standing distrust of political office holders who conveyed and enforced decisions to fight the pandemic.

Before and during the confinement, the participants experienced social inequalities and marginalization on a daily basis. Over the years, they have witnessed the government’s continued neglect of their community. They struggled to fully accept that political office holders suddenly took an interest in their well-being. Or that a total lockdown that kept them starving for weeks was in their best interest.

Respondents said they regularly discuss COVID-19 with each other both physically and virtually through their social media platforms. Here is an example :

As I told a friend earlier today when we chatted online I can’t be bothered about this covid scam that these politicians have cleverly packaged to deceive and manipulate people…they are just trying to play on our intelligence like they always do, and I told my guys through my Whatsapp story and Facebook timeline not to believe the scam…I even said the same thing on Facebook sharing a news from the Tribune page.

Through their online posts, status updates, and other forms of social media engagement or behavior, they have regularly communicated their perceptions and understanding of the pandemic.

There is a likely consequence to this. Misinformation can be amplified through social media due to people’s lack of trust in those leading efforts to fight the pandemic.

Read more: Social media users in Kenya and South Africa trust science, but still share COVID-19 hoaxes



The results show how information can be interpreted in the context of a person’s socio-economic realities and experiences. People who feel marginalized may be more likely to disbelieve, neglect, or refuse to participate in efforts to combat it, if those efforts are led by political leaders they don’t trust. The more these people voice their position, the more misinformation tends to thrive.

This is one of the reasons why constant efforts to deepen democratic values ​​and institutions must be encouraged. The more this happens, the more trust can be built between citizens and political leaders.

Where there is trust, political leaders can count on citizens to cooperate with public health measures.

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