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WhatsApp faces misinformation problem in Nigeria, reports say

Fake news on the platform comes ahead of general elections early next year.

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WhatsApp seen on a phone.

Oscar Gutiérrez/CNET

Fake news is being spread on WhatsApp in some of Africa's most populous countries, according to two new reports, raising concerns over coming elections in Nigeria. 

Photoshopped images and false claims about politicians have been circulating on the Facebook-owned messaging service in Nigeria, which holds election in February next year, according to a report from The Poynter Institute on Friday. Many of the false claims are in local languages and exploit ethnic friction.

One set of false claims focuses on how politicians will address clashes between a group of semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers, Poynter said. Another rumor claimed a presidential candidate couldn't enter the US because of a corruption charge, Poynter reported. 

Earlier in the week, a Nieman Journalism Lab survey found that almost a third of Nigerians had shared stories that turned out to be fake. The survey found Nigerians have the lowest level of trust in the media of the three countries covered in the report, which included Kenya and South Africa.  

Fake news in Nigeria usually circulates on mobile platforms, such as WhatsApp, and often involves extreme speech aimed at inciting violence, spreading racism or encouraging misogyny and xenophobia, Nieman said.  

The volume of fake news comes as Nigeria gears up for general elections that will take place on Feb. 16

"WhatsApp cares deeply about the safety of our users around the world. We've made a number of recent changes to WhatsApp to limit the spread of viral rumors – including placing a label on forwarded messages and limiting how they can be sent on WhatsApp," said a WhatsApp spokesperson in an email statement. "We recently helped bring CrossCheck onto WhatsApp to help fact check rumors in Nigeria and in the run up to the election we'll be stepping up education on how users can spot hoaxes and rumors."

Nigeria isn't the only country where misinformation is a problem on WhatsApp. In July, five people were reportedly lynched in the village of Rainpada in Dhule, India because a rumor on WhatsApp accused them of kidnapping children.

First published on Nov. 30, 2:55 p.m. PT. 

Updates on Dec. 3, 10:03 a.m. PT: Adds WhatsApp spokesperson comment.