Unmasking ‘Exclusive Admin’
An investigation into misinformation and ‘fake news’ in Nigeria
The Exclusive103 news website refers to itself as “Your gallant news outlet that informs you all you needs to know about daily worldwide breaking news… It’s not news unless it from Exclusive103.com.” Is the website gallant as its aim suggests? Dubawa, an independent fact-checking organization, is not convinced. Dubawa published multiple reviews of Exclusive103’s content, stating that it was misleading, intentionally divisive, and entirely false. This ultimately led Dubawa to include Exclusive103 on a list of fake news propagators in 2019. With mounting evidence to discredit the media outlet, it became apparent that a deeper look was necessary to more fully understand this site.
Our conclusion is that Exclusive103 is one of several entities managed, at least in part, by Ejike Ofoegbu. Ejike is a Biafran activist that uses his managed entities across four platforms to promote divisive anti-government narratives in support of the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra movement. To reach this conclusion, we started with an analysis of the news reported by Exclusive103.
It was clear by the Dubawa reporting that Exclusive103 promoted anti-government narratives, but we set out to analyze the site for indications of the person(s) behind the them. Analyzing the news reported by Exclusive103 yielded no substantial results in determining the underlying person(s) responsible. Therefore, we turned to social media to better understand how the administrators of the site interacted with the population at large. Selecting the Facebook link on the Exclusive103 page redirected to the Facebook page for I News. I News cross-promotes itself as the social media face of Exclusive103. The use of www.facebook.com/ImoCityTvNews as the URL for the site, however, arouse suspicion that the page was rebranded.
Analysis of the I News Facebook page led us to two unique identifiers for further investigation: an email address and phone number. We were able to use these identifiers to associate I News with www.imocitytv.com. This website went down around August 2018, but utilized a similar logo as the currently active I News (see photos below). Archive captures, however, show low activity on the site since October 2017. The few articles posted on May 14, 2018, are consistent with a pro-Biafra/anti-government narratives, but oddly all of the articles posted in December 2017 surround events in the United States. These posts aside, it is not until you get back to October 2017 that regular posts are observed. All of these address Nigerian and Biafra news. The most concerning are titled Military Invasion, and threats to burn Nigeria if the Biafra leader, Nnamdi Kanu, is arrested.
Curious after the realization that this site was likely the precursor to Exclusive103, we used the same unique identifiers to identify that at least ten news entities were likely managed by the same person(s). See Figure 1 below for a connection of the associated entities.
Once we understood that these unique identifiers were associated with ten news entities, we wanted to identify the person(s) behind them. Exclusive103’s articles are nearly exclusively by “Exclusive Admin.” This posed a unique challenge to the researchers.
We believe Ejike Ofoegbu is either personally responsible, or amongst those responsible for all of the entities associated with these unique identifiers. This conclusion is supported by the following:
· This Facebook account uses one of the unique identifiers, has a picture of Ejike, and in the photo he is wearing a shirt with “Exclusive 103” on it;
· A site-specific search on Exclusive103 for his name reveals this author page;
· A Website Informer search links Ejike to both unique identifiers;
· Ejike’s connection to Exclusive103 goes as far back as at least December 2016 with this article; and
· On his alternate Facebook page here he claims to be the Director of Operations of I News, the Facebook page associated with Exclusive103.
Ejike Ofoegbu is a Biafran activist and member of the Indigenous People of Biafra movement. As a Biafran activist, he promotes aggressive resistance to the Nigerian government. He also believes that “until Biafrans are Free, all other African countries are slaves.” Ejike uses his platforms to reinforce this view of the world and what needs to be done to accomplish his aims.
Information Sharing Strategy
How does Ejike, who appears to have a hand in managing at least 10 information platforms, use them to spread his message? Primarily, he cross-promotes Exclusive 103’s articles across multiple entity accounts like Facebook and Twitter.
Diving into the details by account, let us examine three. The Twitter account linked to Exclusive103 was suspended as of May 2020. This account, which also appears to operate under a fictitious news name, “Fox News Nigeria”, posted Exclusive103 articles daily in 2019, but was rarely retweeted or liked. Since the beginning of this year, it has only posted five times. This Twitter account appears to be Ejike’s personal account, with approximately 2600 followers, but he doesn’t actively post articles there.
I News, which is linked to Exclusive103 on Facebook, has over 180,000 followers and posts articles by Exclusive103 regularly. It is by far the most active and interacted with of the ten accounts. However, less than half of the posts observed received double-digit likes, or gained widespread dissemination. The other four Facebook accounts linked to Ejike through the unique identifiers reveal little influence because they are rarely used or are no longer active.
The question remains as to why are 10 accounts being utilized? Several accounts may have been opened to cross-promote the articles on Exclusive103 or its precursors. It could be an attempt to revitalize select narratives as many accounts are taken offline. This is still unclear. What is clear is that four years of ongoing efforts resulted in only Exclusive103 / I News truly garnering any following of note.
The researchers tried in earnest to find other authors behind Exclusive103 content, but failed to achieve any significant results. It is possible, given the prolific number of posts, that Mr. Ofoegbu is not alone in managing and maintaining the entities. It is also possible that he is one of several contributing authors. If either of these scenarios are true, however, the researchers found no compelling evidence to support them.
Effect of Misinformation in Nigeria
How do narratives promoted on sites like Exclusive103 affect the media landscape in Nigeria? According to Adedeji Adekunle of the Premium Times Center for Investigative Journalism, “Exclusive103 tends to drive content and narratives which stoke tribal tensions and pit regions against each other to promote a Biafran secessionist agenda. It seems to be the most notorious platform for this.” Nigeria itself is at high risk for this divisive messaging due to the existing conflicts within the nation. “We have insurgency in the north, militancy in the south, secessionists in the east, and herder-farmer clashes in the central region of the country,” according to Adekunle.
Why does this matter? Why should you care? Misinformation and disinformation are spreading globally as the cost of entry to being considered a legitimate news outlet is diminishing. While journalistic integrity may be lost due to overuse of the question mark, affinity and confirmation bias to oversimplified narratives are gaining momentum. The infostorms of varied media and news sites have forced many to abandon the search for truth. This abandonment yields a tie to either known news sources, or the search for news that you agree with most out of a desire to avoid conflict.
Exclusive103 aims to take advantage of the infostorm by proclaiming itself the only legitimate news source of the region through the declaration, “It’s not news unless it’s from Exclusive103.” Astute observers may say that any organization that claims to be the only provider of truth should immediately be questioned. But this is not always the case. A news source that focuses on information that is of interest to an ethnic minority in the region may be the only one to do so. This provides a monopoly on the local news narrative. People in the region may be drawn to an outlet that tells their story as opposed to promoting the stories of others. Misinformation mixed inside of this news source may be an acceptable cost to those individuals. In short, it is an equally oversimplified narrative to assume that the only reason people pay attention to Exclusive103 is because they inherently agree with the anti-government narrative.
Fall of Exclusive 103
As our investigation came to an end, we noticed on June 1, 2020 that the Exclusive103 website was down. We observed that the I News Facebook page is no longer promoting news articles from Exclusive103. In its place, I News now promotes Aso Villa News. Aso Villa News is located on the web here and Facebook here. Aso Villa’s Facebook page was created on March 22, 2020, but did not begin posting until May 28, 2020, which coincides with the discontinuation of Exclusive103. Since the end of May, I News only posts articles from Aso Villa News. Analysis of Aso Villa News’ Facebook page reveals that it uses the same unique identifier — the phone number — as the previously mentioned entities associated with Ejike Ofoegbu.
It is not clear why there was a shift from Exclusive103 to Aso Villa News, but the authors believe this was an attempt to rebrand the narratives promoted on Exclusive103 following the consistent delegitimization by Dubawa’s efforts.
One month following the shift to Aso Villa News, the web site is down. The Facebook page for Aso Villa News; however, is active and continued to post identical entries on the same day as I News until June 27, 2020. After this date, posts continue on I News, but fail to appear on Aso Villa’s page. Is Aso Villa News now going dormant as so many other I News spinoffs have before, or is this a pause? The game is afoot and we will continue to watch as Mr. Ofoegbu’s attempts to garner enough support to maintain a news brand.
The Never-Ending Fight Against Fake News
How widespread is the use of social media to manipulate public opinion? According to The Global Disinformation Order (September 2019), which studied of the realities of systematic public opinion manipulation, the authors concluded that 70 countries systematically manipulated social media as of 2019. That compares to 28 countries in 2017 and 48 in 2018 — a growth rate of around 1.5 times respectively. In this project, the authors included countries where at least one political party or government organization used social media to manipulate public opinion in the country.
The problem of spreading fake news through social media becomes more acute when a third country — employing people from that country — systematically tries to ferment conflict or influence the policies of that country in a way that is convenient for its own country. According to the report, Facebook and Twitter attributed foreign influence operations to seven countries (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela) that have used social media to influence global audiences. These numbers that the report mentioned may be the tip of the iceberg, as the methods of manipulating public opinion using social media are becoming more and more sophisticated. The more organizations that try to use social media to manipulate public opinion, the more efficient and cheaper their methods will become.
As trust in media is declining around the world, it is difficult for journalists to disseminate information about misleading narratives due to this growing lack of trust. However, researchers and the media must continue to examine and understand those who are trying to manipulate information, and expose them to the public. Winston Churchill is attributed as saying, “A lie gets half-way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” It is important that researchers and journalists try to find ways to speed the message regardless.
The opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the authors alone and not representative of their employers or associated entities.
About the authors:
Kenichiro Shino is a Global Affiliate Visiting Scholar at The Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC) for 2019–20. He is a news reporter for The Asahi Shimbun, the national leading newspaper company in Japan.
Dathan Duplichen is a graduate student with FSI’s Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program concentrating on Cyber Policy and Security. He is a career technology specialist for the United States Department of Defense focusing on international cooperation in cyberspace.