The rising profile of the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar ahead of the February 16, 2019 presidential election in Nigeria has been linked to the influence of foreign nationals interested in the outcome of the election.
The foreign nationals in favour of the former Vice President’s emergence as the next President of the most populous black nation on earth were traced to no fewer than 31 citizens from Eastern Europe, specifically Ukraine.
Findings made by an independent news producer and made available to Maritime Bits showed that these foreign nationals are the unseen hands behind Legit.NG formerly Naij.com. Besides being the leading Nigerian digital media and news platform, it operates on a variety of social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others, with millions of followers at the last count.
The growing influence of the digital platform can be gleaned from the fact that it is ranked as the seventh overall most visited website in Nigeria and the first among publishers by Alexa. Presently, its Facebook community has over4.3 million members. It is on record that one out of every six Nigerian on Facebook follows the platform. This means that in less than four years it has overtaken Sahara Reporters and other online news sites.
It is also the biggest publisher on Facebook by the audience in ‘media’ category. In October 2018, the number of the Legit TV YouTube channel subscribers exceeded more than 100,000 just as its television channel is now one of the top 50 channels in Nigeria.
It was gathered that the recent change in Facebook’s policy which took effect in Nigeria in anticipation of the February 2019 elections has left not a few platforms exposed, without the ability to hide the fact that they are being run from abroad. One of these platforms is Legit.ng’s Facebook page which is being operated by Ukrainian nationals.
According to the independent news producer, the startling revelation about Ukrainian nationals working behind the scenes was a prelude to a deeper digital forensics’ investigation which was geared at identifying these Ukrainians and their exact positions in legit.ng. My research team checked the internet domains registrar (https://who.is) to find out who is the owner of the legit.ng domain. Unsurprisingly the domain owner’s name was hidden.
He noted that hiding the name of a domain’s owner is very common and can be easily done with the help of third party companies that offer to put their name and address on the registry instead of the actual owner’s in exchange for a small fee.
On this discovery, he said: “It would have surprised us to find out that the name had not been hidden, especially since we knew that there is a foreign connection and that the people involved would be inclined to be discreet”.
It was also learnt that legit.ng used to be called Naij.com which was registered years ago, long before the 2016 United States of America (USA) election scandal that raised awareness to cyber security in America’s polity.
“We had a glimmer of hope that the owners of naij.com were sloppy when they initially purchased the domain and did not use the services of third party to mask their identity. Our hopes materialized when we ran the registry check for naij.com. It turns out that the owner of naij.com who in turn is the owner of legit.ng is a Belarusian national named Vital Laptenok. Again, the owner of the one of the largest most influencing digital media outlets in Nigeria is a Belarusian who currently resides in Minsk. Mr. Laptenok’s Facebook page displays a profile of an ordinary looking eastern European man with no clues or links related to Nigeria. A deeper look at Mr. Laptenok revealed his profile on a very obscure Russian forum in which he claims to work as a “growth hacker” for a Ukraine based social media outfit called Genesis”, he said.
The foreign ownership of the platform aside, findings showed that its political affiliation, orientation or agenda as a run through all the political articles and publications on the website in the last three months showed that it is tilted towards the PDP presidential flagbearer.
According to the findings, 1,142 political related articles were published on the website during the past three months. Of these 1,142 articles 324 were pro-Buhari, 589 were pro-Atiku and 224 were neutral. Disregarding the neutral articles and calculating the ratio of pro-Buhari versus pro-Atiku articles, we reached this figure pro-Atiku 64.5 percent versus 33.5 percent pro-Buhari. This figure is statistically significant and could not be achieved randomly, all other things being equal. This figure suggests a strong bias in favour of Atiku within legit.ng’s coverage of political news.
However, the report noted that the bias was not only subtle but also light toned, as even the most critical articles are written in objective language and from a supposedly neutral point of view.
“While the subtlety in style lends credibility to the publications, it is massively yet unnoticeably overrun by the huge deviance in the ratio of positive/negative coverage of the two respective candidates. This is a highly calculated method of promoting an agenda in an effective manner without the risk of losing credibility or getting caught. It shows a high level of experience and professionalism that is to be expected from state sponsored actors”, it added.