Personal Data and the Influence Industry in Nigerian Elections

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, it was clear that the now defunct data and digital campaign firm and its agents had been prolific in implementing its dubiously legal yet undoubtedly controversial approach to elections beyond the borders of the United Kingdom and the United States. In 2015, Nigeria, Africa's largest democracy, was one such area of operation for the firm where it used its digital arsenal to allegedly spread targeted disinformation as well as release sensitive data about the then political opposition. However, as public interest around the digital poli-tech industry has increased and as civil society organisations, including Tactical Tech's Data & Politics: Inside the Influence Industry project, are increasingly researching, documenting and unpacking the opaque world of political data miners and brokers, digital political communications vendors and data strategists, it has become abundantly clear that Cambridge Analytica was notable in its approach and client base but far from unique. The tired and soon-to-be unreliable analogy of CA being the tip of the iceberg holds true non-the-less. In this vein, Tactical Tech and the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) joined forces in order to shed light on the wider digital and data-driven political influence industry in Nigeria, the digital tools and practices they other political agents employ during election periods and what future trend and developments are likely.

Using a blend of desk research and interviews with professionals within the political influence industry, CDD has compiled a unique report which walks the reader initially through Nigeria’s political history and current context as well as the legal context surrounding elections in the country. It then goes on to assess the status of eight digital tools and techniques that are common practice in elections (and have been documented by Tactical Tech’s Personal Data. Political Persuasion: Inside the Influence Industry) in the digital age and also looks at the numerous actors within the digital political influence industry in Nigeria before concluding on a thorough analysis o f how digital techniques and tools as well as personal data are being implemented in strategies of irregular campaign, such as vote buying. Below is a short selection of some of the findings from the report. The entire report Personal Data and the Influence Industry in Nigerian Elections: Data-Driven Campaigning by Formal and Informal Actors can be viewed and downloaded here.

  • The first instances of using market research in a general election campaign was seen in 1993 but did not gain a great deal of traction until more recent elections.
  • Traditional voting outcomes based on ethnicity, religious affiliation, political control of mass media outlets and campaign irregularities are beginning to give way to policy preferences by strategic segments of voters, who in the age of digital communications, are easier to reach with digital campaign strategies.
  • While regulations, guidelines and sanctions exist to set campaigning rules and curtail hate speech and inflammatory broadcasting by traditional media outlets during election periods, campaigners are able to utilise social media to operate largely outside of these legal confines.
  • Regulations that do exist to shape the digital space, such as data protection regulations and laws against digitally-driven fake news, are not thoroughly effective.

Digital Tools and Techniques

  • Campaign or party apps are not used with a great deal of sophistication for sentiment analysis but do serve as data collection tools (such as contact data) and party registration tools.
  • Globally used voter management and fundraising tools such as Nation Builder and ActBlue have been used by candidates for election purposes.
  • Geotargeting of voters and constituencies with targeted and tailored messaging has been witnessed in presidential elections (conducted by Cambridge Analytica, for example) as well as in gubernatorial races.
  • Voter files and voter databases are amassed from public or centralised voter databases, while more bespoke and targeted databases of voter data can be created in light of the “porous” data protection regulation.
  • Robocalls bulk SMSing of the electorate is a popular tool among political candidates and candidates in the past have paid up to N100 million for such services, while WhatsApp is used for direct engagement with voters.

Formal Political Influence Industry

  • Nigeria’s domestic digital political consulting sector is dominated by a few, highly connected and well resourced actors operating at the mid to high level political campaigning.
  • Experienced digital advertising and marketing agencies have some exposure to political clients but these tend to be secondary clients as opposed to the private commercial sector.
  • International firms associated with the influence industry and its toolset are mostly present at the highest level of campaigning and in the past have provided media relations campaigns and digital targeting and analysis.

Informal Campaign Strategies

  • Informal campaigning is a type of campaign that is without a formally recognised or organised firm or structure backing it and is instead conducted by formal or informal grass-root groups or individuals. Informal campaigning, which can include “vote buying”, is an extension of the dominant informal economic activity within Nigeria and has been associated with the major political parties of recent and is the largest segment of the Nigerian influence industry.
  • The approach is also rooted in the country’s history of political patronage and is particularly prevalent at down-ballot elections where sophisticated data-driven campaigning is has yet to gain a strong foothold.
  • This type of campaigning takes place within a social context defined by low-income economic status yet high technological, particularly mobile phone, penetration.
  • Digital technologies are facilitating irregular campaign activities operated by practitioners within informal strategies through: a) identifying and segmenting eligible targets for vote buying in particular locales and providing digital interfaces to “claim” payments via WhatsApp, b) monitoring voter buying “agreements” by providing proof of voting from inside the polling booth via WhatsApp, so called “snap and send” techniques, c) electronic pay-outs which are complimenting physical cash purchases of votes, at times even replacing the latter due to the ease, reduced visibility and more complicated tracing of such payments

CDD’s report concludes that with the growing penetration of mobile and digital technologies, as well as continued development and the escape from poverty by more citizens will likely propel the interest in data-driven campaign techniques in future elections at the expense of digital irregular campaigning and clientelism. Voters’ personal data and predicted preferences could increase in value as they become less susceptible to vote buying or vote selling. This, in and of itself, now sees Nigeria facing similar questions and dilemmas of ethical practices, regulation and data protection, and impacts on democratic structures currently being experienced by other countries.

The full report on the state of the influence industry in Nigeria can be viewed and downloaded here.