In every democracy, campaigns matter. Campaign activities offer the electorate the opportunity to assess the political parties, candidates and their policies and programmes. A sane campaign atmosphere where political actors engage the electorate on policies and issues not only helps strengthen multi-party democracy such as the type practiced in Nigeria, it also allows the voters and the citizens to make informed choices. When the electorate make their choices based on adequate information about candidates and political parties, it results in credible elections.
However, since the commencement of the present republic in Nigeria in 1999, the campaign atmosphere, especially for general elections, has been anything other than fair and peaceful. For instance, according to scientific data and media sources, the general elections in 2011, 2015, and 2019 were the most violent of the six elections held in this fourth republic. These elections were characterised by smear campaigns, hate speeches, fake news, misinformation and disinformation. These created an unhealthy campaign environment that resulted in voter apathy and poor electoral decision making by the voters. Not only these, the chaotic campaign atmosphere equally resulted in personality attacks and made both the political actors and the electorate focus on issues that did not matter.
To curb this ugly campaign scenario, several efforts have been made by the civil societies, the electoral management body (the INEC), the National Assembly and other concerned stakeholders to ensure that Nigerian elections are defined by peaceful and issue-based campaign ecosystem. Yet, there has been little or no result of these efforts. For instance, the Independent National Electoral Commission enacted a campaign guideline that made a broad provision of what constituted unwholesome campaign practice by political parties and candidates as well as the accompanying punishments, still little has improved on the campaign field as had been reflected in the two off-cycle elections in Ekiti and Osun State. Perhaps this explained why the National Peace Committee, a civil society organization that makes candidates and their parties get committed to peaceful elections through a peace accord, also included commitments to issue-based campaigns as part of the 2023 presidential campaigns in the country. How then could the political actors be kept in check to play by the rules during campaign period?
In providing the answers to this question, the Centre for Research on Development of African Media, Governance, and Society (CEREDEMS-Africa), and the Positive Agenda Nigeria (PAN) have designed a real time campaign monitoring project to follow the campaign train of political parties and their candidates in order to determine whether the public engagements are issue-based or personality attack-focused. It is believed that a real time evidence-based monitoring would reveal the political actors or stakeholders guilty of polluting the campaign environment and enable the appropriate institutions to caution and/or sanction errant parties, candidates or supporters.
The focus of CREDEMS-PAN campaign monitoring project is to provide real-time evidence-based result on the campaign atmosphere as the Nigeria hinges closer to the 2023 presidential election. The research team has been paying attention to campaign messages of political parties, their candidates and supporters on Facebook, Twitter and national dailies with a view to determining their intention and focus. We categorized the focus of the messages into three construct of attacks, acclaims and defenses. Attacks refer to messages that denigrate an opposing candidates’ personality traits, leadership qualities and or competencies. We also consider message that demeaning the quality of programmes, initiatives and projects of an incumbent or ruling party. Acclaims refer to messages that show that a party or its candidates are better in terms of personality traits, leadership qualities and competencies in delivering quality public goods to Nigerians. Defenses relate to the messages that refute negative elements pushed out by political actors against other candidates and political parties.
Apart from the intention or focus of the campaign messages, our team also looks for the content of the messages to determine the level of policy engagement or personality disparagement in the messages. To do this, we typify policy engagement into highly informed policy engagement; Moderately informed policy engagement; Slightly informed policy engagement. For the personality disparagement assessment, we consider highly intensive personality disparagement; moderately intensive personality disparagement; slightly intensive personality disparagement and none intensive personality disparagement. All of these levels represent different categories of the extent of the presence of these construct in campaign-driven messages.
Campaign messages are also subjected to information pollution check where we measure the presence of misinformation-specific content in the stories in national newspapers. Our sub-categories have inaccurate photo(s), inaccurate photo(s) caption, contradicting statistics, satire, conflicting identities and construction of newsmakers and source. We equally search for conveyors of the misinformation-specific content on the platforms.
Having monitored the campaign atmosphere in the last two weeks, the following facts were derived from the public engagements of the political parties, candidates and their supporters
Fact 1: Policy and Campaign Issues
For the second week, even though the parties focused on issues that were of national importance, there was still a domination of campaign messages whose direction could not be determined. This was a carryover from the campaign activities in the first week where the largest percentage of the issues discussed could not be categorized within a policy or campaign issue. If the high occurrence of this category in the first week could be attributed to a slow start of the campaign, it is believed that there should have been an improvement in the second week.
According to issues as discussed by the political parties in the second week, the Labour Party led on engagement of policy and campaign issues focusing largely on Infrastructure; Social Programmes; Health and Employment. The LP extended the leadership in engaging core policy and campaign issues. Despite this, the slightly informed policy engagement held sway for the second week running followed by a moderately informed engagement while the issues had highly informed engagement.
On the strategies employed by the political parties in their campaigns, acclaims still dominated the strategies’ chart for the second week running on the campaign atmosphere. Attacks and defenses were observed at minimal levels. It should, however, be noted that the LP led other political parties in using the attacks strategy while the APC employed defenses more than other parties in the week 2 of the campaign activities. The PDP used acclaims and attacks at the same level while it employed the defenses strategy the least among the three leading parties.
The social media (Twitter and Facebook) and the newspapers were used to disseminate the three campaign strategies of attacks, acclaims and defenses by the political actors. It is surprising that the newspapers had increased in the percentage of presence of attacks while Facebook recorded a lower percentage of attacks strategy. It was equally observed from the monitoring that the use of these three strategies was done more by the supporters of the parties/candidates and other political actors.
Fact 2: Personality Disparagement
The monitoring observed minute percentage of highly intensive personality disparagement on the campaign scene for the second week running. Still, there was high percentage of slightly, moderately and non-intensive personality disparagement used by the parties’/candidates’ supporters. The LP was fingered as the major user of personality disparagement across levels followed by the PDP and the APC respectively. Party supporters and other political actors were the major culprits in this act of distributing disparaging statements across the media types.
Fact 3: Misinformation
Conflicting identities and construction of newsmakers and sources was the highest category of misinformation specific content noted in the second week of the campaign. Other categories included inaccurate photos, inaccurate photo captions, conflicting statistics and satire. All these were noticed at similar percentages. This situation seemed to have remained the same from week 1 with a slight reduction in the percentage of the highest category of the misinformation-specific content.
Managerial and Policy Implications
The campaign has again, like it appeared in week 1, shown its high tendency to focus on matters that do not matter due to high presence of campaign messages that could not be categorized into any specific campaign and policy issues. This could create a campaign atmosphere that would not give room for informed electoral decision from the voters. The electoral management body (INEC) and other concerned stakeholders are called upon to wake up to their responsibilities of cautioning the political actors on the need to make the campaign atmosphere more issue-based than it has been observed in the first two weeks of campaign.
The engagement of issues by the political parties, especially the Labour Party, which has led in this effort for the second week, is commendable. Yet, we advocate for a more advanced engagement of the campaign and policy issues. In other words, the issues should be considered and engaged at highly informed level. This would go a long way in engendering a culture of informed electoral decision making by the electorate.
However, there is a need to call the Labour Party to order on its extensive deployment of the attacks strategy by the party. This could spur other parties to also toe the same path and pollute the campaign environment. It also has the tendency to lead to the emergence of threats to credible polls as the campaign activities advance.
The fact that attack-focused contents are finding their ways into newspapers is a source of concern. More worrisome is the fact that the percentage of attack-oriented content increased in the second week of monitoring. It is a frightening indicator of a weak gatekeeping mechanism. The editorial boards of newspapers and the Nigerian Press Council should also wade in to correct this abnormality.
The observation of slight and moderate use of personality disparagement by political parties’ supporters is a latent sign that the campaign atmosphere could get rougher if necessary caution is not taken by the political actors and their supporters. We, again, call on the INEC to summon the courage to sanction erring political actors or parties.
Finally, there is a need to be more vigilant against the incursion of misinformation into the pages of newspapers as the percentage of its presence in the dailies has not recorded any decrease. This must be checked as the campaign train moves further.