Personal Data and the Influence Industry in Nigerian Elections

An election officer verifying a voter using the Smart Card Reader. Photo credit: BBC

In Nigeria’s 2015 election, Cambridge Analytica (CA) spread targeted disinformation to suppress opposition votes and allegedly released sensitive medical and financial information about then opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari. In 2018, the Nigerian government formed a committee to investigate, amongst others, CA’s 2015 activities and promised criminal prosecutions if necessary.

However, two years on, there has been no update from the government committee. Furthermore, beyond a flurry of articles in 2018 that largely regurgitated what international media outlets posted, Nigeria’s media houses have largely left CA’s activities and the government committees promised investigations uncovered.

The lack of attention given to the CA scandal is worrying. If we assume that their notoriety derives in part from how egregious some of their tactics were, it is likely that other actors with morally questionable but less scandalous techniques are operating under the radar in Nigeria. It is therefore urgent that we have an overview of the use of data in Nigerian elections, as the first step to increasing awareness and activism. This report is an attempt to fill this gap. Using the framing introduced in Tactical Tech’s publication, Personal Data, Political Persuasion, this report combines interviews with various actors in the political influence industry and secondary evidence from journalistic sources to map the data-driven campaign techniques used in Nigeria. This mapping focuses on the 2015 and 2019 presidential elections but incorporates examples from earlier
and lower-level elections as needed.

The report then addresses a puzzle that the first section unearths: why does it seem that the formal political consulting industry in Nigeria is so small? To answer this, the report looks at the different actors in the influence industry, focusing on the kinds of political actors that hire them, the kinds of elections they tend to be involved in, and the techniques that they use in serving their clients.

The report finds that the use of data-driven campaigning in Nigerian elections is growing in prominence. Generally, political actors use data and digital technologies to fundraise, test for the resonance of campaign messages, target messages to specific geographic locations, and send out
bulk SMS, audio, and WhatsApp messages.

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