Francis Kokutse is a journalist based in Accra and writes for Associated Press (AP), University World News, as well as Science and Development.Net. He was a Staff Writer of African Concord and Africa Economic Digest in London, UK.
Nigeria’s political parties, unlike their Ghanaian counterparts, are not using the WhatsApp messaging app properly and this has resulted in poor messaging and created cult figures out of Nigerian politicians, a new study has found.
According to the authors, whereas in Ghana, there is a formal/hierarchical use of the app by party communicators, in Nigeria, there is the informal/free-for-all use by groups affiliated to the parties, which has resulted in “poor message discipline, and further contribute to the personalisation of politics.”
The study, “WhatsApp and political communication in West Africa: Accounting for differences in parties’ organisation and message discipline online,” published in the Sage journal on July 24, 2023, said, “the ways in which African political parties use WhatsApp during elections is determined, to a significant degree, by pre-existing levels of party institutionalisation, particularly levels of internal cohesion.”
Drawing on the comparison of Ghana and Nigeria – two countries where parties had different levels of institutionalisation prior to the advent of social media, the authors identified, “two broad patterns of WhatsApp use – the formal/hierarchical and the informal/free-for-all. Formal/hierarchical groups of the kind seen in Ghana, are likely to maintain party unity and message discipline, maintain or increase the power of existing party structures and gatekeepers, and limit the influence of outsiders.”
“This is evidenced most starkly in the ways in which ‘propaganda secretaries’ and ‘social media armies’ in Nigeria and Ghana respectively have – albeit in quite different ways – been absorbed into existing party structures, formal and/or informal,” the authors said, adding that, “the rise of social media has certainly led to the creation of new campaign structures in both countries, and has introduced a new set of young, tech-savvy actors into the equation.”
According to the authors, their study also “suggests that patterns of WhatsApp use appear to influence the extent to which the platform is used by party associates to disseminate mis/disinformation. Where levels of intra-group oversight are low and outsiders are given ‘creative freedom’ to formulate messages on behalf of politicians, both mis/disinformation and dirty campaign tactics proliferate.”
On the other hand, they found that, “when WhatsApp groups are tightly controlled and messages are policed, the worst types of provocations and outright lies are limited”. The authors said their research, which aligns with evidence from other contexts, provides one avenue for battling the spread of political mis/disinformation on WhatsApp: create clear group hierarchies with group moderators tasked with monitoring messages and limit the reliance on “volunteers” loosely affiliated to individual politicians.
The authors, Jonathan Fisher and others said their paper drew on 113 interviews and 15 focus group discussions (FGDs) with political candidates, their campaign teams and advisers, and party activists in both countries.
They said the focus of their work in both case studies was principally on the presidential races since these are commonly viewed both domestically and internationally as the most significant poll during a general election. The presidential races were also the main area of interest for most of the respondents, even if some also discussed other electoral contests.
In all they conducted 72 Interviews and 10 Focus group Discussions (FGDs) in Ghana which were carried out between March and July 2019 with candidates and party operatives from the National Democratic Congress (NDC – 42 interviews and 6 focus groups) and New Patriotic Party (NPP – 30 interviews and 4 focus groups) in the capital city Accra and in Ghana’s Northern region (the regional capital Tamale and neighbouring rural areas).
In Nigeria, 41 interviews and five FGDs were carried out between February and April 2019 with candidates and party operatives from the All-Progressives Congress (APC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the capital city Abuja and in the second and third largest Nigerian cities, Kano, and Ibadan. This allowed them to compare and contrast views and practices with major cities in three of Nigeria’s six geopolitical “zones”. The research team also visited and met with staff at the Buhari Media Centre in Abuja, where the digital side of the ruling party’s presidential campaign was led from.
Sixteen of these interviews were undertaken with candidates, advisers, or campaign staff who were clearly and consistently identified as APC or PDP. They said they found “a defining feature of Nigerian party politics – both overall and in relation to the 2019 election – is the frequent movement of actors at all levels between parties.” Among the other 25 interviewees and FGD participants, for example, were candidates and operatives who had defected from PDP to APC and could therefore shed light on the use of WhatsApp by both parties. They also spoke to a campaign digital media aide who had worked for three parties (including PDP and APC) during the same electoral cycle.
In the case of Ghana, the research focused on the Northern region and the capital city Accra. Whereas in Nigeria, a huge country both in terms of population and geography, their data does not speak directly to dynamics in the east of the country in particular. A number of the interviewees (in capital cities, in particular), however, were describing national patterns and citing examples from other regions so, the authors say they can be reasonably confident their theory applies beyond their fieldwork sites.
Interviews and FGDs were carried out by at least one of the core members of the research teams, often supported by research assistants. Analysing WhatsApp – and other closed platforms – nonetheless, came with its own distinctive methodological challenges, which were navigated in a number of ways.
First, while some interviewees voluntarily showed their main WhatsApp display (e.g., to demonstrate the large number of groups they were in or messages they received), they did not request that respondents do so.
The authors said in the context of parties’ use of WhatsApp, extensive digital structures may exist to connect campaigns, activists, and candidates, and to enable them to share and discuss strategy, content, and messaging. Without internal party cohesion – including mechanisms to, or norms encouraging loyalty to the party and its messages themselves over (in some cases) those of individual candidates – these structures may fail to operate in the party’s interests.
They also analysed how key campaign messages and themes were debated, challenged, and negotiated via these structures, and the degree to which this process exhibits an appreciation for or deference to the party platform and wider brand. On the latter, they reflected on some of the incentives their respondents claimed their actions to be motivated by, as a means to better understand some of the differences in WhatsApp use by Ghanaian and Nigerian parties.
The authors said much of their data drew on analysis of “closed” discussions within party structures – i.e., of WhatsApp groups composed just of party strategists and activists – and respondents’ reflections on message discipline in WhatsApp interactions with voters.
“This includes, in the case of Nigeria especially, in WhatsApp groups established by party operatives and others with the sometimes-indirect support of the party itself. This is partly for conceptual reasons – internal cohesion in this context is evidenced by both internal and external message discipline – and partly for empirical reasons. The more informal character of the Nigerian parties’ organisational structures means that distinguishing ‘internal’ and ‘official’ from ‘external’ requires a more flexible approach,” they added.
“The rapid rise and significance of social media in general, and WhatsApp in particular, in electoral politics represents, they felt has the potential to unsettle established structures, since those with the technical knowledge to shape and manage digital campaigns and electioneering are often not traditional party elites but, in many cases, younger people of far more modest economic and political standing,” they said. In their view, “there are several explanations for these diverging trajectories. First, the nature of the transitions themselves. In Nigeria, the stage-managed introduction of multi-party politics centred around a form of elite ‘pact’ whereby different regional, political, and military interests were contained within a single party”.
In Ghana, they said a more substantive form of political competition was institutionalised with the country’s “new” political parties drawing on a rich ideological and institutional tradition which predates independence.
“On the other hand, in Nigeria, the PDP – which, aptly, took an umbrella as its symbol – focused on accommodating different elite and regional interests rather than developing ideological coherence. This has had implications for the PDP’s institutionalisation,” the authors added.
Perhaps, it might not be too late for the political parties in Nigeria to start learning from Ghana which embarks on another election next year.