A team of social scientists, including UCLA political science professor Graeme Blair, commissioned filmmakers in Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving film industry, to see if media can be used to instigate civic engagement — and the results were promising.
The Niger Delta a is a resource-rich land with high poverty rates and is perceived both inside the country and globally as a place where corruption is rampant. Blair was part of a team that worked with local artists and an activist group called Integrity Nigeria to create a feature-length Nigerian movie about corruption — and launch a subsequent text-messaging campaign designed to report instances of government graft.
The experimental data-collection project led a record number of Nigerian citizens to report acts of corruption, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.
The two-part campaign generated 241 corruption reports from 106 communities in just seven months, according to the researchers, who are based at Princeton University, UCLA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A previous corruption-reporting campaign yielded less than 140 reports in a full year.
The idea was to test what the researchers called “norms and nudges.”
“There is existing evidence you can motivate people to take up behaviors even before there is a social consensus,” said Blair, who was a graduate student at Princeton as he helped conduct the research in 2014 in Nigeria, and now teaches courses on comparative politics and experimental fieldwork in UCLA’s political science department. “Role models in media can build the idea that a pro-social behavior, such as reporting instances of corruption, is something other people are doing, and other people think is valuable, and thereby build a social consensus.”
Blair conducted the study with Rebecca Littman, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at MIT, and Betsy Levy Paluck, professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
The larger implication of the team’s findings is that norms and nudges combined do work, Paluck said.
“The policy messaging of our study is clear: campaigns should make it easy for people to do the things they are already motivated to do,” she said. “In this case, the texting campaign made it free and simple for people to reply to a message that came to their phone, regarding an issue they found to be important. The film provided role models of other Nigerian citizens reporting corruption by text.”
They commissioned a movie from IROKOTV, the third-largest producer of Nollywood films in Nigeria. The two-hour film, “Water of Gold,” was written by Kabat Esosa and produced by Iroko Partners with Magic Movies Productions. It starred two big Nigerian stars: Yemi Blaq and Mike Ezuruonye.
The movie took place in four states in southeastern Nigeria, home to roughly 14.2 million people. Despite the region’s rich supply of crude oil, corruption at the level of international corporations, Nigeria’s federal government, and state and local officials, have contributed to poverty and under-development or have not translated into local development. Today, local residents name corruption as the top problem faced by their country.
The film follows the story of a poor fisherman named Natufe and his rags-to-riches brother Priye. The two are close until Priye leaves their village, eventually returning years later as a wealthy businessman. Against Natufe’s wishes, Priye begins to work with corrupt local politicians. Eventually, Natufe becomes outspoken against the corrupt system in which they live.
The researchers rolled out two different versions of the film. In both, a number was displayed on the screen four times, urging viewers to call a hotline to report corruption. It said: “See corruption? Let us hear from you! SMS 50500 to report corruption to Integrity Nigeria. Tell us your story. Text for FREE. Your number kept secret.”
What differed was the plotline of the film. In the “treatment version,” Natufe and a local activist set up a toll-free “short code” telephone number, used for mass text messaging, to encourage community members to report corruption. This took place in six scenes. In the “placebo version,” this part of the storyline is removed. In some regions, viewers were able to watch the treatment version of the film, whereas in other regions, viewers were exposed to the placebo version.
The second part of the study involved a mass text sent on a random day to all the people who watched the film. This allowed the researchers to study the effect of the messaging before and after the text nudge.
All told, the researchers received 3,316 messages from 1,685 different people. Among these, 241 individuals sent concrete corruption reports explicitly mentioning a specific act, or a person or institution that had committed malfeasance. People most commonly reported bribes and embezzlement perpetrated by politicians, law enforcement and those in the education sector.
Seeing the role models of corruption reporters in the film encouraged viewers to report corruption, and separately, individuals who received the text message encouragement were significantly more likely to report corruption. The researchers think the film campaign may have caused reporting due to a perceived shift in norms regarding the community’s anger toward corruption.
“Using Nollywood for social change is already something that’s in the minds of lots of directors and producers,” Blair said. “There are social messages baked in overtly and explicitly throughout the industry. So this wasn’t a new idea, but we were able to develop some evidence about how and when these campaigns can change behaviors.”
Funding for the study came from an anonymous private donor and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.