COVID-19 and the “New Normal” of Political Campaigns, By Shamsudeen Adio Yusuf
With the exponential increase in the cases of COVID-19, politicians cannot conduct campaigns through conventional means. They must adapt to the realities of the “new normal” by deploying alternative mechanisms of campaigning, while strengthening the existing ones. Communication is vital in any election.
Since COVID-19 emerged, countries have been contending with the decision of whether to conduct elections or not during the pandemic. Organising elections this period may expose voters, poll workers, and watchers to the virus, which will heighten public health concerns. Policy responses of the government to curtailing the coronavirus, including restrictions on the movement of people, may also affect the conduct of elections. Yet, if a decision is taken not to conduct elections, it would raise constitutional matters regarding the administration of elections. It will also question the legal rights of citizens to elect who represents them at the helm of state affairs within a constitutional timeframe. In Nigeria, particularly, Section 178 (2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) provides that election should be conducted into public offices “not earlier than 150 days and not lesser than 30 days to the expiration of the tenure of an elected officeholder.”
Like elsewhere in the world, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in Nigeria has decided to go ahead with the conduct of the 2020 off-season governorship elections in Edo and Ondo States. According to the electoral umpire, “postponing the governorship elections in Ondo and Edo states could make INEC lose the right to pick the dates for elections in the future.” Acknowledging the need to adapt to the new situation, the Commission released a policy that provides a guide for activities of political parties, election observation, and deployment of technology, etc. during the elections. The policy also covers health and legal issues, election planning and operations, election day, and post-election activities. The recent development indicates the readiness of the Commission to conduct the elections.
At the same time, political parties must fulfil their duties of conducting primary elections and engage in political campaigns during this period. For the governorship election in Edo State scheduled for September 19, most political parties have concluded their primaries for selecting candidates for the election. The two leading parties, the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), have constituted members of their campaign councils. While the councils have herculean tasks ahead of them, strategies adopted for political campaigns must be responsive to the realities at hand.
This article provides a strategic direction for political parties and their candidates on how to organise political campaigns ahead of the forthcoming elections during the pandemic, drawing lessons from countries that have held elections.
Navigating Political Campaign During COVID-19
Political parties play the dual role of contesting for political power and mobilising voters through robust political education programmes in any democratic environment. Political parties attempt to shape how electorates think and feel about individuals who are flag-bearers of their parties through political campaigns. Traditional political campaigns in Nigeria are conducted through rallies, door-to-door canvassing, and town hall meetings. The last few years have also witnessed an unprecedented rise in the use of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, as political communication tools by politicians and their supporters during elections. The social media platforms have offered a flexible and effective means of political communication.
With the exponential increase in the cases of COVID-19, politicians cannot conduct campaigns through conventional means. They must adapt to the realities of the “new normal” by deploying alternative mechanisms of campaigning, while strengthening the existing ones. Communication is vital in any election. Therefore, political parties must harness social media properly and differently, and adopt other practical strategies to reach their supporters. I propose below what can be done differently.
Leveraging the Strength of Social Media
Social media and politics have become inextricable. Since the start of the millennium, voters outreach campaigns have been heightened through the use of social media by politicians to interact with and engage in public discourse. Today, most politicians in Nigeria have a social media presence. With the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians, candidates, and their supporters must adeptly deploy the political communication tool to project their ideas and have regular interaction with their constituents.
There are indeed a variety of social media platforms than can be used to serve political purposes. In Nigeria, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram have become prominent and widely used by young and older people in urban and semi-urban areas. 56.89 per cent and 20.58 per cent of social media users in Nigeria are on Facebook and Twitter, respectively. This presents the platforms as the most useful political campaign tools. Although Instagram subscribers constitute 2.91 per cent of social media users in the country, the fact that 70.6 per cent of its users fall within the age bracket of 18-34 makes it more attractive for ambitious politicians. WhatsApp is also increasingly used in Nigeria for elections because of its low cost, encrypted messages, and the ability to easily share messages with both individuals and groups.
Understand people’s biases and manage differences: Not every issue of priority to parties and their candidate would appeal to all electorates. Diversity should be creatively and efficiently managed. This is especially important for the social media campaign.
Ahead of the governorship elections, politicians would use the platforms to solicit for support. In doing this, politicians must target the right audience, convey messages in a useable format, and through the right platform. Best practices for the use of social media for campaigns during COVID-19 can be summarised below:
a. Be conscious of social media demographics: A fundamental question a politician should ask is: Which social media platform has age groups that traditionally vote in areas where it is accessible? This suggests a need for a thorough analysis of social media platforms and their uses in different areas where elections will hold in Edo and Ondo States. This will enable political parties to know the preferred platform amongst people of voting age and to push campaign messages through the right platform and target the right audience.
b. Create support groups on social media: A politician must establish a base on social media by creating his/her support group. This is to ensure that s/he stays in touch with the supporters and enable them to connect on issues of interest. On these support groups, it is important to share videos and audio messages. Audio and video messages are useful because they tend to be catchier than plain text messages. They are also accessible to those who are not literate. For many, high speed Internet is not available, as such video and audio messages should be downloadable so they can be replayed. It is important that they are of a manageable size for the same reason. CDD’s research suggests that these videos and audio clips do not stop online — they are shared with family members and friends who may not have online access.
c. Engage potential electorates via live video: It is always good to break your news and engage voters in a live conversation about your manifesto. Through this traditional newscast, political parties and their candidates can have regular interactions with voters and non-voters alike by live streaming on Facebook and Instagram.
d. Deal with trolls professionally: Trolling and harassment are often associated with the use of social media, especially when it comes to expressing your biases on issues of national importance. During elections, this should be expected. While the trolls are being ignored, parties and their candidates are advised to be consistent in the campaign messages that reflect societal needs and always emphasise the commitment to deliver on them.
e. Understand people’s biases and manage differences: Not every issue of priority to parties and their candidate would appeal to all electorates. Diversity should be creatively and efficiently managed. This is especially important for the social media campaign.
f. Adopt language accommodation strategy: Still, on diversity, politicians must adapt to different communicative behaviours of people to reduce social differences that may work against the goal of the campaigns during elections.
g. Don’t make it your show: Politicians should not make social media engagement their show. It should be interactive by allowing the audience to ask questions and seek clarifications on grey issues. They should consistently respond to queries. This will also allow parties and their candidates to better understand the most pertinent issues to the electorate during the elections.
h. Don’t be fixated on politics: Everything about elections should not be partisan. Parties and their candidates should consider developing social media content for people regardless of political affiliation or biases, including pushing stories that bind people together and generating conversation around these.
The weaponisation of social media to spread disinformation and incite hate and violence will also challenge the integrity of the elections. As COVID-19 effects a shift in the conventional way of campaigning, it has also been exploited to disinform people, create fear and subvert democracy.
Radio and Television Appearance
Political parties and their candidates need to communicate their manifestos and solicit for support on live programmes on radio and television for more extended periods than before. A coordinating team, with expertise in political communication and strategy, should be constituted to effectively manage and plan for appearances with low budgets. Messages on these platforms will connect with electorates beyond the reach of social media. On this note, best practices articulated above (under the use of social media) must be consciously applied.
Using Emails, Text Messages and Phone Calls
Another means through which campaign messages can be communicated to voters during the pandemic is through text messaging and phone calls. Since it is often challenging to the access phone numbers of potential voters, politicians can adopt the strategy of peer-to-peer text messaging. This would start with creating a database of contacts of voters (those whose contacts are accessible), volunteers, supporters, and party stalwarts in political wards. Parties can also enlist the services of digital advertising agencies that specialise in bulk messaging. A bulk text will be shared, and party champions would be asked to disseminate its content amongst their peers in their localities. This will increase the reach of the campaign and should be subsequently followed up with phone calls.
Finally, it is possible to send out campaign emails to potential voters. Email accounts will have a healthy uptake in Nigeria because email addresses are requirements to access so many digital services. As in social media support groups, the focus should be bite-sized audio-visuals that are easy to download.
Decentralising the Campaign Process
The digital campaign has its limitation. Many eligible voters, especially those residing in remote areas/communities of Edo and Ondo States may not be reachable digitally because of the problems of affordability and accessibility. The general level of illiteracy is also a critical problem that may limit the option of a digital campaign. Therefore, it is important for politicians that while the digital channels can be resourceful, decentralising the process of the campaign is fundamental. Politicians or candidates can organise a regular in-person virtual meeting with the leadership of the ward structure to discuss strategies of mobilising voters. They can use campaign management apps such as Ecanvasser and NationBuilder to digitally manage their campaign teams.
A cell group can be established at community level engagement with strict compliance to COVID-19 precautionary measures. An example of a strategy that would minimise physical contact is blended canvassing. This involves one round of going from door to door canvassing in an area and collecting contact details, then following up with those people frequently by phone or SMS.
The Implication For Electoral Integrity
Even if the off-cycle governorship elections hold and political parties successfully organise primaries and campaigns, the fundamental question would be: How can the process be managed to ensure fairness and equal opportunities for all political actors during this period? Creating equal opportunity for politicians, irrespective of their affiliation and political ideology, is one of the core elements of electoral integrity.
It was evident that the use of traditional and social media remains an essential tool for taking political messages to voters. However, drawing lessons from the history of electoral campaigns in Nigeria, this may not provide equal footing for all. Blatant disregard of the Nigeria Broadcasting Code (NBC) and the Elections Act, indiscriminate action of the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), antagonistic rhetoric, and the misuse of state resources (including government-owned media outfits) by ruling parties were reported during the 2019 general elections. The state authorities, including INEC and NCC, should up their game to hold any party which violates existing legal frameworks governing political campaigns in Nigeria accountable, in order to promote equal opportunities.
The weaponisation of social media to spread disinformation and incite hate and violence will also challenge the integrity of the elections. As COVID-19 effects a shift in the conventional way of campaigning, it has also been exploited to disinform people, create fear and subvert democracy. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Nigeria has seen a rapid spread of false stories and attempt to undermine state institutions. We should not expect less in the forthcoming governorship elections. This may make the political atmosphere tense and unhealthy during campaigns.
Shamsudeen Adio Yusuf, an election enthusiast, works with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD-West Africa) in Abuja.