Why efforts to fight corruption hurt democracy: Lessons from a survey experiment in Nigeria

Publication Type: Working Paper

Country: Nigeria

Authors: Nic Cheeseman Caryn Peiffer

Strategies:

Keywords: Media messaging

Why efforts to fight corruption hurt democracy: Lessons from a survey experiment in Nigeria

Most anti-corruption programmes include an awareness-raising element, where significant resources are spent on trying to raise the profile of corruption and anti-corruption. These types of efforts have been categorised as ‘demand-side’ anti-corruption interventions. Demand-side initiatives aim to widen the socio-political space available for citizens to demand better control over corruption and work to empower citizens’ groups to do so. So, while advocates of such efforts hope that by raising the profile of corruption and anticorruption the public will be more motivated to resist and report corruption, an additional aim for many is that awareness-raising will make the public more willing to hold their elected officials accountable for any corrupt transgressions.

Worryingly, however, the emerging consensus from five relatively recent studies on the impact of anti-corruption messaging suggests that anti-corruption awareness-raising may not work as intended. The results of several of these studies suggest that by priming citizens to think about the extent of corruption in their country, anti-corruption messaging may make individuals feel that the problem is too great to be solved, and therefore may induce apathy, rather than activism. To this end, our most recent study found that anti-corruption messaging failed to discourage corrupt behaviour and, in some cases, actually compelled people to be more willing to engage in bribery. These dire findings beg a host of new research questions around whether anti-corruption messaging may have a broader set of unintended impacts.

In this study we contribute to the literature by examining for the first time whether such messaging might also unintentionally influence political attitudes and beliefs – such as the willingness of citizens to defend democracy and comply with socially beneficial norms such as tax payment. Democracies in systemically corrupt contexts face specific challenges. The presence of widespread corruption and/or acute corruption scandals can signal to citizens that those in power cannot be trusted, that the democratic nature of the political system is compromised, and that citizens’ taxes are being stolen. It may therefore be the case that by priming citizens to think about corruption, anti-corruption messages unintentionally have a negative impact on wider political attitudes like perceptions of the quality of democracy and willingness to vote for ‘anti-corruption’ candidates.

This paper uses data from an original survey experiment conducted in Lagos, Nigeria in 2019.

Read the Working Paper.