Films can convince viewers to report cases of corruption, a new paper reports.

Uganda anti-corruption.

An anti-corruption sign in Uganda.
Image credits futureatlas.com / Flickr.

“Water of Gold” is a Nigerian feature film that, according to a new paper co-authored by researchers at MIT, made its viewers significantly more likely to report corruption. The film was part of an experiment designed to investigate whether media can shift social norms and help combat corruption.

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The movie was commissioned specifically for the experiment. Its plot is set in the Niger Delta and focuses on the story of two brothers. One of them, Natufe, decides to live his life in the delta while growing up and grows up to be a (relatively poor) fisherman. His brother, Priye, decides to leave the delta instead. He grows wealthy through various business deals, and then returns home, now a corrupt politician. The film further shows Natufe’s dismay with his brother and how he starts speaking up against the endemic corruption in his home region.

In one version of the film, Natufe and another local activist set up a number where locals can report corruption via text message. The two also report instances of it, in scenes lasting five minutes. The other version does not contain those scenes.

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The team reports that the movie did boost corruption reporting among viewers — but only when the first version, with the extra 17 minutes showing the movie characters reporting corruption themselves, was played. Soon after the films were shown or copies of it handed out, the researchers sent a mass text message blast in each community, to all subscribers of the major mobile phone provider, so people simply had to reply in order to report corruption.

The film, together with this mass text message, drove 240 people in 106 communities to send in concrete, specific reports of corruption over the study’s seven-month duration. The team reports that these figures are a definite improvement over the two ongoing national campaigns — which generated 140 reports per year.

“When we added the extra scenes in the film, we found we did get more people reporting,” says Rebecca Littman, now a postdoc at MIT and co-author of the study.

Combining the movie with a text makes it “less costly, and psychologically easier, to try this new thing,” she adds.

The movie was made available in 106 Nigerian communities between 2013 and 2014. Each location was randomly assigned the “treatment” version of the film or the “placebo” one — the latter doesn’t have the corruption-reporting scenes. Both versions were accompanied by a new system that people could use to report corruption via text message, which was displayed on the film’s packaging and at the beginning, middle, and end of the film. This information was also shared via the subsequent text messages.

The team calls their film a “norms intervention”, designed to shift how people view current civic standards in their community. Its goal was to make people feel that reporting corruption is a routine part of being a good citizen. In case people have not encountered others in their community who speak out against corruption, the film steps in as an example to teach individuals how to go about it.

The mass text blast was used as a “nudge intervention,” the team explains, to reduce the perceived logistical difficulties of reporting corruption.

“If we can’t show them their neighbor doing it, we can show them these influential, famous people doing it too,” Littman says. “I think people were surprised that the campaign actually worked.”

In a public-opinion survey conducted as part of the research project, just under 80% of Nigerians said they thought the police, civil servants, and state governments were corrupt. About 83% of respondents said they were “angry” about having to pay bribes to conduct business, with 60% being “very angry” about it. The Niger Delta region, where the study was carried out, seems to be especially rife with corruption — massive oil production in the region over the last years has failed to produce any substantial investment in services or infrastructure for locals.

The paper “Motivating the adoption of new community-minded behaviors: An empirical test in Nigeria” has been published in the journal Science Advances.