Is social media the next great tool in fighting corruption, or is its role more limited? As Matthew noted in his last post, some anticorruption activists have used blogs and other online platforms to circumvent traditional media, and there’s some limited evidence they may have had an effect. Perhaps even more exciting, the launch and the early successes of the website I Paid A Bribe, started by an Indian nonprofit, suggested that the egalitarian internet could take advantage of “crowdsourcing” approaches to provide information on corrupt activities, disincentivize bribe-taking, and educate the public. Anticorruption reformers in other countries took note of I Paid A Bribe’s achievements, launching their own country-specific spinoff websites.
But those websites have not been universally successful. One of the most notable recent disappointments has been in China, where I Paid A Bribe and similar crowdsourced antibribery platforms failed, and ultimately folded. Recent research by Yuen Yuen Ang examines the short-lived existence of China’s crowdsourced antibribery platforms and offers some explanations for why the Chinese efforts failed to accomplish their objectives. While she stops short of offering broader takeaways on the role of social media in combating bribery, we can draw some conclusions using her work as a starting point. Broadly speaking, her conclusions suggest that social media is only effective in combating bribery where an adequate educational, social, and political framework exists to support its use.
One key difference between the Indian and Chinese experiences concerns the nature and extent of government cooperation. On India’s I Paid A Bribe, users can and do post reviews of interactions with public officials who request bribes or who notably decline to request bribes. That aspect of the website was mimicked in China. But the original I Paid A Bribe goes further than just providing an opportunity to rate the local motor vehicle licensing office. The nonprofit that created I Paid A Bribe collects users’ posts to create reports that it gives to the Indian government, and through collaboration between posters on the website, the nonprofit, and government officials who are willing to engage, I Paid A Bribe generates ideas for concrete steps that the government can take to reduce systemic corruption, and in some cases the government implements those steps. In contrast, this collaborative reform failed to materialize in China.
A closely related difference is that the Indian I Paid a Bribe, and the nonprofit that runs it, has a larger anti-bribery agenda that focuses on fighting systemic corruption; the reports on individual corrupt (or non-corrupt) transactions are conceived as part of that larger agenda. In contrast, the Chinese websites never articulated a coherent anti-bribery agenda; as a result, rather than collaborating to bring about broad-scale reform, hosts of and contributors to China’s websites vented their frustration over specific instances of bribery without working to translate those reports into policy changes.
Additionally, Ang points to a range of logistic/managerial factors that also contributed to the demise of I-Paid-a-Bribe-style websites in China, including a lack of a centralized organizational structure for those websites, a lack of professional management, and a lack of sustainable funding.
What do Ang’s findings about the divergent experience of Indian and Chinese crowdsourced anti-bribery websites tell us about the utility of social media as an anticorruption tool–in China, and more generally?
Perhaps the lesson to draw from social media’s initial failure as an anti-bribery tool in China is that reformers can and should make a renewed attempt to use crowdsourcing, but that they should expect that it will be some number of years before they can have a second bite at the apple, because they will need first to invest in developing a socio-political foundation to sustain antibribery websites. On this theory, China’s I Paid A Bribe would have to be spearheaded by an organization or set of unified individuals who are trained to advocate for policy reform, and its contributors would have to buy into the idea that the mission of the website would be to fight systemic corruption, not to shame or penalize individual actors.
Alternately, the takeaway might just be that while social media can be a powerful anti-bribery tool in countries that have socio-political landscapes that can support it, it’s not universally suitable–and that in countries like China, we shouldn’t get too excited about the potential of new technology to revolutionize anticorruption efforts. If that’s the right conclusion, then although crowdsourced websites may work in countries like India, in countries where the conditions are not right to support those websites, reformers should choose whether to invest in laying a sufficient foundation for social media to succeed, or to invest their energies instead in other anti-bribery efforts.