Social Media and Anticorruption Reform: When Does Crowdsourcing Work?

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.

8 thoughts on “Social Media and Anticorruption Reform: When Does Crowdsourcing Work?

  1. I just took a look at the Ang article on SSRN. I think Ang overplays the importance of organizational issues and social-political structure and underplays the importance of actual government cooperation (or at least acquiescence). Ang seems to suggest that internal organization problems – not the Chinese government – caused the death of IPAB China, but the facts don’t really bear out that assertion. From what I can glean, it seems like IPAB China was weakened and ultimately taken offline by China’s central government. The fact that the government wavered and behaved in contradictory ways prior to the final shutdown doesn’t strike me as particularly significant. The website is gone because the government powers that be decided it should be gone. The critical point is, as Ang herself said, that “Chinese authorities are not necessarily having citizens snitch on corruption . . . they want these reports to be collected and processed by them, and not by independent non-government actors.”

    That being the case, I think I concur with your analysis, but I get there a bit differently. I have no quarrel with the point that online anticorruption activism will be ineffective without a robust offline civil society. But in countries like China, where the government has the capacity and will to largely control what its citizens see on the internet, internet-based anticorruption efforts aren’t going anywhere without government buy-in. So my advice to Chinese anticorruption reformers would be to invest in schemes that are less likely to result in public shaming of government officials, and more palatable to a conservative government that is uncomfortable with relinquishing control of reform efforts.

    • I agree with Sam’s point, and the closely related one that the difference in how the websites did largely comes down to the broader differences between the Indian and Chinese governmental and social systems, rather than reflecting something unique about the way social media works in each country. For that reason, I’m not sure the distinction made in your final sentence — that the choice is between social media and other anti-bribery efforts — is a complete one. I would imagine that many of the same headwinds that social media faces exist for all anti-bribery efforts. This may be one big problem, rather than several smaller ones.

      Thanks for a great post!

    • Agree with Eden.

      Also, my instinct as someone who has spent a fair amount of time in/around China is that a part of what made the government skittish about this particular website was the explicit “calling out” of specific government officials. There is a huge culture of scapegoating by Chinese internet users and public corruption is a hyper sensitive topic among young people (the “corrupt local official” is almost a trope in China, in my experience). I can imagine Chinese officials being worried about campaigns on the website spiraling out of control and forcing the government to discipline or relieve implicated officials, which could have a destabilizing effect within the Party. Long term, I wonder if a project like this would have a better (if still not great) chance of working if it was either (a) anonymous with respect to the officials being implicated, or (b) focused on calling out in a positive way those officials known for honesty and not taking bribes.

      Maybe somebody who knows China better than I do has thoughts.

      • There’s merit to the idea of anonymity with respect to the officials implicated, as well as a precedent for it on the original I Paid A Bribe. Insisting on anonymizing the identities of allegedly corrupt individuals could improve the prospects for a successful program. It would shift the incentives for reporting, the consequences of reports, and the overall tenor of the project. I also wonder whether there was some ambivalence within the government towards a platform that allowed lower-level officials, as opposed to officials in positions of greater authority, to bear the brunt of the online community’s distaste for bribery. (Ang alludes to something similar on page 7, where she notes that “Central officials appeared more supportive of IPAB.”) Taking the subject of public shaming off the table entirely by requiring that negative reports be anonymized might have the effect not just of shifting the attitudes of participants, but also of directing the government to engage – if it chooses to engage – with policy-level discussions, rather than trying to “process” or systematize the reports that are posted.

  2. Exciting blog post, Rebecca! Putting together a part of Eden’s comment and a part of Sam’s, I’d argue that the takeaway is not necessarily that social media as an anticorruption tool just doesn’t work in certain countries, but that it (at least might) work in different ways in different countries. I like Sam’s hypotheses re: China, especially because they’re testable! I hope that your post leads to non-profits/advocates around the world taking to social media and trying out different formats for gathering information from the crowd, then packaging this information in a way that effectively motivates politicians.

  3. Lurking behind the analysis is the question that haunts at least some Chinese and for which a definitive answer could produce a Nobel for a researcher: Can a one party state control corruption? Or is political competition an essential prerequisite?

  4. Another question to add to the ones posted above: Why can’t an I Paid A Bribe website survive independent of a strong underlying organization or active government cooperation? I would imagine that even in the absence of all this, it would still be useful to record bribes on such a website, if only because it told people, Yelp-style, that, say, one DMV office was better than another.

    Also, could we have an I Paid A Bribe-style website for private sector corruption? Consumers could record that they’d received adulterated concrete or been sold sacks of rice that weighed less than the packaged weight, and governments could use this information to take action if enough people complained

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