Sometimes it feels like corruption has become the topic of the year: We’ve heard repeatedly that it is (the perception of) corrupt elites that has fueled the rise of populists, nationalists, and new socialist parties and politicians. The most prominently of these, though not the only one, is Donald Trump, who promised in his campaign to take back power from the corrupt elites (see here and here).
But has the topic of corruption actually become increasingly prominent in popular and media discourse over the last two years? To investigate this question, I did a simple search on the Factiva database within the eight most widely-circulated American newspapers (USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and Newsday) for the term “corruption.” I did a similar search for Germany, using the term “Korruption” and the eight most widely-circulated German newspapers (BILD, BILD am Sonntag, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Rheinische Post, Welt am Sonntag and Rheinische Post). Surprisingly (at least to me), over the last two years there was no growth in U.S. newspaper reporting on corruption. As the following graph shows, reporting on corruption in the U.S. has been rather stable over this period, with between 500 and 750 articles a month. A slightly different picture emerges for Germany, where newspaper reports on corruption, which were substantially less frequent than in the U.S. to begin with, have actually declined over the past two years. (A side note, though perhaps an interesting one: The most reported corruption topic in both countries, with about 2.5 times more stories than the next-most-mentioned topic, was FIFA.):
Figure 1: Articles in 8 major US newspapers on “corruption” over the past 2 years (Source: Factiva)
Figure 2: Articles in 8 major German newspapers on “Korruption” over the past 2 years (Source: Factiva)
To find out whether corruption has become more important for the general public (as compared to the “mainstream media”), I also did a search on Google Trends in both countries for the terms “corruption” and “corrupt” (“Korruption” and “korrupt” respectively) over the last two years. Again, there’s no evidence of an increase in public attention to corruption over the past two years. The spike in searches for “corrupt/corruption” occurred at the end of May 2015 – the peak of the FIFA scandal.
Figure 3: Google searches for the terms “korrupt” and “Korruption” in Germany over the past 2 years (Source: Google Trends)
It seems, then, that there has not in fact been a notable upward trend in public or media focus on corruption.
This is perplexing. What explains the mismatch between the popular narrative that there’s been a surge in public concern about corruption—one that partly explains the recent success of populist political movements—and the trends I found in media discussions and internet searches?
One possibility is that the sort of “corruption” that motivates the supporters of insurgent populist movements is not what traditional media outlets would necessarily refer to as “corruption.” Academics and anticorruption activists usually define “corruption” as the abuse of public power for private gain. But many people see corruption also in actions, rules, and regulations that don’t benefit or even contradict their personal interests. The feeling of being left behind or oppressed seems to be enough to cry “corruption!” A case in point –in both Germany and the US – is the fear of foreigners taking over “our” economies: in the US, enough people believe that George Soros wants the US to be taken over by the Chinese (see here or here), while in Germany enough people fear that Angela Merkel wants the Islamification of Germany by bringing in Syrians (see here or here). In this perception, it is not even necessary to be specific about the personal interests that the perceived wrongdoers are pursuing. What is relevant is the feeling of lack of self-determination to the outright loss of relative (or absolute) power in the perceived “rigged” system.
Against this tide of populism, there is no simple remedy. What is clear though is that we don’t speak the same language when talking or writing about corruption. In order to get more people involved in the fight against corruption, a broader and common understanding of the features of and remedies against corruption must be created – by better outreach work, personal engagement outside our echo-chambers, and fact-based reporting. All of this requires credibility of the people and institutions (including newspapers and NGOs) engaged in the outreach work. Organizations that enjoy high credibility (e.g. Transparency International) need to step up their work. In the end – and this is a big ask – creating a common understanding to fight corruption requires grass-roots engagement of a most diverse set of people to make sure that everyone is feeling empowered and not oppressed.