Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why is Corruption So Boring? (Part 2)

In my last post, I identified challenges inherent in creating campaigns that move laypeople to action against corruption, and I proposed solutions to these challenges. In this follow-up post, I will assess how two very different campaigns score on the factors previously proposed.

I’ll start with a less successful campaign: Transparency International’s call to “Unmask the Corrupt.” In late 2015, TI announced its Unmask the Corrupt campaign, which aimed, among other things, to “highlight the most symbolic cases of grand corruption.” The first phase of the campaign encouraged individuals to submit cases of grand corruption, from which TI would select semi-finalists to be voted on in the second phase. In the third phase TI would “look at the cases that have received the most votes and . . . openly discuss with all how the corrupt should be punished.” From 383 submissions, TI selected 15 semi-finalists, which included the “Myanmar jade trade,” “Lebanon’s political system,” and the “U.S. State of Delaware.”

In early 2016, TI announced that it had imposed “social sanctions” on the finalists (including Lebanon’s political system and Delaware). The toothiest of these sanctions were TI press releases which led to some negative coverage of the finalists in important media outlets. TI also launched #StopKadyrov, an Instagram-centered campaign against Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who had received all of 194 votes in the second phase of Unmask the Corrupt. An Instagram search for #StopKadyrov reveals that the hashtag has been used in a total of fifteen posts. When assessed against the factors I sketched in my previous post regarding the criteria for effective narratives—in particular, the importance of placing the audience in the role of potential heroes of the narrative, depicting a compelling (and repellant) antagonist against whom to struggle—these mediocre results are not surprising.

  • First, Unmask the Corrupt scores poorly on the protagonist factor by calling its audience to a supporting role, rather than a role as a protagonist. In other words, TI’s campaign ultimately falls into the top-down technocratic/bureaucratic trap that many centralized campaigns find themselves in: the “real” work is done by TI, while its audience—individuals with a passion for curtailing corruption—are left to “slacktivism.”
  • Second, Unmask the Corrupt does well to identify antagonists, but loses points for selecting so many of them—many of whom remain frustratingly faceless, such as Lebanon’s political system, Petrobras, FIFA, and the State of Delaware. The fact that TI selects so many “bad guys” makes it difficult to depict their antagonists’ misdeeds in colorful and compelling detail; as a result, the power of a strong antagonist is mostly lost. On a related note, TI decided to highlight almost exclusively the perpetrators of grand corruption (perhaps akin to the Kony 2012 campaign) as opposed to portraying in detail the victims of grand corruption (as a Greenpeace campaign might focus on the victims of global warming). Details of an antonist’s dastardly deeds helps fill out the antagonist’s backstory and makes that antagonist even more compelling (i.e. repulsive).
  • Ultimately, Unmask the Corrupt suffers from the defects inherent in the top-down approach that large international organizations tend to unconsciously embrace. This approach “protagonizes” the organization that creates the campaign, and leaves its audience with little agency, and, as a result, with little interest.

Janaagraha’s I Paid a Bribe does it better. I Paid a Bribe describes itself as a “unique initiative to tackle corruption by harnessing the collective energy of citizens.” The project encourages individuals to report instances in which they either paid a bribe, were requested to pay a bribe, or “met an honest officer.” These reports are compiled and presented on a map with links to detailed analytics regarding the incidence of corruption in each Indian state, and the cities within that state. Furthermore, the project provides a “bribe hotline,” through which the site’s users can share information or request advice on how to avoid paying bribes.

Since its creation, I Paid a Bribe has received a total of nearly 140,000 reports from 1071 cities in India. And its efforts have paid off. Reports are often followed up on by local press, which can lead to investigations and ultimately expulsions of corrupt officials.

While the project is successful for many reasons, including its use of innovative technology and the fact that it fills an acute social need tailored to a specific region, I Paid a Bribe’s success is due in no small part to its embrace of storytelling principles.

  • First, the protagonist is clear: I paid a bribe. By not only placing its audience in the role of the protagonist, but also acknowledging and even featuring the flaws of its lead character (who confesses his complicity), I Paid a Bribe turns the victim into the victor—a powerful narrative foundation. I Paid a Bribe avoids the tempting top-down trap Unmask the Corrupt fell into by placing itself in the role of “the mentor” (a classic and effective storytelling trope) as opposed to taking the role of protagonist. By recognizing that its audience is the hero, I Paid a Bribe sets itself up for narrative success.
  • Second, while the I Paid a Bribe antagonists’ identities aren’t quite as well defined as they are in, say, the Unmask the Corrupt campaign (which fingers some well-known political figures), the victim-protagonists’ foe is clear to those who’ve experienced corruption firsthand: corrupt officials in a specific place at a specific time engaged in a specific illegal act. This high level of specificity facilitates the development of a refined sense of indignation—in other words, it makes people angry because they’ve experienced similar situations, and angry people are compelled to act.
  • Third, the fact that I Paid a Bribe is limited to instances of its namesake illicit act, and describes that act with remarkable concreteness, means that its audience won’t get tripped up in lamenting general fraud, but can keep a razor-sharp focus on bribery and its consequences.

By taking a narrative approach more akin to that of I Paid a Bribe than Unmask the Corrupt, anticorruption advocates can expect to see better results in their own campaigns: make the victim a protagonist, pit her against a compelling and well-fleshed out antagonist, avoid universalism by setting the story in a specific context to which the audience can relate, and become a mentor to your audience.

One thought on “Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why is Corruption So Boring? (Part 2)

  1. ‘Unmask the Corrupt’ is really revolutionary slogan that may be use later on to unmask the world. But for that time, we have to sacrifice ourselves as well as the society, if we are fix in our target to eliminate corruption from this planet.
    It is not the India, but most of the developing and under developed countries are just flooded with monitory and ethical corruption. Yes, it is a poorest report of three identified masked corrupts from 2015. It may be some short of humiliation of this project. Please consider that Panama-paper related development in Indian chapter is quite silent for political reason; while it is the major weapon of Pakistani military and terrorist administrators to oust democratic politics.
    However, TI is the only organization to do something, think something and guess something to fight corruption, which is overall masked in West-economy of developed world.

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