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.

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Take Two: Will a Second Attempt at Hacking Corruption in China Work?

Late 2010 to early 2011 was the heyday for India’s “I Paid A Bribe” (IPAB) website, which encouraged Indian citizens to report personal encounters with bribe solicitation from public officials. As Rick Messick previously reported, although the site experienced its share of challenges, the fact is that IPAB worked (and even thrived at times) and continues to be operational today. For digitally-inclined anti-kleptocrats, IPAB seemed like a prime example of a bottom-up approach to tackling corruption, one that could be emulated elsewhere. But in the summer of 2011, when a handful of concerned netizens in China attempted to import the IPAB model into China’s cyberspace, their attempts almost immediately failed. While these copycat sites enjoyed a brief period of temporary government approval (or at least ambivalence), they were all shut down well within half a year of founding, with most squashed within a month.

What the initial popularity of these sites indicated was a strong desire among Chinese netizens to function as self-appointed watchdogs who sniff out incidents of government corruption. (Indeed, between 2003 and 2010, China’s most popular media source saw a 20-fold increase in the number of anticorruption-related posts.) In late 2013, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to tap into this newfound desire. The CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) created a corruption-reporting website that allowed citizens to access anticorruption laws, suggest proposals to anticorruption policy, and most importantly, “submit tips on current investigations or suspected cases of corruption.” In June 2015, the CCDI released a smartphone app version of the reporting site, which allows users to report up to 11 different categories of corrupt acts (e.g. using public funds for international travel and domestic tourism, and hosting extravagant banquets and parties), and even lets users upload pictures or videos of the act.

So will this new, Party-controlled version of crowdsourced anticorruption reporting prove more successful than its predecessor? Maybe. But there are also a number of reasons to be skeptical.

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Big Data and Anticorruption: A Great Fit

There is no shortage of buzz about Big Data in the anticorruption world. It’s everywhere — from public efforts like Transparency International’s public procurement analysis to cutting-edge private-sector FCPA compliance programs implemented by Ernst & Young. TI has blogged about Big Data and corruption, with titles like “Can Big Data Solve the World’s Problems, Including Corruption?” and “The Potential of Fighting Corruption Through Data Mining.” Ernst & Young’s conclusion is more definite: “Anti-Corruption Compliance Now Requires Big Data Analytics.”

In previous posts, contributors to this blog have written about how the anticorruption community was excited about social media-style apps (“crowdsourcing”) in anticorruption efforts. Apps like iPaidABribe allow citizens to report their encounters with corrupt officials, generating a fertile data set for anticorruption activists. Big Data is a related effort: activists can mine huge amounts of data for patterns that reveal corrupt activity, making it a powerful tool for transparency. However, as the name suggests, Big Data requires massive amounts of data in order to be useful.The anticorruption community should throw its weight behind proposals to open up data sets for Big Data analysis. As with crowdsourced anticorruption efforts, the excitement surrounding Big Data could quickly turn into disappointment unless this tool can be integrated into the broader anticorruption effort. Continue reading

Crowdsourced Anticorruption Reporting, 2.0

Crowd-based reporting tools have garnered tremendous attention for their role in anticorruption efforts all around the world. Deservedly so: these platforms harness rapidly increasing internet and mobile access in the developed world to tackle the age-old problem of corruption. Perhaps the best known of this new wave of crowdsourced reporting tools, iPaidABribe (which started in India and has been successfully recreated in other parts of the world), allows any citizen with a smartphone or other access to the internet to report bribery incidents nearly-instantaneously. Citizens can report the amount of a bribe, the recipient of the bribe, the institution that took or demanded the bribe, and so on — all anonymously. Visitors can read the reports as well as view a sort of “heat map” that aggregates the reports to demonstrate where bribery is most prevalent. The very act of broadcasting one’s own experiences with corrupt officials, and the commensurate naming-and-shaming effect this has when many such reports are aggregated, is proving to be extremely powerful.

To be sure, not all attempts to use modern internet and mobile technology to crowdsource anticorruption reporting have been as successful. Some (perhaps most) platforms never really get off the ground. Observers on this blog and elsewhere have pointed out that this may be due to a mismatch between local social conditions and the platform itself. These challenges are real, but I want to focus for now on platforms that have managed to gather and report significant data on corruption. Even in these cases, some commentators have pointed out, the full potential of crowd-based corruption reporting platforms has yet to be realized. The data they are gathering is still relatively “raw” and unprocessed by entities that could really use it — such as government anticorruption agencies. Thus it is important to highlight how these platforms can improve, and how they can avoid having their efforts thwarted by unwanted side-effects. As platform developers move past their early obstacles and start achieving real success in their primary goal — getting people to use their reporting system — the need now is to direct the platforms and their potential partners in such a way as to enhance their effectiveness and to avoid the possibility that their data will be misused. Continue reading

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. Continue reading