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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Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why is Corruption So Boring? (Part 1)

In 2010, a group of talented young musicians from across the globe gathered in Nairobi, with the financial support of Transparency International and Jeunesses Musicales International. Their mission: to write and record a viral hit that would not only communicate the gravity of corruption to young people (a crucial demographic for anticorruption activists), but would also make them want to share the tune with their friends. The diverse band of artists left the studio with “Against Corruption,” a reggae jam complete with Lebanese Arabic hip-hop verses and flamenco-tinged guitar riffs. You can watch the music video here, or listen to the audio here.

Despite its all-star cast and catchy hook, however, the big budget music video has been viewed just over 600 times. This kind of failure to turn big anticorruption dollars into effective campaigns that generate excitement, activism, and action on the ground isn’t unique. The anticorruption community’s proposed revolution may well be broadcast, but its soundtrack will be probably be, dare I say, boring. And as a result, few will tune in.

Why is that? What makes it so much easier to capture an audience’s imagination when speaking about issues like the refugee crisis or modern-day slavery than to tell the story of corruption, whose effects are similarly destructive?

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China’s Anticorruption Campaign Adds Popular Culture Entertainment Into its Toolbox

A TV series called In the Name of the People, featuring China’s current fight against high-level government corruption, has gone viral in China. Dubbed the Chinese House of Cards, the show reached an 8% TV viewing rate (the highest in 12 years) and by the end of April 2017, had been watched over 20 billion times across major Chinese online video platforms. The show is widely acclaimed for its quality production, intriguing storylines, and, more importantly, for its bold, vivid depiction of the ugly side of China’s political and social reality. Shows like this are not merely entertainment: popular culture, including TV shows, can be an important tool in the fight against corruption.

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Do People Care More About Corruption Than They Used To? Evidence from the US and Germany

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.): Continue reading

Guest Post: Living in a Kleptocracy–What to Expect Under President Trump

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

The news regarding President Donald Trump appointments and nominations, and the increase in foreign governments’ business at Trump properties, has caused considerable concern regarding possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption. Many are worried about what this means—if President Trump’s tendencies toward crony capitalism, or quasi-kleptocracy, are as serious as his critics fear, what can we expect will happen over the next four or eight years?

While grand corruption among the political elite may be new for US citizens, this challenge is all too familiar in many other parts of the world. As a long-time resident of Mexico and corruption scholar, I have some insight regarding life in a relatively corrupt environment, which might be relevant to what the US is about to face: Continue reading

Watching Out: Cambodian Corruption Video Documentation Where Censorship Fails

Low-cost video, and easier video distribution, simple though it sounds, is emerging as one of the premier corruption-fighting tools. This is especially true for small countries with poor track records in public integrity. Consider Cambodia. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30-year rule has been rife with graft, cronyism, land grabbing, and political violence, the government has been able to keep the extent of this hidden from most of the Cambodian public. Yet video and video-sharing services have proved one form of protest that the reigning government cannot seem to quash.

The most recent video to provoke the ire of the ruling party has low production values and little action. Three men sit at a table, one talking for the majority of the eight-minute run time about a Global Witness report’s allegations of extreme nepotism and cronyism within the ruling family. The man speaking, Kem Ley, was an opposition politician who was assassinated in broad daylight at a gas station convenience store just two days after his remarks. Many commentators immediately suspected the killing was political; these statements themselves spurred lawsuits from the ruling party. Multiple YouTube versions of the video now have several hundred thousand views each, with video news stories covering the killing tallying hundreds of thousands more. Kem’s funeral procession brought out droves of Cambodians, some reports numbering the crowd at two million (in a country of around 15 million people).

Another recent video about an anticorruption campaigner has become extremely popular despite—or perhaps because of—the government’s best efforts to stop it. The video’s subject, Chut Wutty, worked to expose illegal logging in Cambodian forests, logging that often happened with police complicity or direct participation. While accompanying journalists to show them the extent of the illegal deforestation, Wutty was shot and killed by a police officer. The low-budget documentary about his life and death was released this spring. Banned by the government, the film also quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of views and gathered plenty of attention.

In a country with state-controlled media, sparse internet connectivity, and extreme poverty, the exposure to corruption-exposing video is ad hoc but growing. Videos like these hold promise for the future of the long-struggling country for several reasons:

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Culture Matters: How Indonesia Should Account Culture to Eradicate Corruption

Corruption in Indonesia is endemic, permeating all levels of society. As I argued in my last post, Indonesia’s culture of corruption is a result of the corruption of culture: Far too many people see corruption as unsolvable and even “normal,” even though they clearly realize its wrongfulness.

To date, Indonesia’s independent anticorruption agency, the KPK, has pursued a main strategy of prosecuting the “big fish”—the high-ranking officials (including numerous parliament members and powerful politicians) whose corrupt behavior has caused massive damage to the country. Laudable though the KPK’s bold enforcement efforts have been, eradicating corruption requires more than prosecutions. Rather, the KPK needs to complement its aggressive law enforcement with preventive measures designed to change Indonesia’s “culture of corruption” to a “culture of anticorruption.” There are several strategies the KPK could pursue to foster such cultural change:

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