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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Robinson, MAGENTA Consulting

Why You Should be Using Social Media to Change Corrupt Behaviors

By Elizabeth Robinson

Corruption is often viewed by bureaucrats as a structural issue, requiring policy reforms and law enforcement from national or international actors. High-level oversight committees and top-down procedural revisions are the solution, so the thinking goes, to counter bribery, nepotism, fraud, and other forms of corruption that hinder economic development and equitable access to resources and opportunities. However, a top-down approach is only one way to address the challenge of corruption, and it ignores a critical element of the problem: the decisions and behaviors of those who engage in corruption themselves. Social and behavior change communication (SBCC), a form of behavior science, offers an alternative to addressing corruption by using in-depth analysis to understand why people choose to engage in corruption, and how to encourage them to stop.

Corruption is the manifestation of millions of individuals each making the decision to engage in a specific behavior, such as paying a bribe or ignoring a case of fraud. These decisions are, of course, influenced by structural factors, such as lack of transparency and ineffective law enforcement, but they are also the product of individual- and community-level factors, such as social norms around corruption, attitudes, values, and personal interests.

Afghanistan Cityscape

This is nowhere more evident than in Afghanistan, which ranks 172 out of 180 nations in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perception Index. On paper, Afghanistan has the world’s best Access to Information Law, and over the past decade and a half, has initiated dozens of national-level anticorruption commissions, hotlines, strategies, forums, and campaigns –none of which has meaningfully reduced either petty or grand corruption. Between 2012 and 2018, the proportion of Afghans who personally experienced corruption stayed roughly the same (around 25%), and the percentage of citizens who believe corruption is a major problem has increased by five percentage points since 2006. In 2018 alone, Afghan citizens—some of the poorest in the world—paid 1.65 billion US dollars in bribes, according to Afghanistan’s corruption watchdog. This is nearly twice the amount of foreign aid the United States gave to Afghanistan the same year.

Why Changing Policies Around Corruption Isn’t Enough

Band e-Amir National Park, Afghanistan

So why do national policies and ostensibly independent commissions fail to mitigate corruption? As discussed previously on this blog (for example, here and here), a critical part of the answer is because social norms and individual attitudes nevertheless perpetuate corruption. These factors make it worthwhile for any one person to engage in corrupt behaviors, and thus fail to create a social environment in which corrupt individuals are shamed and repudiated by those around them. Recent research by MAGENTA in Afghanistan (here and here) shows that Afghans do recognize corruption as morally and ethically wrong, and understand the damaging effects it has on a society and economy. However, because corrupt behaviors are implicitly accepted and tolerated by people who have formal or informal power in communities, Afghans are willing to put aside their ethical objections and employ corruption to further their own interests. While the research only focused on Afghanistan, the findings are likely relevant in other contexts.

What is an SBCC Approach, and How it Can be Used to Combat Corruption

Addressing the individual- and community-level factors that abet corruption must be a component of any anti-corruption effort. Human behavior and interactions are by no means simple, but a social and behavioral change communication (SBCC) approach can help researchers and practitioners better understand and address this part of the equation.

SBCC is based on principles of psychology, sociology, and behavioral science, and the recognition that people are not purely rational actors, but rather make choices based on the people around them, cognitive biases, and fallacies. This approach focuses on the process of and factors that affect human decision making, such as attitudes, past experiences, values, social norms, the communications environment, as well as structural factors, such as poverty and lack of that The SBCC approach studies these factors so that we can better understand why people choose to engage in certain behaviors, and in turn how to support them in choosing better ones—in this case, non-corrupt behaviors.

Most importantly, SBCC acknowledges that people can be swayed by how and through what means they receive information. SBCC prescribes using communication to encourage behavior change and promote supportive social norms in society by disseminating carefully crafted and contextualized messages through trusted channels. These channels will look different in every community, and could include everything from social media pages, TV and radio shows, and billboards, to car bumper stickers, community festivals, or rap songs. It is important to note that SBCC approaches such as these are innovative, and still being tested. These approaches have been shown to work to address other development challenges, and are now being applied to address corruption.

SBCC principles emphasize positive instead of negative messaging (e.g. “resisting bribes is part of being a good citizen,” not “paying bribes is a crime and a sin”), repeated exposure to messages through a variety of channels, and using trusted messengers such as athletes and celebrities. Using communications to amplify positive deviants—people who model the desired behavior, especially if they are few and far between—can also go a long way towards countering social norms that encourage a harmful behavior and incentivizing people to adopt the positive behavior. It is also critical that the approach be tailored for each community: while an Instagram account featuring Kim Kardashian extolling the benefits of reporting fraud could be very persuasive in the US, this would yield little traction in Afghanistan.

SBCC recognizes that changes to behaviors and social norms take time. Campaigns should extend over the course of several years and guide the audience through various phases of behavior change:

  • Pre-contemplation, when someone may not realize that hiring their underqualified nephew for a senior role is a problem.

  • Contemplation, when they start to realize there could have been a more qualified candidate and consider making the process more fair next time.

  • Preparation, when they speak with HR about how to change the hiring process in the future.

  • Action, when they implement new transparency guidelines for recruitment.

  • Maintenance, when they continuously refuse to hire their niece, who also now wants a job at the same company as her brother.

However, people can also relapse: perhaps their niece happened to come upon an extra set of plane tickets to the Bahamas that were too tempting to pass up. The key is to help them get back to the action and maintenance steps of the journey.

Further, SBCC programs should not be conducted in isolation: they work best when used to complement and support other anti-corruption initiatives. For example, an SBCC campaign could encourage citizens to use a new corruption reporting mechanism set up by the government by framing it as a way for parents to create the kind of community they want for their children. Similarly, other anticorruption initiatives and policies benefit from having an SBCC component, especially in contexts where citizens may have lost faith in the capacity and willpower of their government to effectively address corruption.

Perhaps most importantly, SBCC programs should be designed and implemented with empathy towards real human experiences, and with an understanding that people always have the freedom to make their own decisions. Often, when people choose the “wrong” behavior, they still do so for the “right” reasons, or to achieve other worthwhile aims. If an Afghan needs to pay a bribe so that his mother can access urgent medical care, he will do so—and perhaps he should do so—regardless of what formal laws or community norms say about corruption. Hopefully, there are systems to ensure that access to critical services or opportunities isn’t regulated by corruption, and legal mechanisms in place to prosecute those who nevertheless insist that it should be.

Both policy-level and individual-level interventions are needed to support meaningful social change in society. Both should be designed in light of human behavior, but the same nuances and contradictions that make SBCC a worthwhile approach also confirm that, ultimately, people are the masters of their own fate.

Cover Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay


About the Author

Elizabeth Robinson is a Senior Program Manager and the Afghanistan portfolio lead at MAGENTA Consulting, a social and behavioral change communications and research firm working across MENA, South Asia, and West Africa. She designs innovative behavioral research studies that inform communications interventions and broader policy recommendations. Her focus areas include governance, rule of law and education. A trusted expert, she leads participatory communications strategy design with stakeholders from governments, to media and civil society. Elizabeth holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Economics from Tufts University. She speaks native English, intermediate Arabic, and basic Spanish and Dari.


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