Public Communications Series (1)

A multi-part series of musings on communicating as governments and policy-makers, in the hyper-partisan, Internet-dominated contexts of the 21st century.

By Tolu Ogunlesi

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the challenges facing government communications in the age of Social Media. And why good news finds it so much harder to penetrate than bad.

But of course it’s rather obvious, the human mind is wired to engage more with bad news than good. Safe landing for an aircraft does not count as news, because we expect that to be the norm, but a crash-landing definitely is. It is what it is.

Military victories against Boko Haram and ISWAP do not count as news, because we expect that to be the norm. But let terrorists attack a Military Base, and you have news that reverberates, and overshadows anything remotely positive.

For example, how many people are aware of the massive wave of terrorist surrenders ongoing in Borno (more than 15,000 terrorists and their family members at the last count). Or aware of the impressive progress being made in resettling towns and communities previously sacked by the terrorists.

But let there be one ambush on a military base or convoy and it will seek to dominate every media platform for as long as possible, creating a distorted view of reality, especially for those who have no means of assessing reality outside of the mediation of popular media.

And of course this natural advantage of bad news over good is one of the best weapons that terrorists wield. They can suffer a thousand defeats that fly under the radar, but only require a single random victory to overshadow the thousand losses and the perceptions of being on the back foot.

To maintain the illusion of their success, Boko Haram only have to do a fraction of what the Military needs to do to project itself as a conquering force.

I believe this is part of what Margaret Thatcher referred to as the oxygen of Publicity, which props up terrorists and their antics, with the (unwitting?) complicity of the media.

But there’s another angle to the Bad News Domination Complex, that I’ve been thinking about. And it is the realization that aggrieved ‘customers’ are far more likely to be vocal than satisfied ones.

Think about it this way. Every time you enter your favorite Quick Service Restaurant (aka fast-food joint), and step out with your order dutifully attended to, you simply carry on with your life. You don’t turn to social media to say oh so nice, my order came out intact, and on time.

But the day you step in, and are treated rudely, order is delayed, or mixed up, think how easy it is to turn to social media to make your complaint.

Now think again about this — what happens when the only vocal people are the aggrieved, complaining ones. Satisfied customers have no need to be vocal. They enjoy the service in silence, because that is what one expects.

So, you have a situation in which the only reviews you find online of this hypothetical QSR are the negative ones, and you automatically assume that that is all there is to know about the business. The danger of a single story.

And of course, social media makes it extremely easy, effortless even, for the aggrieved to be vocal. (This is both a plus and a minus for social media, but that’s another conversation for another day).

This effortlessness of vocality you find on social media is harder to find on traditional media, defined as they are by institutional gatekeeping, and lag times between onset of impulse, and publication.

Now let’s go back to politics and government. I quickly realized that this was the phenomenon playing out in the lead-up to the 2019 Presidential elections.

It didn’t take long for accept the fact that President Buhari would never win any online presidential polls. At the time on Twitter it became a fad to do polls, listing the President and his main challengers.

Going by this theory of the aggrieved, the people opposed to PMB and APC were always going to be the most vocal occupiers of social media, and the keenest voters on a social media poll. And boy were they loud. They voted enthusiastically on every poll, meaning that PMB became a constant poll-loser.

The President’s supporters were mostly a silent majority, no real incentive to take Twitter polls as seriously as their opponents, for various reasons.

One reason may have been that PMB/APC supporters realized that ‘it’s not by Twitter Poll’. Another reason may have been that the dominance of anti-PMB voices on social media meant a lot of pro-PMBs didn’t want to have to bear the brunt of vicious online attacks directed at pro-Buhari supporters.

I for one lost count of the number of people who told me to start packing my bags in preparation for departure to Daura on May 29, 2019. (I’m not even from Daura, and I don’t have a home there, so this puzzled me deeply. Why send me back to Daura and not, say, Lagos, or Abeokuta?)

So if you had looked at social media alone, you would have been convinced that PMB was going to lose the 2019 elections. Alas, a lot of ‘analysts’ and ‘observers’, especially foreign ones, depended exclusively on Twitter sentiment, and came to the wrong conclusions, predicting what would turn out to be no more than nonsense.

But those of us who tried to look beyond social media saw beyond that particular bubble. I did a tour of the South East and South South in January 2019, just before the elections, and also attended the APC campaign rallies in Ibadan and Kano. And it was clear that Twitter concerns and obsessions often did not correspond with offline sentiments and concerns.

I think I may have strayed from my initial point. These are musings anyway, so allow me to stray and digress from time to time.

My larger point is that, aggrieved stakeholders are much likelier to be vocal about their grievances, than satisfied — or even simply un-aggrieved — stakeholders are to be about their own satisfaction, or their lack of major, life-defining grievance.

I’ve realized that, if a government policy — one involving the receipt of money — benefits 6 people out of 10, the most vocal people will still be the 4 who didn’t benefit. And there will be social media within easy reach to enable the dissemination of the grievance.

The 6 beneficiaries are very likely to keep quiet and move on quietly, while the 4 who didn’t get will go to town crying about how the opportunity was a scam or only those who are connected got it etc.

Little or no incentive for beneficiaries to announce that they benefited, because nobody likes that kind of attention. Who wants to announce to the world that they received CBN/NIRSAL/CCT/GEEP/ESP cash, really), who really needs their friends and neighbors knowing they have just got some money.

So the beneficiaries lie low or perhaps do no more than whisper their testimonies, while the non-beneficiaries dominate social media with their grievances. And then for the rest of us, all we can see online are the grievances.

And it feeds the popular perceptions that the government interventions are ‘audio’, and no one is benefiting, and We Are All Suffering and Other Stories…

Look out for Part 2, where I will try to focus on possible solutions and ways out. Knowing what we know about the mechanisms of grievance and default vocality, how can we ensure we try to tilt the balance a bit, towards more effective dissemination of government policy making and implementation, and the successes being recorded on multiple fronts.

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