The New Art of Persuasion
In a world of misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, and social media conspiracies, the COVID-19 pandemic tested the limits of traditional communication methods. Justin Webb, a British broadcaster and journalist, explores the ways in which effective governments are engaging with the digital realm to ensure that they stay connected to their citizens.
"All men, by nature, desire to know,” declares the opening line of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Far be it from me to take issue with the great philosopher but … it’s not as simple as that is it? And when it comes to the communications that take place between governments and people, the idea that a simple desire for the truth — for knowledge — can be satisfied by the provision of said truth using traditional methods of dissemination, is far from obvious.
Ask Allegra Stratton. The former BBC journalist was hired by the U.K. Government to hold daily press briefings on camera in a specially constructed studio in Downing Street. She held one, a private mock up, in which she laughed about parties held by staff during national COVID-19 lockdowns. It leaked, she resigned, and the whole idea of press briefings by a named public person was binned.
The Right to Ask Questions
Part of the problem of course is politics. Where does information end and the need to question that information begin? During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.K. Government held daily briefings which were broadcast on “live” TV. But the press usually in attendance were political correspondents who tended to ask political rather than medical or scientific questions. It led some to wonder if an opportunity for light to be shed was lost in all the heat that the political reporters thrive on.
On the other hand, if a population is having its liberties curtailed, is it not perfectly legitimate that the politics of the situation are given as much weight as the science? Can the two be prised apart?
And what of all the other chatter in modern life? Of course, government communications provided the bedrock of much of the public consumption of “news” about COVID-19 and other national threats and challenges. However, the fact is that social media allows discussion that has no input from the sober scientists telling us to the best of their knowledge what is going on. On social media, anyone and everyone has an opinion. There is a famous New Yorker cartoon in which someone on an aircraft is calling out to apparently appreciative people in the seats around him, “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us — who thinks that I should fly the plane?!”
It is too easy for people in government to grin at that and hope that the message gets into people’s minds that the experts do, in some circumstances, know best. Surely they sometimes do, but equally surely in free societies, we need to be able to say clearly and loudly that they might not. People in charge of communicating actual information need to be ready to engage on platforms far removed from the calm of a radio or television studio.
The Digital Revolution
In a guest paper for Britain’s respected and independent Institute for Government think tank, Lee Cain, a former Downing Street Director of Communications under then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, called for an overhaul of government communications and media handling to ensure a “failing” system does not repeat mistakes made at the start of the pandemic.1 One of his key suggestions was an increased focus on digital communication, putting it on par with print.
In its response, the Institute agreed that there was a long way to go to make government communications properly fit for digital and visual media. As they noted, “Press notices, inscrutable tweets, and dry consultation documents are not a good way for the Government to say what it is doing and why. The Government needs access to better digital skills and to take advantage of new platforms to interact with the public.”2
Other governments around the world are there already. Fiona Weightman, Head of Communications and Public Engagement for the COVID-19 Group in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in the New Zealand Government, says their approach paid dividends during the worst of the pandemic. “There have been more than 202 million page-views on the Unite against COVID-19 (UAC) website over the past two years,” she tells me by email, “and UAC’s five social media channels have nearly 500,000 followers. To ensure everyone has access to information they need, content on the website has been translated into 27 languages and five alternative formats — New Zealand Sign Language, Large Print, Audio, Braille, and Easy Read.”
The Government of Vietnam was another early adopter of a broad social media policy to engage people during the pandemic. “The goal,” according to Nguyen Hong Sam, Editor-in-Chief of the Government Electronic Newspaper and General Director of the Government e-Portal, “is for the people to know, the people to understand, the people to believe, the people to follow, the people to do.”
The belief part of that sentence is of course crucial. Sometimes the effort is made via partners in the world of journalism who might have greater expertise or more credibility. This is most often the case when governments want to challenge material they think gives people a false impression of the truth. The European Commission wanted to counter misinformation during the Hungarian elections this year and chose the news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) to help set up and run the first fact-checking website in Hungary, known as lakmusz.hu. AFP was joined by the Hungarian website 444.hu and the Media Universalis Foundation in this endeavour.
This is part of a significant effort now being seen across a number of more open societies. And the scope of the outreach matters. The reality is that some of the biggest threats being dealt with by modern governments involve communications with a wide range of stakeholders with varying degrees of accountability and knowledge. It is not just the complexity of the message that has to be considered, it is the complexity of the world into which the message drops.
The Government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) makes that point with great clarity. Its Central Epidemic Command Centre, an agency of the National Health Command Centre, tells me by email: “The communications between our agencies and the public have become diverse, immense, and detailed. To the public, governments are no longer all-knowing and all-powerful. The people are more aware, free-thinking, and can consider issues from different angles.”
That response seems to me to bring us to a deeper issue — and it is a greater challenge than merely training people to get messages across in new ways. The problem is that the new areas of communications are fundamentally different. They operate on our brains in a manner that the old-fashioned media (such as radio, where I primarily work) do not. Crucially we are not consuming information in these spaces in the passive way that we watch television or read a newspaper.
What if People Choose to be Ignorant?
Political scientists have long discussed a human trait they call “rational ignorance”. It makes sense sometimes for people not to know things. The cost of finding them out is higher than the value to them of knowing whatever it is. It is a problem in democratic societies that need to foster a sense of social cohesion and involvement. People need to be motivated to take part.
However, might social media be fostering something even more harmful: not just rational ignorance but rational “motivated” ignorance? In other words, it suits communities of people online to live outside the normal fact-based world because it gives them a sense of belonging, status, or identity. It is not the cost of acquiring the knowledge that is the problem but the cost of having any knowledge at all. The philosopher Plato claimed that the ignorance and irrationality that accompany democracies will inevitably push them towards tyranny. Without going as far, it is possible to see ways in which social media enables this tendency in humans to enjoy not knowing things.
In a paper written for the London School of Economics last year, the scholar Daniel Williams made this key point about vaccinations and government efforts to combat ignorance and misinformation:
“For many anti-Vaxxers, anti-vaccination is not an emotionally neutral hypothesis. It is a signal of ingroup allegiance, made all the more credible by the collective persecution, ridicule, and stigma often endured by this subculture. Further, it is an intoxicating display of distrust towards, and contempt for, an out-of-touch elite. Finally, as with many conspiracy theories, it is bound up with a satisfying narrative in which a heroic David fights back against a demonic but all-powerful Goliath.”3
To the government of an open society, the solution might seem obvious. If people are ignorant, provide them with more information. If people are misinformed, combat this with accurate information and rational persuasion. However, Williams argues, persuasively in my view, that such a blunt approach does not work in the world of social media where you are communicating with entire communities who have pre-formed views on whether they trust anyone outside that community.
How common is this problem? Perhaps more common than many who do not spend their days immersed in social media might realise. That is certainly the view of the Government of Vietnam, though Nguyen Hong Sam tells me that the Government believes, these people are still a minority in the wider community: “No matter how numerous they appear, they still do not represent the mainstream of opinion in society, nor do they reflect the general aspirations of the majority of the people. The Vietnamese have a saying: ‘It rains for a long time.’ Over time, and with the patience of those around them, members of such groups will gradually realise they were wrong.”
Achieving Online Outreach
He might be right. Yet the world of government communications has never been more complex. Digital outreach is vital. Platforms that many administrators have never heard of might be hugely important to communities they want to reach. And then those platforms might disappear and be replaced. Nimbleness is key. Knowledge, too, of the places where the public are gathering, virtually, to exchange views and information about life in general.
And there must be an awareness as well of the nature of modern social media — the tendency of groups online to be hostile to information when it clashes with their world-view. Some governments are making it work and are keen to learn more. All are going to have to dip their toes into this pool or risk losing access to their public and finding themselves unable to persuade, to inform, or to communicate at all.
Finally, for journalists like me who are properly sceptical about all the “facts” any government puts on display, there has to be a place where those facts can be challenged and explored. That means interviews. I would say this, of course, given my job on radio. But platforms and messages can never do the job of proper forensic discussion of what is going on in the world. Real human beings who are accountable and visible have that capability. The Government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) pointed out, for instance, that there is still a daily press conference about the pandemic fronted by the Minister of Health and Welfare and broadcast “live”.
The digital communications world is vital, huge, and plainly here to stay. So am I and my many journalist colleagues around the world who get the chance to ask governments directly and freely about what they are doing and why. It is no longer enough but it is still vital. We are, after all, even in the digital world, still human.
1. Cain, L., 2021. Modernising the Government Communication Service. Institute for Government.
Justin Webb presents the Today Programme, the flagship of the BBC’s news output. He was the BBC North America Editor for a decade, and before that, was based in Brussels. He was for many years a roving correspondent, covering events around the entire globe. He was educated at the London School of Economics. He lives with his family in London.