Our experimental research among university students in Ukraine suggests that the communication style matters. A rather formal presentation of the negative implications of corruption does not seem to reduce acceptance meaningfully, and might in some cases even increase it by promoting awareness about its widespread existence and thus positioning it as a social norm. To the contrast, telling a personal catchy story about a victim of corruption reduced the acceptance of corruption, which was likely triggered by self-identification and emotions such as empathy.
The power of media and ambivalence towards corruption in Ukraine
About 2400 years ago, Plato published his philosophical masterpiece “The Republic”, which included a discussion about the importance of the quality of “artistic production” to counteract moral decay among the youth and the seductiveness of corruption. This might have been one of the first scholarly discussions linking media production with the social behavior of its consumers – an issue of the highest relevance in today’s world that experiences a technological and behavioral revolution in terms of media access. Those days Plato could not imagine how powerful and omnipresent “artistic production” in the form of media would become. Through the combination of social media and ever-improving internet access, audio/video production and consumption has become accessible to almost everyone around the globe. Viral amateur or professional videos can encourage thousands or even millions to protest (see the police killing of George Floyd in the USA, the pro-democracy protests in Belarus or the many actions organized by Alexey Navalny) or inspire millions to pray (see the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris).
Can online videos also be used to reduce the acceptance of fraudulent behavior and corruption in a country with endemic corruption? This is the research question underlying the online experiment we conducted among Ukrainian university students. Indeed, Ukraine appears to be an interesting country for studying corruption issues. On the one hand, corruption here is rather widespread and is present in different forms and various fields. Studies of it are abundant and can be divided into four large groups:
- oligarchic state capture and corruption in business and politics; [Aslund (2009), Aslund (2015a), Aslund (2015b), Balmaceda (2013), Wilson (2006), Wilson (2014), Melnykovska, 2015, Pleines (2016), Leipnik&Kyrychenko (2015), Denisova-Schmidt&Prytula (2018)]
- academic dishonesty including cheating, bribery and other unethical issues among students, faculty members, administration, and other stakeholders; [Ocipian (2009), Ocipian (2017), Round&Rogers (2014), Shaw et al (2014), Denisova-Schmidt et al (2018)]
- other areas of petty and grand corruption; [Neutze&Karatnitsky (2007), Kuzio, USAID report (2015), Schmid&Myshlovska (2019)]
- challenges in the implementation of anti-corruption measures and reforms [Grodeland (2010), Nasuti (2016), Lough&Dubrovskyi (2018)]
On the other hand, Ukraine is a leading country when it comes to protests against corruption. In all the mass street protests since independence (the Revolution on Granite in 1990, the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014) fighting against corruption was among the top priorities of protesters and one of the reasons behind prolonged public activity.
Thus, corruption appears in many different contexts in Ukraine. It is frequently criticized, and such criticism is used to strive for political power or to oust competitors. Issues of corruption feed popular TV shows. And of course corruption appears in its most direct form – to “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” as defined by Transparency International.
Anti-corruption campaigns can promote corruption
In our research, we are particularly interested in the apparently contradictory effects that educational interventions might produce, including promoting the acceptance of fraudulent behavior that they are actually trying to prevent and/or condemn, for instance by raising awareness of its existence.
Just imagine that one day you read a newspaper article about several corruption scandals in the local government, then the next day you watch TV news which extensively discuss petty corruption in local schools and hospitals. How would this frame of information change your attitudes towards corruption? How would it change your future behavior?
Evidence from various countries suggests that attitudes and behavior react to the salience of corruption. In an experiment conducted among students in the US, researchers found that awareness of widespread dishonest behavior increases cheating, while monetary incentives have less of an impact. Similar results emerged in an information experiment in Costa Rica. Participants who believed that everyone else was corrupt and/or who had had personal experience of corruption in the past were more likely to engage in corrupt behaviors themselves. In one of our experiments, we find similarly perverse effects from anti-corruption educational campaigns for specific representative subgroups of students in Ukraine. Namely, those who had not previously been involved in monetary corruption or deceiving faculty members apparently learned about the extent of this phenomenon from the anti-corruption materials used in the experiment and became more tolerant towards corruption. This pattern arises in yet another of our experiments conducted with students at public universities in the Russian Khabarovsk. This suggests that anti-corruption brochures or cartoons have the potential to promote a negative view of corruption among students who plagiarize frequently, but lead to increased tolerance of academic dishonesty and corruption among other students. We also found a gender effect – female students tended to have a more negative opinion about corruption than their male counterparts, and they were found to be less responsive to these types of interventions.
The potential negative effects of information or disinformation campaigns in social media have recently received a lot of attention in light of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. However, campaigning in social media might also have socially positive effects, like triggering or enhancing anti-corruption or other civic activities. In our latest article on attitudes towards corruption, we (in contrast to our previous experiments) study how different types of online anti-corruption videos can influence views on corruption among Ukrainian students participating in an online survey.
Experimenting with different videos
Using a Facebook account aimed at discussing questions of academic integrity and current issues in Ukrainian higher education, as well as some additional communication channels, we recruited students to participate in an online survey. In this survey, respondents were initially asked to answer questions about their studies, demographics and socioeconomic characteristics as well as their personal experience with and/or exposure to questionable behavior related to bribing or unsound methods in the education system. Next, the students watched a randomly chosen video on either corruption or education. Finally, the students continued with the second part of the survey, which included questions related to corruption attitudes.
We assigned a PR agency to prepare one ‘control group’ video without any discussion of corruption, which focused instead on modern means of education, and two videos shot along our guidelines that showed several typical cases of corruption. One video reported information on corruption in a way that resembles TV news or documentaries, while the other critically discussed the legitimacy of academic cheating under certain circumstances. We obtained another video on corruption from the Kyiv-based production studio 315film for non-commercial use, which reported the tragic story of a victim of corruption in a personal way, appealing to emotions and empathy. These four videos were randomly assigned to respondents in order to assess their impact on the answers to questions about corruption attitudes.
One issue we encountered during data collection was that a large share of participants did not respond to all questions but instead dropped out of the survey early. Of the 9,152 students who started answering the survey questions, only 3,034 respondents reached the end of the survey. One implication of this is that the students for whom corruption attitudes can be measured are neither representative of those who started the survey, nor of the overall student population in Ukraine. For instance, females and specific geographic regions are heavily overrepresented. On the more positive side, the decision to drop out early was, according to our statistical tests, not driven by the type of video assigned to the respondents, implying the validity of the experiment for those students who remained until the end of the survey.
Results of the study: anti-corruption message should be emotional
Descriptive statistics in our data point to substantial academic corruption among students in Ukraine: about 90% of respondents were involved to some degree in various types of cheating, plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct. At the same time, a majority believed that corruption negatively affected the economy, politics, education, health and the police in Ukraine. Furthermore, many perceived corruption to be an impediment to their own career opportunities, quality of life, education, health, and safety. For many respondents, corruption therefore seems to be an ambivalent phenomenon: most students considered corruption to be a ‘crime’ and ‘evil’, but also ‘a tradition’, ‘a way of solving problems’ and ‘a compensation for low salaries’. This is crucial because it might entail a reduced effectiveness or even failure of anti-corruption measures.
Experimental evaluation of the impact of videos showed that one of the three videos on corruption stood out in promoting a more negative attitude towards corruption when compared to the control group. It was the video with the personal story produced by 315film, which showed (a) how a student who obtained a medical degree through bribes and other fraudulent means became an unqualified physician whose mistake led to the disability of a newborn child and (b) how a person paying a bribe to a police officer might thus indirectly contribute to a system that endangers the health of one’s own children. Respondents exposed to this video more often judged corruption to be a crime, to be evil and to have a negative impact on one’s own health, security, the health care system and the Ukrainian economy.
The other two videos conveyed a less emotional message and, if anything, these two videos (and in particular the one that resembles TV news reporting) appeared to promote awareness about the existence of corruption. Our results thus suggest that presenting corruption issues in a catchy way, e.g. by means of a thrilling story that includes commonly known issues like bribing police officers, can be more effective for creating awareness about its negative consequences among students than a rational discussion of facts and figures. As a word of caution when interpreting our results, however, we emphasize again that the survey data underlying our experiment are not representative for the whole of Ukraine.
Today many corruption studies focus on the failure of anti-corruption reforms and call for innovative approaches [Ledeneva, Bratu, and Köker, 2017, Denisova-Schmidt, 2020]. Our results suggest that online educational campaigns disseminated via social media aimed at creating a strong personal identification – e.g. by relating the negative consequences of corruption to a concrete victim – might be successful in reaching young people. Moreover, this type of anticorruption intervention strategy is affordable and easy to implement. This assuages one of the main concerns of the many experts who claim that too much money is spent on anti-corruption measures in the public sector rather than on providing financial support for people who have to negotiate in these corrupt environments [Stepurko, et. al, 2015a, Stepurko, et. al, 2015b].
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have no relevant affiliations