India is between two important persuasive exercises. On the one hand, the country’s health authorities have persuaded people to get vaccinated to manage the Kovid epidemic. On the other hand, despite the uproar, political parties in five states are trying to persuade voters to vote for their candidates. It is worth comparing these persuasive tactics.
On the surface, the election persuasion process includes large election rallies, posters and public announcements. But on closer inspection, it can be seen that election campaigns are excellent examples of micro-level persuasive tactics. All major political parties have household data on voters. All important decisions from the selection of candidates to the major issues to be raised in the campaign are based on the analysis of this data. All major political parties have grassroots systems to oversee household-level activities. This ground infrastructure is the foundation on which they build their electoral-persuasive processes.
The communication strategies of these political parties do not really rely on rational messages that address the economic well-being of the people. Politicians know that human lives are defined by man-made but unspoken divisions based on caste, religion and gender. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson notes in her recent book, Cast: The Lies That Divide, these emotional issues serve as an invisible guide to grammar, not only how we speak, but also how we process information, thinking about it without us. There are also many biological structures in the brain that guide behavior. The tendency to form and cooperate in groups, for example, is a behavioral tendency exhibited by multiple cellular organisms up to 600 million years old. Politicians are masters at combining these man-made disciplines with the biological structures of behavior in their persuasive process. An example of such politics is the use of Turkey’s Hagia Sofia controversy of 1453 CE in Kerala’s 2021 elections, as a means of forming groups and outsiders.
Politicians are not smart enough to devise very passionate communication strategies, they come up with equally effective media plans to propagate these messages in their voter base. In his blog post, Inside a BJP Influence Operation targeting West Bengal politics, digital investigator Benjamin Strick captures the implications of such a recent social-media campaign. The campaign was conducted in Bengali, Hindi and English. Coordinated with more than 5,000 accounts, the campaign became the most popular hashtag in 24 hours.
Now let us look at the strategy of convincing India for the Kovid vaccine. The government acknowledges that our serious second infections are due to a decline in those who adhere to covid-appropriate behavior. Why do we fail to formulate appropriate behaviors?
Policymakers identify the technical, financial, and other complexities of the problem they are dealing with. But they consider the management of human behavior to be straightforward that does not require much attention. Many studies showing how humans perceive and respond to any danger are not as clear as they seem at first glance. Humans do not consider invisible danger to be a problem at all. When humans become accustomed to a particular danger, their threat perception of it decreases. When security measures are introduced, humans see these as justifications for engaging in offensive behavior. We also know from past experience that most people who take their first vaccine shot do not take their second dose. All of these and other subtleties of behavior are known, but our policymakers continue to ignore these complexities.
There is a misconception that the challenges of human behavior such as vaccine contraction are singular and well-defined complications. They are not. Vaccine contraction is, in particular, a ‘bad problem’ that is more complicated than the virus it is fighting. Such complex issues are best managed using community level systems. Vaccine contraction must be addressed by implementing grassroots systems, just as politicians do for elections. Large data analytics of home-level data, in conjunction with the initiative of local health workers and healthcare setups, should be the full program to set up the vaccine drive. For the current state elections, the local systems of Indian political parties have been able to reach every household. If so, why can’t our policymakers give the same replica for the country’s vaccine drive?
Defending oneself and one’s group induces a significant proportion of human activity. Hundreds of millennia of human evolution are learning to avoid the dangers that surround us and thereby increase our chances of survival. The primary emotion of fear has helped save more human lives than all modern medicine drugs. Surprisingly, however, instead of using these and other emotional survival insights, policy makers are using bland rational references to guide the country’s current vaccine persuasive strategy.
Different results of these persuasive strategies are available for us to see. In many constituencies, more than 80% of voters cast ballots at polling booths. However, at the same time, there are very few nearby vaccination centers.
Biju Dominic Chief Evangelist, Fractal Analytics and Chairman, Final Mile Consulting