Home >Opinion >Columns >The contrast in persuasion strategies for votes and jabs

India is in the midst of two significant persuasion exercises. On one hand, the country’s health authorities are persuading people to get vaccinated to manage the covid pandemic. On the other, even while it rages, political parties in five states are trying to persuade voters to vote for their candidates in the ongoing assembly elections. It is worth comparing these persuasion strategies.

On the surface, an election persuasion process encompasses large election rallies, posters and public announcements. But on a closer look, one will realize that election campaigns are brilliant examples of micro-level persuasion strategies. All the major political parties have household-level data on voters. All important decisions, right from the selection of candidates to the core issues to be raised in the campaign are based on an analysis of this data. All major political parties have grassroot-level systems to monitor household- level activities. This ground infrastructure is the foundation on which they build their election-persuasion processes.

The communication strategies of these political parties are not really based on rational messages, like those that address people’s economic well-being. Politicians know that human lives are defined by man-made but unspoken divisions based on caste, religion and gender. As the Pulitzer-winning author Isabel Wilkerson noted in her recent book, Caste: The Lies that Divide Us, these emotive issues act as an invisible guide, like grammar, not only to how we speak, but also how we process information, without our having to think about it. There are also many biological constructs in the brain that guide behaviour. The tendency to form in-groups and cooperate within an in-group to take on out-groups, for example, is a behavioural tendency displayed by multicellular organisms for 600 million years. Politicians are masters of combining these man-made divisions with biological constructs of behaviour in their persuasion process. The use in Kerala’s 2021 polls of Turkey’s Hagia Sophia controversy, which dates back to 1453 CE, as a conduit for the creation of in-groups and out-groups is an example of such politics.

Politicians are not just clever in devising extremely evocative communication strategies, they come with equally effective media plans to propagate these messages across their voter base. In his blog post, Inside a BJP Influence Operation Targeting West Bengal Politics, digital investigator Benjamin Strick captures the intricacies of one such recent social-media campaign. The campaign was in Bengali, Hindi and English. Coordinated with more than 5,000 accounts, the campaign was amplified so much that it became a highly popular hashtag within a 24-hour period.

Now let’s look at India’s persuasion strategy for covid vaccination. The government admits that our severe second wave of infections is due to a sharp decline in people complying with covid-appropriate behaviour. But why did we fail to generate appropriate behaviours?

Policymakers acknowledge the technical, financial and other complexities of the problem they are dealing with. But they seem to consider management of human behaviour just a straight-forward affair that does not require much attention. There are numerous studies that show how human beings perceive and react to any risk is not as obvious as it may look at first glance. Humans tend not to consider an invisible risk a problem at all. As humans get used to a particular risk, their threat perceptions of it begins to diminish. When safety measures are introduced, humans often see these as justification to indulge in riskier behaviour. We also know from past experience that many who took their first vaccine shot will not take their second dose. These and other such nuances of behaviour are all known, but our policymakers continue to ignore these complexities.

There is a misperception that challenges of human behaviour, such as vaccine hesitancy, are singular and well-defined problems. They are not. Vaccine hesitancy, specifically, is a ‘wicked problem’ with greater complexity than even the virus it is fighting. Complex problems like these are best managed using community level systems. Much like what politicians do for electioneering, vaccine hesitancy should have been tackled by deploying grassroot-level systems. Big data analytics of household-level data, combined with the initiatives of local health workers and healthcare set-ups, should have been the fulcrum on which the vaccination drive ought to have been mounted. For the present state elections, it seems, the local systems of Indian political parties have managed to reach out to each and every household. If so, why couldn’t our policymakers replicate the same for the country’s vaccination drive?

Protecting oneself and one’s in-group motivates a significant proportion of human activity. Hundreds of millennia of human evolution was all about learning to avert dangers around us and thereby increasing the chances of our survival. The primal emotion of fear has helped save far more human lives than all of modern medicine put together. Surprisingly, however, instead of using these and other emotional survival insights, policymakers are using bland rational instructions to guide the country’s current vaccination persuasion strategy.

The differing results of these persuasion strategies are available for us to see. In many electoral constituencies, more than 80% of voters have cast their vote at polling booths. Yet, at the same time, nearby vaccination centres have had a very poor turnout.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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