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Message misunderstood: Why raising awareness of corruption can backfire

Anti-corruption strategies almost always contain an awareness raising element. A growing body of research has examined what impact such anti-corruption messaging is having. Findings suggest that resources spent on raising awareness with anti-corruption messaging may be wasted, or even do more harm than good. Research is yet to identify a communications strategy that will always work as intended. It is essential that all anti-corruption messaging learns lessons from other fields, and is always tested before being rolled out.

12 March 2023
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Message misunderstood: Why raising awareness of corruption can backfire

Main points

  • A growing body of research has examined the effectiveness of anti-corruption awareness raising messaging.
  • Research has shown that messaging focused on the scale and consequences of corruption is especially prone to ‘backfire’ by reinforcing beliefs that the problem is too big to solve.
  • Even ‘upbeat’ messaging emphasising progress made in controlling corruption has been found to make the situation worse, suggesting that a range of anti-corruption awareness raising communication may do more harm than good.
  • Many studies have also found that a variety of messages have no impact, suggesting that awareness raising efforts risk wasting resources.
  • The only way to make sure that anti-corruption communication campaigns avoid wasting money or backfiring is to test their impact on a sample of the target audience before they are communicated to the wider public.
  • Pre-deployment testing must be experimental. Only experimental tests provide a systematic estimate of the effect of exposure to messages.
  • This kind of pre-deployment message testing should be standard when developing anti-corruption awareness raising campaigns.

Cite this publication

Peiffer, C.; Cheeseman, N.; (2023) Message misunderstood: Why raising awareness of corruption can backfire. Bergen: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute (U4 Brief 2023:1)

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About the authors

Caryn Peiffer

Caryn Peiffer is Senior Lecturer in International Public Policy and Governance at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. She has worked on a wide range of issues relating to anti-corruption, specialising in the impact of anti-corruption messaging, advising organisations such as Transparency International and OECD. Her studies have been conducted in a wide range of countries including Albania, Uganda, Indonesia, Botswana, Zambia, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, and South Africa.

Twitter: @DrCarynPeiffer

Nic Cheeseman

Nic Cheeseman is a Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at Oxford University. He mainly works on democracy, elections, and development and has conducted in-country research in a range of African countries including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, but has also published on Latin America and post-communist Europe.

Twitter: @Fromagehomme


All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Paul Keller