Full Spectrum Jordan: When silence isn't golden

How the government can adapt and connect

(File photo: Ameer Khalifeh/Jordan News)
A few days ago my older sister, who has four kids, messaged me asking about the new MR vaccine policy issued by the government - a WhatsApp voice message made the rounds, as they usually do, in Jordanian society, warning about the dangers of this mandatory vaccine and urging parents not to allow their kids to get vaccinated. A few days before that I was watching this theory grow and evolve on different social media platforms, specifically, on ‘Mommy groups’.  I waited for a government reaction, an urgent response aimed to capture citizen attention, connect with the people, communicate the vaccine policy and of course rebut the misinformation. But as usual the government only released their usual lengthy statements filled with bureaucratic words - and its communication failure was evident. اضافة اعلان

Misinformation moves fast, true, but authentic communication is possible, even with the speed of social media and fake news. We have a massive amount of publicly available data that can help predict such a public reaction and would have helped the government strategize and prepare for the flood of misinformation and discontent that are happening right now.

This is one case, and maybe it is one that doesn’t affect you directly. But there are many more online panics - whether created by lack of information or sparked by those spreading false information. Eventually, it affects you and endangers our nation.

Three Things You Should Know
The rise of social media and the decline of our attention span
Multiple books and studies have shown how the rise of social media has affected attention span. In 2013 Microsoft research stated the human attention span dropped from 12 to 8 seconds (technically less than a goldfish’s). We are always scrolling, always receiving notifications, pop up chat windows, voice notes, ads. So much data is flying at us, our brains cannot keep up. Yet the vast majority of Jordanians use smartphones, use social media platforms, and over 70 percent of our youth rely on social media to get news. (Jordanians over 56 still rely on TV). So what wins in this flood of online data?  Studies have shown  that emotionally grabbing content is more likely to grab our attention and go viral.  In this case what's more emotional than the well-being of our children? What could cause more panic? COVID and the global vaccine debacle proved how easily misinformation can spread, how it can move whole populations, and how trust in government was essential to a population’s acceptance of taking vaccines.

The problem is very obvious and we all are aware of it. The question is, how is our government responding?  How are they more resilient against online fake news, more adaptable, and more strategic in reaching the population with accurate and transparent information?

Strategize, don't advertise
Sometimes government communication is more like advertising, showing off a shiny accomplishment, rather than conveying information or interacting with citizens. News about meetings, a minister does a long interview on TV, an opening of a new office, a new initiative, a new campaign, a new listening tour by lecturing MPs, new legislation. But citizens don’t engage with this. They don’t have much to comment on and they don’t see how it affects their daily lives. At best, this is bland content, filler for news sites. At worst, it creates resentment among citizens who see movement but no forward motion, money is spent but without results they can see.

Strategic communications is not about pushing out positive news constantly, it is about gathering a baseline to actually understand citizen perception, see their vulnerabilities, identify the social fissures, and then respond with a framed argument. By framed argument I mean just like a window frame you set the borders of the discussion so that everything is seen through that ‘frame’. Once we know the target audience and we set our frame, let the discussion begin. It doesn’t take a fancy PR firm, it takes a lot of effort at the beginning and then it just takes discipline to implement.

How others have kept upGovernments across the world have adapted and evolved their comms strategy to better communicate their policies and get the population on board. Some failed and many succeeded. Jordan should not be an exception but in this case it is. But we deserve to be among the successes and we can be. Jordan is a country which survives on community connection, neighborhood chats, and word of mouth. We gossip about what's happening in the country at weddings, funerals, markets, and work, in taxis, and over coffee. WhatsApp and Facebook just became virtual versions of those events. We started putting our ‘over-coffee opinions’ online for the public to see - and sometimes with bad results. That’s ok. Not everyone needs to be an expert in all areas, and can still express an opinion. But the government can still provide correct information, answer citizen discontent, give context to decisions, and otherwise, well, talk with the people.

Back to the vaccine issue - the government made little to no effort to communicate strategically and properly with the nation. An official letter was sent out to schools, a public official went on a talk show (for that 56+ demographic) and so it goes. Public interaction has shifted dramatically - first with Facebook, then Twitter with short-burst opinions, then images with Instagram, then short videos with Snapchat and TikTok. Governments around the world are developing solutions to keep up. Why shouldn’t we? One particularly successful example of how governments globally have kept up is with using storytelling in communicating policies. Tips from a former smoker , Drive sober of get pulled over , click, clack, front and back! These are all great examples of how governments adopted storytelling to communicate policies and promote awareness by resonating with people on an emotional level. Go online, the country is majority youth and they are online, not watching TV morning shows. Make messages brief, knowing the short attention span of the audience, and know that citizens want a better life and want to talk about it.

My take
The speed in which information is disseminated and processed has changed many aspects of our lives. Not only do citizens have less attention span, more emotional decision-making, and much more distraction, we also have to deal with bots, echo chambers, misinformation… All of these challenges are faced by all states, big and small, across the globe. What makes the difference in successful communications is accurate information and how to use it to create a strategy.

I am certain that our government has no communications strategy. Our government advertises and doesn't strategize. Time and again, one crisis after another, the government has frozen still and produced old tools like long wandering speeches, official bureaucratic letters and or just making it illegal to do the new whatever.

We think of communications like PR - a Western politician apologizing for a recent mistake, a celebrity going to rehab, a poor lowly staff person trying to justify their boss’ recent gaffe. But a communication strategy is security, it is stability. An informed population is a secure population - an uninformed population is one at risk. An uninformed populace is easy prey for any delectable gossip or purposeful chaos. Communications is not having a Twitter account ( X? The platform formerly known as Twitter?) or giving an interview on TV. It is actually communicating - which is a two way process - where you listen to the other side and based on their rhetoric you craft your answers which fit under your strategy.

We need to understand our people’s patterns of engagement. No, this doesn't mean hopping on any platform to check the number of likes. It means detailed studies (focus groups and polling) to understand how Jordanians engage, what triggers them, and why they engage with misinformation. It means in-depth interviews with Jordanians about how they share news on WhatsApp. Then we can look at engagement on Facebook and Instagram.  Studies have shown that internationally, information sharing is a democratic practice - people generally believe what they post (even if it is false) and want the right to talk about it. Bots exist and malign campaigns exist, but a majority of the time it is real people sharing false information that they believe is true.

So, what is the case for Jordan? Government can’t keep ignoring this ever-evolving communication  and engagement style. The government’s outreach also needs to evolve.  It needs to respond using the tools and processes the people use (use images and video, be brief, be online, use message discipline, be emotional). The more data we have about how citizens get information, process it, share it, and how they determine what to believe, the better a strategy can be created. The government can control the frame of communication to ensure accurate information, not always on the defensive, acting surprised why citizens have questions or concerns.

A managed crisis is much better than an unmanaged one. Open communication with citizens rebuilds trust in institutions. In the face of declining trust in institutions, Jordan does not want to be vulnerable when addressing a crisis. Finally, there’s a lot of big things happening in Jordan that will require strategic communication and public awareness. The political modernizations are changing the shape of parliament, lowering the age of candidacy, reviving political parties and focused on involving more Jordanians in the political process. There is an economic revitalization plan. There is a plan to reform the public sector. There are also some frightening items that need strategic communication, like worsening water scarcity.

The first step is showing up (armed with data!). The next step is speaking in a way so others will pay attention to you and not just keep scrolling by and finally lead do not follow the narrative.

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