Do the mass media win parties and candidates voters?

[By Dr Parkie Mbozi]

It is that time of the election season again.

As with any other election season, we are bombarded with all manner of multimedia campaigns whose sole purpose is to woo voters and ultimately get them adopt the desired behaviour change – voting for them. The question is, are the mass media effective in wooing voters? The answer will disappoint many ‘investors’ in these media genre during elections; it is a BIG ‘NO’ and a small ‘yes’. I will explain in a while.

Mass media are defined as “a diverse array of media technologies that reach a large audience via mass communication.” They include: television, radio, the Internet, magazines, billboards, posters and newspapers, etc. In this instance we have been subjected to a barrage of television adverts and programmes of different formats – recorded, live, etc; radio programmes of different formats too; billboards and posters of a myriad of sizes and placed on all manner of surfaces. We have also seen lots of citenge materials dressed on all manner of shapes and objects; t-shirts and other materials.

There are also numerous newspaper materials in form of adverts and other formats, including news features written by parties and candidates in the free space provided by News Diggers newspaper.

Some parties have also printed and sent numerous brochures, leaflets and other ephemeral information, education and communication (IEC) materials. The ‘new kid on the bloc’ – the Internet and its increasing accessories (online newspapers and social networking and messaging platforms – Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc) have not been spared in the current mass media frenzy. If anything, a number of candidates and party media strategists believe social media are more effective in reaching large numbers and at much lower cost. This is confirmed in a study by this author, supported by Hivos, tilted Research on The Effectiveness of Social Media as a Tool for Opening Up Spaces for Women Leaders’ Participation in Zambia.

Part of the report reads that, “The findings reveal that majority (72%) of the respondents felt that social media are more accessible to them than traditional media – radio, television and newspapers. Another majority (59 %) felt that social media are more effective for their work than all three traditional media – radio, television and newspapers. In as far as influence is concerned, in relation to mainstream media for gender activism, again majority (57 %) of the respondents said that social media are more influential.”

I said earlier that in overall, the impact of mass media on voters is in far less proportion compared to their proportion of failure. In other words, the mass media are likely to change fewer people than those they fail to change. This comes from many years of research in political communication, especially in the United States of America. The persistency of results pointing to low impact or effect of mass media on voters and audiences in general led to the emergency of the “Reinforcement Theory” and later the “Minimal effects theory”. The two theories posit that these channels do more reinforcing of what people already believe in than actual change. The impact of the mass media on people whose predisposition is already set, or minds already made, is minimal to nil.

From the works of researchers such as Meikote (1991); Klapper (1960) and Dexter and White (1964), I wrote in my MA dissertation that: ‘’Studies from all angles had begun to indicate that persuasive mass communications function far more frequently as an agent of reinforcement than an agent of change. When a given audience was exposed to particular mass communicated persuasion, reinforcement, or at least constancy of opinion, was found to be the dominant effect. Minor change or minimal effect, especially in the extreme of opinions, was found to be the next most common; and conversion was typically found to be the most rare.”

The works of the researchers further led to the conclusion that, “After decades of research, it has been proved beyond doubt that the values, opinions and attitudes people hold before being exposed to communication have great influence on their reaction to the on-coming messages. People expose themselves to communication which is in accord with their existing psychological predispositions. Their dislike for unsympathetic messages makes them reject the messages or to recast and interpret such messages to their existing views, or to forget them more readily than messages that fit their views.”

These processes have come to be known as ‘self-selection’ or ‘selective exposure’, ‘selective perception’ and ‘selective retention’. What these theories entail is that once people have made up their minds, there is very little, if any, that the mass media alone can do to change them. The persuader would have to adopt other means that are more engaging and dialogical to try and convince them. That’s where the interpersonal or face-to-face communication comes in.

Regarding the efficacy of interpersonal or person-to-person communication, three weeks ago I wrote in this column that. “From years of research, we now know that interpersonal and community communication strategies are more effective for complex stages of the behaviour change process (notably change perceptions and attitude and actual behaviour). The reason is that they allow for the IDEAL communication to occur: it includes ability for two-way cyclic communication (back-and-forth) and for transaction and exchange of words until the parties reach an agreement.”

We can relate these theories to our situations and lessons from previous elections here in Zambia. In 1991, despite all the mass mediated positive propaganda in favour of UNIP and barrage of negative propaganda against the MMD, the result was a resounding victory for the MMD and Frederick Chiluba. Fast forward to 2011, Rupiah Banda and his MMD spent massively in mass media campaigns on all State mass media, including sponsoring such TV programmes as Chanda Chimba’s so-called Stand Up for Zambia. They dressed women, youths, marketeers and even tree trunks with t-shirts, citenges, etc. The result was a resounding loss for the MMD and Banda to PF and the much-demonised Michael Sata. That loss can be summarised in the following shortest verse: Rupiah wept.

The question you may ask is, when and on whom do the mass media produce adjustive behaviour? In other words, what constitutes the small ‘yes’ I alluded to earlier? To the second part of the question, the mass media have a greater chance to change the undecided or ‘sitting on the fence’ voters or audiences generally. Relating to our current situation, the recent survey by the University of Cape Town (UCT)/Afro-barometer reported that 38.9 per cent of the Zambian voters are undecided on whom to vote for on 12th August. This 38.9 per cent, about 800,000 of the current registered voters, are most readily available for persuasion through the mass media. They are ‘up for grabs’ to the highest bidder.

In terms of the first part of the question, it has been established over time that most human actions are steeped in people’s efforts to establish a relationship with their environment. By this way of thinking, a mass mediated communication is more effective if it helps the individual to link or respond appropriately to, and satisfy his needs in, an environment. For instance, if there is ‘wind of change’, the media can be manipulated to produce positive results, such as getting voters to fit in the mood – ukwalola umwela. Or if there is desperate need for a vaccine due to high cases of COVID-19, as the case is in the country currently, the mass media are likely to produce a positive result on informing people where to go for a jab.

This environment-communication-action relationship is thus explained as follows: a given situation exists in the environment; this situation is reported by a communication that comes to the attention of individual; the individual then adjusts his behaviour in a manner calculated to satisfy some want or need.

In conclusion and to answer the question in the headline, it is an established fact that the mass media are generally weak in wooing (decided) voters. However, there are conditions which can be positively manipulated to produce desired results. The task ahead for political strategists is identifying and capitalising on these conditions. This includes identifying and targeting the swayable or undecided voters. It’s called precision communication.

The author is a researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He is reachable on pmbozi5@yahoo.com.

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