The Leaders’ Report 2021: Key Findings – Societies Fracturing

Societies change all the time, but change since the outbreak of Covid-19 has been particularly rapid and, for many, unsettling. What happened was unfamiliar, unnatural, and outside of our shared experiences. People will need time to mentally, physically, fiscally and emotionally recover.

While there is a desire for freedom and a need to get going again, many previous social patterns will not reoccur. Life is now viewed through a different perspective. People feel less frivolous and more serious and, if the history of pandemics is a guide, society should prepare for an increase in risk aversion, religiosity and abstemiousness – but also a rise in relationship breakdowns.

Despite the desire for a return to normality, what was ‘normal’ before Covid-19 is unlikely to reflect what will be ‘normal’ post-Covid-19. The seismic shock of the pandemic has driven citizens to re-evaluate, consciously or otherwise, most aspects of their lives and question how safe and secure they feel. This has resulted in a changed, unfamiliar and, at times contradictory, world for governments to navigate.

A strained civic space

2020 was an illustration of our interdependence. It created a sense that we were all in it together – that communities were strongest and safest when standing collectively against a common enemy and working towards a shared goal.

Compliance with the restrictions placed by governments upon everyday life was often based not on personal fear of the disease but out of a desire to contribute to the safety of others: as the pandemic grew, our colleagues in Kantar noted that compliance helped ameliorate the sense of helplessness that many people were feeling.

But let’s not kid ourselves that the pandemic was a great leveller: society is continuing to fracture. While in many countries, Covid-19 revived a sense of national spirit, it also highlighted existing socio-economic divisions. Nationalism provided a morale boost for some (with the national flag serving as a security blanket and a call for pride to outweigh fear). But for others it merely confirmed the evident dividebetween those who have and those who have not (and for whom the prospect of equality has further receded).

A fleeting sense of camaraderie

Kantar’s Inside Lives qualitative study suggests that the sense of community that prevailed over individualism in 2020 is likely to be temporary. Social fabric and social cohesion remain under stress in many communities. The feeling of unity provoked by a shared enemy is starting to fragment, and existing strains in society are starting to re-emerge. In countries that have passed the peak of the pandemic, public opinion is divided between those who feel more confident about the future, and those who fear infection and are struggling to return to normal life.

As views on the pandemic started to diverge, trust in others to uphold the measures needed to prevent its spread declined. Our colleague at GroupM, Brian Wieser, noted that a concentration of negative outcomes among certain groups of people could exacerbate existing painful trends and play out in public policies related to issues including populism, vaccine nationalism, global trade and taxation. We are already seeing evidence of this happening in many parts of the world.

A danger on the doorstep

An increased sense of vulnerability and heightened sense of proximity left many people feeling more suspicious of those they live closest to. The pandemic heightened existing tensions between neighbours and in many parts of the world, increased the number of neighbourhood disputes.

Vulnerability also reshaped concepts of who we feel most connected to. The notion of community is now less about geographic proximity and more about emotional connection. Communities of interest are overtaking geographic communities as a key source of belonging and support – exacerbating a trend we identified back in 2016. This means citizens are more likely to trust people with whom they share an interest – and more likely to be suspicious of people with whom they simply share a constrained space.

A new love for local

While we may feel more distant from our immediate neighbours, there are signs – somewhat contradictorily – that the lockdown requirement to stay close to home increased people’s interest in local matters and local politics and, correspondingly, increased patronage of local shops, local services, and local media.

Born in part out of a desire for the familiar in uncertain times, people enjoyed the security and closeness that shopping in smaller retail spaces brought, knowing the business owner and salespeople they were interacting with, and engaging more with local services.

Informal locality-based online and messenger- based groups sprang up to provide opinion and updates that bypassed both mainstream media and government communication. Formal hyper-local social networking platforms such as next door – currently available in 11 countries – catered to the desire for more district-based information and engagement, although not entirely without controversy (some platforms have been accused of entrenching existing community biases and fostering discrimination).

For most citizens, however, local newspapers and their websites remained a top source of information (reaching, in the UK for example, four in ten citizens during the early stages of the pandemic), and outperforming even the reach of social media platforms (used by around a third of citizens).

A desire for expertise

In the early stages of the pandemic, fear of the unknown led specialist voices to overcome populist ones in countering fear and misinformation. The longing for expertise revealed a human need for truth and more direct communication. Trusted sources of media prevailed as citizens, temporarily at least, reached out to known sources, trusted brands, and accessible platforms and environments that provided security through familiarity.

In many countries, the most powerful pandemic spokespeople were medical and scientific experts, not politicians. Government communication responses to the pandemic in countries and territories such as Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan successfully married the appropriate technical messenger with more empathetic and people-based solutions. They combatted conspiracy theories by connecting more authentically with how vulnerable citizens wanted to be engaged and understood.

Implications for government communication

Governments face the challenge of developing an effective and consistent communication strategy that reminds people of the much-needed precautions to be taken in everyday life but, at the same time, also encourages a resumption of activity to protect the economy and limit the social impacts of lockdown. That’s a difficult and nuanced balancing act to get right – especially as citizens still need time and space to adjust to new norms and recover from the trauma of the epidemic.

As a result, expect more practical and service-oriented public communication that seeks to help solve the problems that the post-pandemic world will bring. This type of functional communication needs to be paired with more emotive messaging and to be delivered by more diverse, non-governmental voices.

In order to build a more resilient post-pandemic society, governments will need to make a stronger case for greater international co-operation on a wide range of issues from promoting vaccine equity and pandemic preparedness to fighting disinformation and conspiracy theories. Even though security and safety at home will depend increasingly on what happens overseas, promoting collaboration with other countries will be a tough sell in financially-straitened times. Governments will need to resist reverting to the mantra that charity begins at home.

An enhanced interest in local issues gives national and municipal governments the opportunity to create new community-based information and  engagement partnerships to support ongoing civic resilience. But this task is made harder by the continuing collapse in local media. The potential to better target diverse audiences at community level – and to promote more trusted local voices – is only possible if the appropriate channels continue to exist. If they don’t, governments will have to re-create them.

Combatting conspiracy theories, European Union

The pandemic saw a rise in harmful and misleading conspiracy theories on a range of issues related to Covid-19, including how the virus originated, how it is spread, alleged links to 5G telecommunications, and the impact of vaccines. Theories mostly spread online.

To address this, the European Commission and the United Nations’ cultural organisation, UNESCO, developed a programme to help citizens identify, debunk and counter conspiracy theories. It identified six factors that conspiracy theories have in common (an alleged, secret plot; a group of conspirators; ‘evidence’ that seems to support the conspiracy theory; falsely suggesting that nothing happens by accident and that there are no coincidences; that nothing is as it appears and everything is connected; that they divide the world into good or bad; and that they scapegoat people and groups).

The project also looks at why conspiracy theories flourish (they often appear as a logical explanation and bring a false sense of control or agency) and who are most susceptible to them. This includes groups that feel helpless and those with a less-developed ability to exercise critical thinking.

Next: Key Findings – Behaviours Changing

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