Manipulation of expectations and economic development

Expectations play an important role in all economic development processes which are, in essence, open processes: its trajectories and outcomes are not predetermined but dependent on the action of multiple groups and individuals that are in turn influenced by information or disinformation flowing upon them. These processes have different degrees of unpredictability but they can be oriented through public policies, including interventions to shape expectations to sustain the adopted strategies. Economic processes are usually strongly influenced by expectations regarding what is supposed to happen in the mediate and immediate future . The information –true or manipulated- that people receive from the socioeconomic context shape their expectations on how certain critical aspects of economic development (local, national or global) will evolve, and those expectations influence, directly or indirectly, their social, economic and political behavior.

The ‘expectations cloud’

The way expectations are configured depends on a large amount of variables, some coming from actions of the public sector and others from the private sector and civil society, all of which is mediated by private and public media and the people’s degree of understanding regarding what is going on. The public sector generates expectations through the public policies it implements and the outcomes that emerge from its management, including the publicity of government actions and how it manages to highlight its importance and meaning for development. The private sector influences expectations through the investments it makes, the advertising it deploys and the results it manages to obtain. Civil associations, development organizations, universities and think tanks also contribute to shaping expectations. The ensemble of these and other interventions are what shape what we come to call the ‘expectations cloud’, which fully covers the development process conditioning achievements and trajectory.

The dispute over expectations (which expectations to create)

Very diverse interests coexist in every society, each one defending their own. As some expectations favor and others harm the different interests, a struggle to make some prevail over others is generated. The most experienced know what expectations are best for them to induce and which to neutralize, so they use the power they have available to influence the expectations cloud’s configuration.

The actors promoting transformational processes highlight what generates conditions to start or deepen transformations. If their messages are effective and facts go their way they manage to shape a favorable context of expectations for the transformational initiatives; if they do not, they will have to face growing difficulties in order to move forward.

On their part, forces seeking to preserve or restore the status quo seek to shape a context of expectations opposing the attempts of transformation. Since the established order favors certain sectors at the expense of the rest of society, the interests of privileged groups cannot be defended in plain sight. Therefore the strategy they usually use to generate negative expectations regarding the transformational process, and the government leading it, mainly focuses on the negative aspects that are always present in any process. By doing so they seek to divert the attention from other critical development issues that go against their own interests, the accelerated economic concentration and its enormous impacts on a growing social inequality and the permanent reproduction of poverty. To achieve this they count with the complicity of the powerful communication apparatus they control that, with greater or lesser success, seeks to stir up constant fear and frustration in the population magnifying facts that in the right proportion are of legitimate social concern; such is the case of insecurity, corruption or economic inconsistencies like inflation, capital flight or occasional consumption and investment decline. Through these actions they divert citizen claims towards problem areas that do not threaten the core of their interests.

Between those large political currents (social transformational forces and forces seeking to restore the status quo) there are actors with more eclectic positions that also participate with their own ideas, convictions and perspectives in the struggle to shape the expectations cloud that conditions the economic development’s march.

The capacity to implant expectations

The struggle to impose a certain expectations cloud is not limited to identifying which expectations are best to generate in order to defend one’s interests; it is also critical to acquire the capacity of implanting them as the people’s majority public opinion. This explains the urge to control massive means of communication that, in most countries, go through a very dangerous concentration process. The population that is subject to the media manipulation does not only vote in electoral processes (main goal of most expectation clouds), but it also makes everyday decisions on consumption, investment, political involvement and social mobilization, which highly influences the development trajectory.

Interventions to shape and sustain a certain expectations cloud are not made just once or occasionally; instead, if they are trying to be effective, they need to be constant and persevering. This applies to those who only seek to defend their own interests and privileges as well as to the social forces struggling to reach a development driven by common wellbeing and environmental care. Usually, forces defending the status quo have enough time and energy (they do not have to search for permanent innovations), resources (accumulated from the privileges they hold) and the complicity of certain media and political sectors, to indefinitely sustain their task of shaping expectations that oppose the transformational process. On their part, even though transformational forces that rule a fair share of our countries have the State apparatus they control, they must dedicate their best energies to manage innovative processes that demand constant attention and an enormous dose of creativity since they are not following already explored paths. This frequently turns out to be a problem; they cannot counteract the effectiveness of the opposition work to shape an adverse expectations cloud, which is very serious because without a permanent communication concern and intervention there is a risk that the best of transformational intentions could be suffocated or cornered half way down the line.

The mechanisms that are usually utilized to influence the expectations’ configuration are often not a matter of supplying trustworthy information but of the ability to communicate biased information without the receivers being aware of it or, if they do, without them caring. Those that inform that way do not make explicit the meaning and implications of the contents of the news they report but practice some sort of masked propaganda, using to achieve their purposes some knowledge regarding social psychology, and especially, mass psychology. This situation becomes more serious in presence of high media concentration that uses its hegemony to strongly condition public and private decision-making. This control over the configuration of massive public opinion and, therefore, over the expectations cloud, is complemented through the cooption by the privileged sectors of a good part of political parties, the judiciary, the education system and think-tanks that, as supporters of their interests (because of conviction or financing), provide an ideological and value coverage to the expectations they intend to impose.

Conditioning understanding and free will

Of course the expectations cloud does not exclusively emerge from the information manipulation since each one has his or her own capacity to try to understand processes and his or her free will to define preferences and decide how to act. The issue is that understanding and free will emerge conditioned by a large number of factors one of them being the expectations cloud we are submerged in (or that some people submerge us into). From a democratic perspective the way to alter this vicious circle is in line with an ethical and political work of constant clarification of all of us that will help modify the correlation and mobilization of forces that made it possible. It is a long-standing effort that comes along with the human condition and that generation after generation many of us take on as our own.

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