Zimbabwe’s presidential election was blatantly stolen a few weeks ago*. I was thinking about it today, which is strange — there is after all almost no more discussion of the event in most public forums. This is a bit odd to me; after all a fraudulent election took place here. I remember (or think I remember) that the last time this happened (Mugabe and Zanu-PF have become seasoned manipulators of results) there was a lot more outrage. Media interest seemed a lot more intense. Then again, the election was a lot more intense, with widespread violence and many deaths in the lead up to the run-off, which never ended up occurring because Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew for his supporters’ sake.

But still – people seemed more outraged then. The topic came up more frequently. This time, we got over it pretty quickly. Even before the results came in various observers raised flags of suspicion. And when Mugabe declared he’d won by 61%, and SADC said the event “free and peaceful harmonized elections” we all shrugged and turned our collective minds to more pressing concerns.

This whole episode got me thinking about the perverse incentives created by our way of processing news. We cease to care about elections being blatantly stolen because we’ve gotten used to it. The media doesn’t spend much time on it because it’s an old story. Perversely, that then further encourages the behaviour.

The thing is, nothing is going to get Robert Mugabe our of power except for himself. But there are ways of making life tougher for him — like EU sanctions, which may lapse.** Public opinion in other countries, as frustratingly impotent as it may be, represents at this juncture one of the few potentially limiting forces for Mugabe’s reign. Certainly, regional diplomats value stability more than anything, and internal challenges are even less likely.

But the way the media is covering things and the way we talk about the events don’t just fail to put pressure on him, they encourage him and others like him. This principle doesn’t just apply for election by the way. Corruption and fraud, sex scandals — the powers that be profit when we get jaded, and draw clear lessons: manage to weather the storm of outrage when you get caught the first time. After that, each time you do it again,more and more will simply shrug and say “oh, that sly dog!” and return to their day-to day.

We create feedback loops that encourage repeat offenders, normalize behaviours we nominally condemn, and encourage perpetrators (and potential copycats, who are watching carefully) to continue as is. That doesn’t seem very helpful to me, but then I also don’t know what would change that.

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* Ok maybe it wasn’t technically stolen, because many observers think Mugabe would’ve won even without foul play – just by a much slimmer margin. Nevertheless, it seems there was some serious tampering going on. 

** The question of whether sanctions are effective or moral is a different one. In this case, some of the sanctions specifically target Mugabe and his inner circle via travel restrictions etc., but there is a debate about the extent to which broader sanctions may have hurt the economy.  More in the article linked above.