In September, DFF held a three-day workshop exploring how digital rights activists can use different forms of communication as a tool to bolster and complement digital rights litigation. In this new series of blog posts, our trainers revisit some topics and discussions from that workshop and share their recommendations with our readers.
At this moment in time, the digital rights field is facing many challenges, and these are often portrayed to the public as part of a looming dystopic future.
While the threats to our digital rights are very real and serious, a hope-based approach to communicating our work allows us to visualise a pro-active and effective way to mount a counter-movement for the alternative future we want to build.
An alternative metanarrative
For example, work for platform accountability currently focuses on exposing the failings of big platforms like Facebook/Meta. But amidst the flow of problems brought to public attention by the Facebook papers, little coherent narrative has taken shape other than “Facebook is bad”.
The danger here is that the bigger big companies like Facebook become in the story, the more they dominate the way we think of how the internet works, filling the frame and blocking out and alternative way of seeing how things could be. This risks creating despondency – a sense that these big, unaccountable companies are inevitably beyond our control.
We need to tell people what the internet could look like if we ran it differently
What is needed is not just a story of the problem but an alternative narrative. We need to tell people what the internet could look like if we ran it differently. And crucially, we must highlight that it is in fact we, the citizens, who can decide how the internet works. If we are ever to get beyond the new “meta” narrative that Facebook’s re-branding hopes to achieve, that is the alternative metanarrative (the worldview or mindset) that we need to promote.
How traditional strategies can also change narratives
The important thing to know about narratives is that we are shaping them all the time with our words and actions, even if we do not intend to. That means that even when we are writing a press release or starting a legal action, we need to think what narrative we are feeding.
If we want to use the tool of strategic litigation successfully, we must apply a new lens to the work we are doing not just within our organisations, but also by recalibrating how we approach communications on these topics for a wider public. We need to tell a story about the values and vision that drives the case. What measures that we wanted to see have been implemented? How has our win improved the daily lives of our clients? What positive knock-on effects have we been able to observe?
…we need to ensure that strategic litigation changes perceptions of what is possible
Above all, we need to ensure that strategic litigation changes perceptions of what is possible, so that even if the case is lost, the conversation it generates will open the door to long-term changes in attitudes and behaviour.
To quote Anat Shenker-Osorio:
“Good messaging is not saying what is popular. It is making popular what needs to be said.”
For example, our successful challenge of an algorithmic decision-making process that disproportionately affected individuals from racialised and economically disadvantaged backgrounds would mean that all individuals have equal access to resources allocated by the government. If our message includes this vision of the future, it not only evokes egalitarian and humane values, but also a sense of community, which can help to reinforce those values more effectively than reason or adversarial debate.
An effective Theory of Change is dependent not only on the value of storytelling, but also on the narrative with which that story is framed. As activists and storytellers, we have a choice. We can highlight the threat or the opportunity. We can emphasise what we fight against or what we stand for. We can focus on the problem or the solution. We can aim to induce fear or inspire activism.
We can highlight the threat or the opportunity. We can emphasise what we fight against or what we stand for.
What we choose in each case matters in storytelling because it affects our audiences in different ways. And if we truly want to inspire others, it is imperative that we move away from adversarial and potentially toxic narratives to counter-narratives based on values, vision, and hope.
Hope-based communications is a pragmatic approach to winning support for policies and advocacy positions by showing how they will work. Hope-based communications acts on the principle that we should be focused on building the world we want, setting the agenda with our values, our goals, our mission.
Hope is a pragmatic strategy, informed by history, communications experts, organisers, neuroscience and cognitive linguistics. It can be applied to any strategy or campaign. It means grounding your communications in the values you stand for and a vision of the world you want to see.
Changing the narrative
Swaying public opinion is therefore one of the most important objectives that our use of strategic litigation can have. As George Orwell once wrote:
“[t]he relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out depends on the general temper in the country. If public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”
The cases we bring are not only designed to set a precedent or improve the situation of one particular client. Whether we win or lose, the message we convey surrounding that litigation should also be designed to put it into the greater context of our mission and the values we seek to enforce.
Our “upstairs” and “downstairs” brains
Hope is therefore an important factor when trying to appeal to the general public to recruit potential allies to your cause. Indeed, research in the context of neuroscience has shown that if we frame communications around notions of fear and threat, this triggers our primordial “fight or flight” defensive instincts, and activates the “downstairs brain” which evokes feelings like anxiety, worry, stress, and anger. If, instead, we frame our narratives around a sense of safety and calm, the newer and more evolved “upstairs brain” is stimulated, which is associated with more positive feelings, such as abundance, confidence and joy.
The antidote to societal pessimism is hope by painting a picture of a better future that is worth fighting for
As a result, the “downstairs brain” often leads to conservative, defensive and reactionary political impulses. Populists thrive on societal pessimism by linking solutions to a glorious past. That is because these images already exist and can be invoked in an idealised light. The antidote to societal pessimism is hope by painting a picture of a better future that is worth fighting for.
Even though we may be facing negative circumstances and a dire reality in our daily lives, if our message conveys a sentiment of impending doom, and our narrative is solely focused on what we are opposed to, we will essentially be playing into the hands of our potential, perceived or actual adversaries. If we want to generate empathy and solidarity in others, we must shift the narratives towards the feelings linked to the “upstairs brain”.
Five important shifts
To be effective, this process involves five important shifts:
Shift 1. Talk about solutions, not problems
Shift 2. Highlight what we stand for, not what we oppose
Shift 3. Create opportunities, drop threats
Shift 4. Emphasise support for heroes, not pity for victims
Shift 5. Show that “we got this”!
On a personal level, activists could, for example, ask themselves whether they feel that the world is getting better or worse. Where do we find ourselves on this spectrum and why? And what would help us to move from the more pessimistic to the more optimistic end? Or, with relation to our causes, what mindset or way of thinking do we wish was more salient with regard to the issue we are working on?
On an interpersonal level, if we wish to convey that change is possible, we must also show that there are viable solutions to create a better future. We need to be able to envision what that future could or should look like. How will society looks different after we achieve our goals?
These shifts are designed for every progressive activist, lawyer and researcher to use in their own work. Because we all have the power to change the narrative.
Thomas Coombes is a human rights communicator and the founder of hope-based communications.