Last month, we headed down to Gainesville, Fla., for the annual Frank gathering of people who use communications to drive social change. This year, the conference felt more necessary than ever. Many of us in the social-change sector are looking for answers to how we continue our work in a culture that not only rejects facts and science, but one that also—thanks to sophisticated social media algorithms that tailor content specifically to our interests and the echo chambers that result—seemingly cannot distinguish between real information, unintentional misinformation and intentional disinformation.
All of this is urgently problematic as society tries to grapple with critical issues such as climate change and other complex topics that require audiences to grasp what it takes to parse evidence. Funders are increasingly interested in understanding how to deliver the right facts and messages to the right people in an ever-more-noisy environment.
A number of researchers and practitioners at Frank are working to understand these dynamics. Before the start of the conference, Media Impact Funders hosted a funder-only meeting focusing on the science of science communications—exploring why people accept or reject information, and how that might affect our storytelling strategies. Here’s what we learned.
Communicating in a sea of misinformation
In recent months, we’ve reported extensively on the increased efforts and impact of both fact-checking and fake news. We’re following the misinformation thread closely, so keep a close eye out for more resources soon.
Now that we have a more sophisticated understanding of “fake news,” we know the term is problematic. (For example, Claire Wardle of First Draft News prefers the term “misinformation ecosystem.”) The truth is we’re not just dealing with pernicious lies that are strategically meant to deceive. For some, “fake news” has become a rallying cry when they simply don’t agree with or like the information they’re receiving. It’s important to look closely at the different kinds of information informing public opinion and voting behavior.
At Frank, we heard from Brian Southwell, a senior research scientist at RTI International, Duke University and the University of North Carolina. He says misinformation is troubling for three reasons:
- We are biased toward acceptance of information—true or false. Apparently, we process information in one part of the brain and assess the validity of it in another.
- Our regulatory structure emphasizes monitoring and detection over prevention, meaning we can’t prove inaccuracies until after the fact. For example, the FCC and the FDA detect examples of violations but don’t prevent them from occurring. And, Southwell says, because we don’t live in a society that censors information, it opens the door to misinformation.
- Correction is hard. (But possible.) “To counteract an ad campaign that’s delivering harmful messages, you have to deliver the same level of counter message,” he says. “Fight fire with fire.”
“It’s a problem that’s going to take more academic research,” Southwell adds. “It’s going to require that we build trust between each other and between ourselves and our institutions … and have places to turn to be able to verify information when we have concerns about it.”
Look for Southwell’s new book, Misinformation and Mass Audiences in fall 2017.
Watch Southwell’s Frank talk:
Communicating through activism
Jamie Henn, co-founder and strategy and communications director at 350.org, is interested in the impact of movement communications—how movements can drive messages and how scientific research can be communicated through activism.
While 350.org has been experimenting with creating a social movement around climate change, Henn says the biggest question he asks himself is what actually makes for an effective campaign—especially when these organizations are up against huge opponents such as the fossil fuel industry.
“The solutions that we need for the climate crisis won’t just require breakthroughs in solar panel technology and wind turbines … but actually breakthroughs in the science of communications,” Henn said. “The circuitry of story: How we actually do our work and how we build movements in ways that can open up political space.”
The organization has tried to achieve that with Disruption, a film that preceded the People’s Climate March in 2014, which attracted about 400,000 to the streets of New York City. The goal, Henn said, was to change the climate change story from a distant scientific threat to an immediate social justice issue that impacts all of us—not just the polar bears.
Watch Henn’s Frank talk:
Using strategic communications to drive action
“We’re concerned about whether our action is inherently polarizing people,” said Shanelle Matthews, director of communications for the Black Lives Matter Global Network. “One of the things that made me curious about whether social movements could be effective in moving people to be less racist was Black Lives Matter creating direct action.”
Matthews told our funder group that it has been an uphill battle to engage people for whom science is not important, but that BLM is eager to experiment with strategies that can sustain long-term movements and eliminate harmful narratives about black people.
Matthews cited two initiatives currently in the works to help support those strategies. One is the Radical Communications Network—a list of 200 communicators across the country who are dedicated to ethically producing strategic media—and another called Channel Black, an immersive training program that’s designed to train black millennial leaders to “construct, optimize and implement strategic interventions on race.”
Watch Matthews’ Frank talk:
The impact (or lack of impact) of information
Do you text and drive despite knowing you shouldn’t? Do you eat ultra high-calorie foods despite them being clearly labeled as such? Knowing doesn’t always lead to doing (or not doing), says Dan Ariely, professor of Psychology and Behavior Economics at Duke University, who has a number of social science experiments worth reading about on his website.
At the funder meeting, Ariely gave several examples of why information (even brilliantly targeted messaging) doesn’t necessarily lead to appropriate action—and why we need to focus on more than just knowledge in order to effect change.
“Communications has fundamental limits in changing behavior,” he said. “So the first thing you need to do is start doubting that information alone works to change behavior.
“If we design the world differently, we could get people to behave differently. Changing their environment turns out to be much more effective.”
Related to that idea is the notion that too many organizations are concentrating on raising awareness about an issue without knowing how to translate that awareness into action, according to University of Florida researchers (and Frank organizers) Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand.
In the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, they write that social-change organizations need to use more science-based research to craft the right messaging to the right people and create concrete calls to action that “get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.”
Christiano and Neimand argue that there are four strategic components to achieving a successful campaign:
- Target your audience as narrowly as possible;
- Create compelling messages with clear calls to action;
- Develop a theory of change;
- Use the right messenger.
We highly recommend reading the article in full—and many thanks to our Frank hosts for helping us to organize our funder discussion.