Flooding the channels: Information abundance and narrative change
Is there a conflict between how (and how fast) modern communications platforms are used and the long-term work of shifting deep narratives about the economy, race and social justice?
The internet, global media platforms, and big data offer countless new tools to authoritarian populist leaders. Disinformation and misinformation spreads rapidly. Attention is diverted by a new crisis. Doubts are cast upon news sources. Micro-targeting pushes messages at small but influential groups of local community members (or decision makers). Attention flows to emotional, not factual, statements. There are few, if any, authoritative news sources. Censorship and surveillance are widely used to both monitor information and control its movement.
We recently spoke with five people who joined Narrative Initiative and Open Society Foundations at Meeting the Populist Moment to hear how narrative practice happens in this environment. We talked about what’s working, what’s not, what they’re testing, and where communicators focus their narrative practice to better engage people when all the channels are flooded. Here’s who we interviewed:
- Ben Chin is the deputy director of Maine People’s Alliance and has played a role in development of the Maine Beacon, a website and podcast sharing information about political and policy processes that affect people in Maine while promoting community, fairness and investing in the future.
- Heather Hamilton is the founder of Shared Humanity: Countering Us vs. Them. Heather has over two decades of leadership roles in global social change campaigns and organizations.
- Magnus Ag is a human rights advocate and a researcher based in Hong Kong. He is the founder & director of Bridge Figures, a human rights project that scales the potential of artists, activists, journalists and other change agents to build bridges and break walls in a data-driven world.
- Safya Khan-Ruf is a journalist based at Hope Not Hate which opposes fascism, hate and racism with public campaigns and communications.
- Tobias Gralke joined us at Meeting the Populist Moment to share the work of Kleiner Fünf, an organization that supports and trains Germans to engage in difficult conversations and work against right-wing populism.
Narrative and information abundance
Do you agree with the premise that populist leaders gain power by flooding the channels and continually shifting focus? Do you see it happening in your own work?
Safya Khan-Ruf: Absolutely, populism has effectively harnessed the power of social media. A classic example would be Donald Trump and the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The Trump campaign at its peak was spending $1,000,000 a day on Facebook ads. Meanwhile, Trump as a presidential candidate dominated news and social media platforms.
HOPE not Hate doesn’t spend time issuing rapid responses to far-right claims and divisive messaging. But we’re conscious we must not get bogged down in responding to every outrageous claim and forgetting long-term strategy.
Magnus Ag: We’ve seen a tactical move by states from “information scarcity” to “information abundance,” as Carly Nyst and Nick Monaco among others have observed.
Undemocratic and repressive regimes have developed a form of digital authoritarianism that challenges activists and others fighting for just, fair and open societies. Both locally and globally.
I also see how nationalist populist movements in more democratic societies adopt some of the same tactics of excluding alternative narratives by flooding our digital information systems with content. It doesn’t matter whether that content is true, misleading or false.
In Hong Kong, where I am currently based, you get a sense of how frightening and powerful digital authoritarianism is. Beijing mixes digital censorship (in mainland China for now) and surveillance with trolling of Hong Kong activists and journalists, savvy social media content, and more classic nationalist mass media propaganda.
Having ceded control of information, states are seeking to exploit its abundance: monitoring their citizens online, manipulating social media, spying on journalists and activists and, now, sending online hate mobs after those who would criticize them.
– Carly Nyst, Patriotic trolling: how governments endorse hate campaigns against critics
Tobias Gralke: Yes, it’s a part of their strategy to gain public attention and shift frames through provocations and propaganda. But often their success builds on mistakes of democratic forces. In Germany, the media has given way too much attention to the so-called Alternative für Deutschland by either scandalizing it while small or later treating it as a normal party. It has never been a normal party. Also, the democratic parties have contributed to the populist’s rise by trying to occupy their topics. This has dramatically failed and increased uncertainties among the people.
We asked Heather Hamilton and Tobias Gralke about populist messaging tactics such as using fear and relying on emotion, not facts. What might progressives learn from these tactics?
Heather Hamilton: The debate about fear at Meeting the Populist Moment was interesting. There’s research that shows simply evoking mortality makes people more conservative.
A big chunk of people toggle conservative or liberal (or left/right) depending on the frame or narrative. Most people don’t focus on politics. If you (the left) use fear you push them in the opposite direction.
There is starting to be a much deeper conversation. Something that goes beyond just framing. What concerns me is that there is still a lot of quick fix thinking and not a lot of agreement on what we are for. We lack a narrative narrative story of our future vision – where we are going together.
Tobias Gralke: I agree that progressives can learn from populist communication. But I oppose the conclusion that this means copying topics, strategies, arguments or even their wording. Populists seem to have the advantage of being fast and able to communicate without any responsibility but that always involves radicalization. Their game is all about division. Progressives need to build on solidarity and inclusion.
“I agree that progressives can learn from populist communication, but I strongly oppose the conclusion that this means to copy their topics, strategies, arguments or even their wording.”
— Tobias Gralke
Heather Hamilton: The right is very good at using emotion in its communications. Noise and focus-shifting is driven by emotion, not facts. But we don’t have to copy their tactics of speed, emotion and fear. We can and should find ways to attribute causality as a central part of a larger narrative project. I’m looking to Anat Shenker-Osorio and the race-class narrative project as an example here.
The “Urgency of Now” and long-term narrative change
Does the pace of narrative practice conflict with the “urgency of now” as we face climate change and the chaos created by populist leaders?
Ben Chin: No. But all the urgent stuff has to advance a counter-narrative for it to have a long-term chance of success.
Can campaigns and organizations plan and work with communications at this pace and scale?
Safya Khan-Ruf: It’s possible but it requires a person or a team to focus on it. Organizations often don’t have funding to do that. Having someone at least partially trained in dealing with rapid communications is crucial considering the type of threat and tactics used by authoritarian populists.
Ben Chin: For sure. Everyone who has used Grassroots Policy Project’s 3 Faces of Power, and takes the third face seriously (shifting worldview) is, to some extent, well on their way to doing this.
The role of social media and whether we can (or should) keep pace there
How do you see social media networks “flooding the channels?”
Ben Chin: This is a harder question than most people assume. Social media is very individual and cult of personality based. Individuals have an easier time using social media in a populist way that really drives narratives.
Movements have shown an ability to basically construct themes and hashtags with national cultural resonance. That’s valuable but I don’t think it floods the channels in the same way an elected leader can do.
Can (or should) progressives communicate at the same pace across social media?
Ben Chin: Social has to be done at least daily so it’s about ensuring the social media stuff is done in an overarching narrative, no matter what the immediate issue is.
Safya Khan-Ruf: There doesn’t seem to be much of a choice. Communications and news are moving quickly. Progressives can only try and keep up. Unfortunately, the current model of many social media platforms “rewards” controversial comments. Social media companies are still grappling with how to control hate that leads to physical violence on their platforms.
Magnus Ag: Social media has had both enabling and constraining effects on activists around the world. We have seen an unprecedented proliferation of voices but these same voices are now targets being crowded out by state-sponsored trolls and other powerful actors with a political or economic interest in one dominant narrative.
Social media tries to anticipate what is most likely to capture your attention next. This is an essential new premise for activism and how narratives are created and changed now and in the future.
— Magnus Ag
Newspapers told you what happened yesterday. Social media, based on existing data-points associated with their profile of you, tries to anticipate what is most likely to capture your attention next. With the rising number of digital sensors in our pockets, homes and on our bodies the impact of these data-driven processes is only going to increase.
Changing, reforming and regulating social media
Can we reform social media platforms? Should we?
Safya Khan-Ruf: Social media companies have a responsibility to adapt to the ways their systems are used to cause severe harm. It is unlikely they will be willing/able to do this with no external input. Independent oversight is needed. The actors involved in promoting that change can be debated but it requires a united front from progressive organizations.
Ben Chin: Sure. They should be regulated like public utilities.
Can we change how people use and think about politics on social media?
Safya Khan-Ruf: There needs to be a greater general awareness about how social media is used and how it links to politics. This should be linked to education in schools from a young age.
Should campaigns and groups change how they use social media platforms?
Ben Chin: There are technical things that can be done to make campaigns more effective. They change all the time as the algorithms change and culture shifts. The major question for people building bases on social media is: are you willing to use a left/inclusive populism to build a multi-racial working class base. Things can go “viral” without doing that. For example, appealing to college-educated folks on social issues that are already inclined to be with us (but might struggle with our economic agenda).
The major question for people building bases on social media is: are you willing to use a left/inclusive populism to build a multi-racial working class base.
— Ben Chin
Magnus Ag: I would love to see a public social media platform that had a civic mission provide us with a diverse and global view of the world rather than maximizing for shareholder value. But that going to happen anytime soon.
Campaigns and groups can replace a market-oriented default approach to data governance with a commons-oriented approach that puts rights and sovereignty of all citizens around the world at the center.
Social change organizations should lead by example but also take this demand to the existing and dominant tech companies.
Attention is political. As an activist or as a regular person it matters where you decide to spend your attention and what platforms, structures, and interests you allow to influence that decision.
Tools and tactics
Are there tools, tactics, data or other resources that would help advocates do better in this communications environment?
Magnus Ag: Mark Hansen isn’t focused on narrative change but I suggest his book Feed-Forward to anyone working on social and narrative change. The shift to a media ecosystem built around data-driven predictions is so fundamental that most communications focused activists should incorporate it into their change models.
Read the report State-Sponsored Trolling: How Governments Are Deploying Disinformation as Part of Broader Digital Harassment Campaigns to get a better understanding of how coordinated and strategic the current digital threats and harassment faced by frontline activists and journalists are today.
At Bridge Figures, we recently did a women’s rights project in collaboration with the awe-inspiring Pakistani women’s rights activist and dancer Sheema Kermani. We amplified her voice and practice to citizens across digital, cultural, geographical borders and at scale. We are always looking for new ideas and collaborations.
Safya Khan-Ruf: There were many resources shared during Meeting the Populist Moment that are useful if you’re trying to understand authoritarian populism and storytelling.
One tactic gaining traction has been the creation of greater links and more relationships across the Atlantic. Authoritarian populism cannot be pigeon-holed to a national level. Understanding the threats ahead and how they’ve developed differently in different regions is key. Hope not Hate has been relatively successful on digital platforms through the use of rapid response short videos, released just after a far-right figure does something attention-seeking.
Ben Chin: The tool we need is the tool that integrates all the tools. There are too many tools. They don’t work together well. The whole market is based on one tool doing one interesting niche thing, hopefully hitched to a randomly successful campaign, that everyone starts to use. But that tool doesn’t really do much with all the other tools we have.
What’s working for narrative now? What could we test?
Magnus Ag: Historically, social movements have gathered in physical spaces around strong leaders to build the collective courage to overcome individual fear. But the #MeToo movement was able to amplify stories and change the narrative by the plurality of thousands of dispersed voices in many different communities. Search for #RiceBunny if you want to see how Chinese women are circumventing censorship of the original #MeToo hashtag.
Heather Hamilton: We need better thinking around assigning causality and surfacing who is responsible. Look, for example, to what the Race-Class Narrative Project has shared. Some other things we’ve seen:
- Frame us/them attacks as a tool certain people are using to divide us. This framing tests well.
- Attributing causality is central to a narrative project. But do it without using us versus them. Surface harms and attempts to divide people. Point out special interests who rig the rules.
Conceptualizations of nationality are another area to explore. National identity is a salient group identity. It transcends everything else. For example, if you look at public polling on Independence Day in the U.S. you see a decrease in polarization.
When people see joint identity they think more broadly. We need to provoke and support shared identities. Can we tell a different story of a progressive, inclusive nationalism?
Are there lessons from your experience that inform what progressives need to learn or test?
Tobias Gralke: In the U.S., you have a discussion about a left-wing or “inclusive populism.” But in my view, you cannot be a populist and a democrat at the same time. Being a populist always means a claim to sole representation of “the people” as a whole. Progressives need to practice plurality in our everyday lives and offer an imagined community of the many in reply to the idea of “the people.”
This is also what we’re trying to teach in our workshops: countering populism is not an end in itself but about gaining space to bring up your own world-view, points, and policies.