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Category: messaging


When we communicate, our stories at the surface look like they are perfect. But we are seldom aware of the underlying narratives that these stories also propagate and which can be harmful.

One campaign video in the US featuring a Trans woman telling a perfectly uplifting story was not producing the desired effect in the audience. More research found out that the fact that the woman was featured alone was reinforcing the stereotype that Trans people are isolated and lonely. The set-up of the video contradicted the message, and visuals always win over words. The video was shot again showing the woman surrounded by friends and at last the message hit the spot.

Identifying the underlying negative frames is not easy. The Radcomms network has issues an interesting brief on this. Here are some excerpts :

As storytellers, we may reinforce tropes that perpetuate harmful pervasive ideas even when we don’t intend to. As you craft your story, or work with someone else to share theirs, avoid contributing to the proliferation of harmful, damaging stereotypes and stories. Stories that oversimplify people’s lives are almost always harmful because they lean into these established narratives. They may include:

Deservingness: These are stories that describe an individual’s moral merit. They might focus on factors like hard work or military service to show that they “deserve” success; support; and forms of public assistance like tuition aid, housing, or food assistance. The individual may be presented as an outlier who may easily be described through harmful stereotypes, but is one of the “good ones.”

Hero stories: These stories are about a single individual who, through extraordinary commitment, generosity, and skill, is able to “save” or “fix” people who are suffering the consequences of poverty. Often, this person’s success is presented without acknowledgment of others who participated in collective action.

White saviorism: In such stories, white people provide the help that they believe BIPOC need. These kinds of stories are doubly harmful because they exacerbate privilege and deprive people of agency. They also reinforce narratives that people rather than systems require fixing, and deny the power and importance of collective action.

Fixed-pie or zero-sum: These stories are written from a perspective that there is a fixed pie of resources, and that one person or group’s gain is a loss for someone else. Language that reinforces this narrative might include phrases like “getting ahead” or “left behind”.

Success stories, including “against-all-odds”and bootstrap stories : Success stories are tempting to tell for a range of reasons. Organizations often use them to demonstrate their effectiveness (in which case, they become savior stories) or to gain support from donors. These stories can be harmful because they can create an impression that if anyone can succeed against impossible barriers, everyone should.

Photo credit: Guilia Forsythe – Creative Commons

Reframing the narrative: 6 case-studies and recommendations

The Opportunity Agenda embarked on a six-part narrative research study to explore how narratives over sensitive social issues can change. 

Below are the key recommendations they took from their work. The full studies can be accessed here.


  • Design a long-term strategy that is rooted in values. By clearly communicating what was at stake in the form of core values, many of the actors in these campaigns were able to speak to their audiences’ value systems and emotions. Doing so enabled them to organize their messaging around a constant theme over the long term and use that framework to identify the stories and statistics they needed, depending on the circumstances or messaging opportunity.
  • Know and analyze the counternarrative. While this may seem obvious—we are all too familiar with the narratives that work against our strategies—it’s important to take a moment to assess what is really resonating with audiences about the counternarrative.
  • Identify and dismantle the assumptions the counternarrative relies on. Anti-death penalty advocates keyed into their opponents’ reliance on what was “working” in the criminal justice system. By focusing on that pragmatism, they were able to flip the script to point out the ways that the death penalty was actually an amplified result of so many things that weren’t working in the system, particularly when it came to racial bias. By throwing into question the assumption that the system was fair, they were able to undermine confidence in execution as a penalty and successfully argue, in many cases, for its abolition. The anti-rape movement began by taking these assumptions head-on and working to dismantle the various “rape myths” that pervaded society. By finding ways to consistently counter these dominant ideas about sexual violence, advocates were able to change the conversation, to some extent, in court rooms, pop culture and everyday conversations.
  • Establish your own frame and tell an affirmative story. While counternarratives and external factors beyond the direct control of advocates appear to play a significant role in shaping narratives, these studies also indicate that the advocates best positioned to respond to unpredictable external variables—or the activity of the opposition—all gained ground following the adoption of offensive communications strategies.
    In the case of both the anti-death penalty and anti-gun movements, going on the offensive changed the game. Armed with an effective communications strategy, advocates can reset the terms of the debate and make considerable headway in challenging the efficacy of the death penalty and the imagined dominance of the National Rifle Association. While the anti-rape movement began very much in reaction to rampant myths and the resulting harmful policies and behavior, advocates were able to reframe the debate into a narrative of empowerment and justice. While still being against something—sexual violence and harassment—the narrative started to become more about being for equal treatment and accountability.
  • Center the voices of those who are most affected and connect them to systemic solutions. In the cases of the #MeToo, racial profiling, and anti-gun violence movements, the strategy of spotlighting survivors’ stories was a crucial part of developing the narrative. Equally important, from a strategic viewpoint, was linking those stories to systemic solutions to avoid asking audiences only for sympathy for the individuals involved. Instead, advocates were able to present systemic solutions that would require policy-level change. Also strategic is bringing in new, unexpected messengers, as anti-death penalty advocates did when forming alliances with families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty
  • Broaden the implications of the problem and the benefits of the solution. While it is important from both a narrative and ethical standpoint to center the voices of the people who are most affected, it is also important to compel audiences to see how these issues affect us all. Living in a society that does not tolerate racial bias in the criminal justice system, sexual violence and harassment, the gun violence epidemic to continue to cost so many lives, the inhumane treatment of animals, or people living in extreme poverty in our wealthy nation is better for us all if we want to consider ourselves a nation of conscience.
  • Make a clear plan, but be ready to be nimble. One of the clearest takeaways from our analysis has been the significant variation in the tools and tactics adopted between cases, in large part due to the significant role of external/unpredictable factors. For instance, in the case of the death penalty, overarching discourse shifted significantly due to crime rates and scientific developments (specifically, DNA analysis). Advocates adopted and shifted tactics as a result of these external tipping points with varying degrees of success. Animal rights activists had long protested whale captivity, as well as other use of animals in captivity for entertainment purposes. By leveraging Blackfish, they were able to take what started as a successful documentary and quickly create an entire campaign. The question remains if they could have taken it further by pushing a larger narrative about captivity that may have then become useful with the somewhat unexpected success of the 2020 series Tiger King.

Fighting back disinformation

Like many of us, you might be facing attacks from opponents consisting of lies, propaganda, and other forms of disinformation.

A natural response is often to snap back with the truth. But one of the foundational principles in communication is that the “currency” of communication is not Truth, but Meaning.

So what is to be done, to reclaim people’s awareness of the reality?

This article from Nonprofit Quarterly offers interesting leads.

In a nutshell, the lessons are:

  1. Train people who do your comms in how disinformation works. Especially, train them to  not repeat the disinformation: denying that “homosexuality is not a sin” just serves to reinforce the connection between the two elements in the unconscious mind of the audiences
  2. Listen to how your own community spreads disinformation: Some lies are obvious and will be automatically screened. But some are subtle and might be spread by your own community. Make sure you also scrutinise what your own “field” is saying.
  3. Be serious about monitoring the field: disinformation spreads like a bush fire. Reacting too late is useless. There are some good tools out there to help you react in real time. 
  4. Disinformation engages feelings, like fear and excitement. Make sure your own comms do the same.
  5. Being reactive is good. Being proactive is better. Plan disinformation before it happens, and you will help “inoculate” your audience. Again, there are good tools out there to help.
  6. Collaborate across organisations to build on each other’s knowledge and expertise in fighting disinformation

Defanging Disinformation: 6 Action Steps Nonprofits Can Take


January 26, 2021

On January 6, some of us watched the storming of the Capitol with horror and surprise. Others of us watched with horror and resignation—an awful feeling that this was an inevitable outcome of the past four years of increasing right-wing extremism and surging disinformation incited by President Donald Trump.

In a BuzzFeed article entitled “In 2020, Disinformation Broke the US,” reporter Jane Lytvynenko recapped a perfect storm of disinformation that led to this point. Conspiracy theories around a “plandemic” shadowed scientific research about the novel coronavirus and how it spread across the globe. Racist lies about antifa-led violence marred the beauty of mass global protests for Black lives. Trump and his GOP loyalists’ attacks on the integrity of the elections eclipsed conversation on record voter turnout. Together, these streams of disinformation have undermined trust in public-serving institutions and even our democracy as a whole.

Disinformation like this has been effective in part because it preys on the raw emotion of fear. In moments of heightened uncertainty, disinformation offers easy scapegoats and appeals to a primal “us versus them” mentality. Disinformation also depends on old and often racialized narratives to gain traction in people’s minds and in the public debate. For example, false claims of voter fraud piggyback off of old narratives about government corruption and Black and brown criminality. “Plandemic” disinformation relies upon anti-Asian and anti-communist narratives. Because of this, we need to combat disinformation not only at the level of social media posts, news articles, and communications platforms, but also at the broader level of narrative strategy.

Over the past four years, we have seen facts take a beating from a number of abusers. But of course, disinformation did not begin in 2020, or even in 2016. As Steven Pool writes in the Guardian, there has never been “a golden age of perfect transparency.” Misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and hoaxes can be traced back to ancient Rome.

Today, we are in a particularly evolved (or devolved) era where we’re plagued with what Claire Wardle of First Draft calls “Information Disorder.” The US as a nation has contributed a great deal to this global state of affairs. It has also contributed much of the technology through which disinformation propagates while remaining relatively buffered from its effects, until now. Renowned Philippine journalist Maria Ressa has characterized the current American confrontation with Orwellian disinformation as blowback, saying “Silicon Valley’s sins have come home to roost.”

The disinformation we’re facing today is no less than a technology-assisted form of soft power and social control. Dr. Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, defines disinformation as “the creation and distribution of intentionally false information for political ends.” Bad actors seed false information online by manipulating algorithms and relying on unwitting actors to spread it, creating cascades and echo chambers where the misinformation is reinforced. The result is a spectrum of harmful impacts, from general confusion to vaccine rejection to the radicalization of white nationalists. All the while, harmful narratives of scarcity, competition, and survival of the fittest become more deeply entrenched.

There’s an old adage that says, “A lie can travel around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” and these days, those analog lies have the power of billions of bots and digitally connected humans behind them. The pandemic has put more and more people across the globe online for more hours in the day and has limited our access to trusted community sources of information that relied on in-person connections, such as church gatherings and neighborhood meetings. Disinformation now travels at the speed of the internet and has been shown to spread faster than the truth. In this context, disinformation is becoming more effective at generating chaos and seeding doubt in reality.

But we can fight back. And as mission-driven institutions committed to uplifting unifying values, the nonprofit sector has an important role to play.

In this context, we offer six action steps for nonprofits to combat disinformation, defend democracy, and build narrative power for progressive change:

1. Train staff and stakeholders in disinformation literacy.

Much like a virus, disinformation can only spread through susceptible hosts. We can help our staff and stakeholders inoculate themselves and their communities by training them to recognize misinformation and disinformation, and to resist the urge to share it.

There is a wealth of existing tools for nonprofits to draw on to build disinformation literacy in our organizations. Donovan and her colleagues created the excellent Media Manipulation Casebook with examples of disinformation campaigns and how they have spread. ReFrame and PEN America created a Disinfo Defense Toolkit with election-specific as well as general tools for building disinformation literacy.

In Minnesota, ISAIAH Communications Director JaNaé Bates says they first and foremost train staff and members to use their own “Spidey senses” and deeply held values to detect disinformation designed to harm their communities. Specifically, they use the Race/Class Narrative curriculum to train organizers, influencers, and member leaders to help them recognize and respond to racist dog-whistles.

Bates also started a disinformation alert newsletter with Faith in Minnesota and statewide partners. The newsletter, Repugnant, features a pug dog who calls out disinformation and racially coded dog whistles. One of the issues was titled “Don’t use the F word”; it advised readers to avoid repeating the word “fraud” at all costs when talking about voting—even when trying to debunk claims of voter fraud. This is because repetition of words like “fraud” directly contributes to disinformation around voter fraud, both by increasing the volume of conversation around fraud, and by reinforcing the cognitive frame of fraud.

This is one key mechanism by which disinformation spreads—through humans more than bots, and sometimes these humans are actually trying to debunk the disinformation by sharing it. If nothing else, nonprofits must train our stakeholders to not feed disinformation to the algorithms, and to share vetted and engaging stories that advance our larger narratives instead.

2. Listen for misinformation in your communities.

Oftentimes, full-blown disinformation streams begin as murmurs within our own communities. Nonprofits can add methods to listen for misinformation to the feedback and communication loops you already have with the communities you serve. ReFrame has created a START [Strategic Threat Analysis and Response] tool to help nonprofits document this process.

For example, organizers with Florida for All created a Slack channel that allows volunteers to record misinformation they hear from community members they call and text. Other methods include creating a misinformation tip form on your website or putting out a call for direct messages about misinformation through your social media accounts. If you have a communications person or team, they might devote a half hour every day to scanning social media channels for misinformation shared by followers and allies.

3. Integrate real-time narrative research into your program work.

Since disinformation can go from low chatter to trending topic in an internet minute, it’s critical for nonprofits to have access to real-time research on these trends. To this end, nonprofits can develop partnerships with institutions that conduct research on how conversations spread. This research can help keep your organizational communications from amplifying brewing disinformation and can indicate areas of political education or training necessary to inoculate stakeholders against new trends. This research can also inform new areas of work like the platform accountability campaigns run by MediaJustice and Kairos and the disinformation-specific program work of The Leadership Conference and United We Dream.

Potential partnerships abound: Research institutions like First Draft News specialize in daily and weekly research on disinformation trends. The Shorenstein Center conducts research on how disinformation spreads through various corners and various types of actors of the internet. ReFrame and its sister c4, This Is Signals, conduct research on narrative weather trends that include disinformation as well as trends in broader stories and conversation.

ReFrame and This Is Signals’ approach, adapted from Upwell, combines machine intelligence with human intelligence to monitor the “narrative weather” and to track conversations over time. The tools used for machine intelligence scrape data from different platforms (YouTube, Twitter, reddit, news sites, etc.) to yield broad trends such as spikes in conversation on topics like “police” or “socialism.” Then, researchers apply human intelligence to home in on the content of these conversations among specific audiences (for example: what Black elders 65–80 years old were saying about police after George Floyd was murdered, or what Venezuelans on the right versus the left were saying about socialism in the month before the presidential election). Taken together, these methods allow researchers to aggregate what people are saying and where they are saying it to identify what is resonating and what isn’t with different audiences in moments across time.

Groups in Florida partnered with ReFrame and This is Signals during the election to apply this research. Natalia Jaramillo and Jonathan Alingu of Florida for All both identified the pairing of narrative research and constituent-based communications as best practices.

“Yes, let’s have our content banks and messaging guides,” says Alingu. “And we need the ingredients to adapt and tailor messages in real time to different constituencies.”

“We tried to feed the research into spokesperson prep and media appearances,” says Jaramillo. “We have to invest in infrastructure that allows us to be more spot on and respond to the emerging conversations, and that doesn’t treat communities as a monolith.”

4. Tell stories that engage feelings.

We also need to up the emotional content of our storytelling. While we can’t just fight disinformation with content, no matter how constituency-specific it may be, we can make sure that the content we do create has more impact.

Disinformation travels faster than factual information in part because of sensationalism, which activates people to share out of deep emotional impulses like fear and excitement. Disinformation streams give new emotional urgency to old narratives and thrive in voids of clear, factual, and equally emotional information. Therefore, our content must engage feelings, but rather than prey on fear, our content can focus on movement-building emotions like joy, rage, humor, and pride. We can do this without giving into sensationalism because there is so much authentic emotion in our work. Examples include the Movement for Black Lives’ GOTV content and victory video.

The secret lies in not being afraid to focus on individual characters and relationships who represent larger communities and issues. In work with the Disinfo Defense League, Donovan has used the example of sharing accurate information about voting by explaining how your grandmother is going to vote, rather than just sharing the dry facts.

5. Fill the voids, and plan ahead to prevent the spread.

Here is how Alingu is thinking about future integration with nonprofits in Florida:

We need to incorporate disinformation research into opposition planning and support members in critical thinking. We also need to look at information voids and make sure we’re communicating with people to fill those voids, because otherwise what fills those voids is disinformation.

We know that once disinformation is amplified, it’s difficult to erase its impacts; once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s hard to squeeze it back in. So, as much as possible, we have to prevent disinformation from spreading as early as possible in the chain of amplification, and provide accurate information to spread in its stead. To accomplish this requires planning.

Nonprofits can incorporate disinformation defense into various levels of planning to inoculate communities against disinformation for the long term. All it takes is knowing what makes the communities you serve vulnerable, and proactively moving narratives that are both explanatory and values-based to create a foundation of inspired understanding that leaves no room for disinformation to creep in.

For example, in Florida, when Alingu talks about information voids, one of the voids they identified was a lack of information reaching eligible Black voters that both acknowledged historical conditions of voter suppression and offered detailed information to help people overcome these obstacles. What thrived in that void was disinformation about rigged elections that ultimately discouraged some from coming out and voting at all. Alingu says he will apply this lesson to planning for future electoral campaigns and for their upcoming legislative sessions.

6. Collaborate across organizations.

When we asked Donovan about the role of community organizers and nonprofits in combating disinformation, she replied, “While I know the pandemic will end, or at least we will manage it through treatment and vaccines, I do not know how misinformation-at-scale will be slowed without a similar whole-of-society approach.”

One hub in this approach is the Disinfo Defense League. The League was started last year by the Media and Democracy Action Fund to fill a void in the larger disinformation field and to focus specifically on disinformation targeting communities of color heading into the 2020 election. This is an important formation for nonprofits to connect with, contribute to, and learn from.

Organizations interested in collaborating in the fight against disinformation can develop specific partnerships to share research, collaborate on communications, co-create narrative strategies, and train overlapping constituencies. Whether we are focused on slowing the spread of misinformation specifically or on shifting the narrative terrain to make it more hostile to the manipulation of facts, it will take a whole ecosystem response to seed new trust in our institutions and our democracy.

Unchecked disinformation poses an existential threat to our society as a whole. But the same technology that allows for the spread of disinformation also allows for the spread of beauty, connection, and collaborative creation that was completely unfathomable to our ancestors.

Similar to responding to pandemics, we cannot rely solely on the efforts of a few good people or a few good organizations to beat back disinformation. Neither can we solely rely on one network of organizations, nor the self-regulation of social media giants. We can take steps to curb the rising influence of disinformation, and we also need to challenge and overturn old narratives that give disinformation a foothold in the public imagination. In their place, we can seed new narratives that reflect the aspirational values of a vibrant multiracial democracy.

Jen Soriano, Co-Founder of ReFrame and MediaJustice, is a writer and nonprofit consultant who has spent twenty years doing cultural and political work to shift narratives toward justice. 

Hermelinda Cortés (she/they), Program Director at ReFrame and This Is Signals, is a strategist working at the crossroads of politics, culture, and narrative to build powerful movements towards the liberated world we and future generations deserve.

Joseph Phelan, Co-Founder and Executive Director of ReFrame, is a creative strategist grounded in social movements working towards liberation for all people and the planet. 

A 7-step framework for advocacy messaging

This article was written for Thetilt.org

How a seven-step toolbox on shifting migration narratives can help us achieve lasting change.

By Genevieve Sauberli and Christina MacGillivray

When you hear the word ‘migrant’ or ‘migration’ what images come to mind? We’ve asked that question many times and the answer is always similar; the images that come to mind are often of people suffering — in camps, boats, or immigration detention. These associations are linked to a dominant narrative based on political rhetoric, media reporting and public discourse. This narrative has one main flaw, its propensity towards ‘othering’ migrants — be it directly or indirectly — reinforcing a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Needless to say, othering narratives on migration have direct impacts on the lives of migrants and our societies. These narratives have been difficult to shift for a range of reasons, including a desire to protect ‘our rights’ before those of ‘others’.

Human rights are not a zero-sum game in which we can only protect our rights at the expense of another person’s. The more we increase rights protection for all, the more they become available to everyone.

The solutions to systemic exclusion should be sought not only in legal and policy work, but also in our way of seeing and talking about the world.

This is how, a few years ago, UN Human Rights started looking to narrative change and working with a broad range of partners from the media, creative arts, advertising and civil society to find new ways to push for change. As a result, we developed #StandUp4Migrants, a seven-step toolbox for changing the narrative on migrants and migration.

Launched on International Migrants Day 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for new stories on migration, emphasizing the need for, “Stories that inspire and connect us, rather than tearing us further apart; stories that paint a hopeful picture of the future we share and stories told by migrants themselves.”

Targeted at anyone who wants to bring about change, the seven steps outline practical guidance through providing information, inspiring examples, ideas for action and activities to complement strategic communications and policy work.

UN Human Rights created its own vision of the world based on hope, kindness and solidarity.

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The first step is to define a positive and hope-based vision that will serve as a constant guide for our work. It focuses on shifting our communications away from what we do not want to see and assuming our role in showing people that a different world is possible. Research demonstrates people are more likely to act if shown positive images and given an opportunity to be part of something larger over negativity and threats. By shifting from the negative towards a vision of hope we can better inspire others to act.

For example, imagine you commissioned a painting. At first, you told the artist all of things you did not want included in the painting, for example no more immigration detention and no more deaths at sea, what would this painting look like?

Then imagine you shifted to telling the artist what you actually want in the painting, for example people with the same rights, women’s health centres, free access to healthcare. What would this painting look like?

Use human rights as a starting point to move the migration conversation from “the other” to “we” and thereby construct a counter-narrative of “us”.

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Often we think we can sway our audience by simply presenting facts, and yes, evidence-based arguments are key, especially in policy-making. We make sense of the world according to our existing beliefs, values and experiences. This is why two people can have entirely different understandings of the same fact.

In order for messages on divisive issues such as migration to resonate, this step helps us identify the values we share with our audience. By speaking to these values — instead of simply arguing facts and figures — we are in a better position to open conversations and sway our audience.

Telling stories can be a compelling way to encourage people to visualize and empathize with migrant experiences.

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Humans are hardwired for stories, they help bring abstract concepts to life. At its most basic level a story is simply comprised of characters taking actions motivated by values. The stories we share should be an extension of the values we share with our audience. By telling the stories of individual migrants and the communities that welcome them, we can engender greater empathy and understanding in our audience. Providing platforms for migrants to share their stories is a vital part of this.

Find innovative ways to showcase specific local and personal encounters that promote solidarity with migrants, show their boundedness in communities, and underline the power of shared values in connecting people.

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The local level — where we live and interact — provides some of the most powerful potential to shift away from an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ narrative towards a more inclusive ‘us’. At the local level we are able to relate to individuals instead of issues. It is much harder to ignore or reject a real person sharing their personal life experience than it is to make divisive comments on social media about issues and groups that seem far away. This step therefore encourages us to find opportunities for people to come together in shared community spaces or activities and to elevate stories of what we have in common.

“Enabling Narratives” provide opportunities for people to feel that their actions, such as to welcome migrants or to support structural change in migration policies, will make a difference.

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Finding common ground on issues as contentious as migration is key to deepen mutual understanding, empathy and recognizing potential for a joint way forward. This step suggests meeting people where they are. What does the world look like through someone else’s eyes? Developing a nuanced understanding of our audience’s concerns, experiences and values comes with listening and dialogue.

Galvanize the support of diverse parts of society using frames or values that are relatable and adaptable across sectors while maintaining relevance to migration.

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Sometimes we limit ourselves by only focusing on ‘our issues’ and don’t look for allies beyond these. Many individuals and groups share our values and interests across business, media, trade unions, advocacy groups and advertising. By joining together in a broad coalition we can broaden our reach and multiply our stories.

Be aware of unconscious bias in messaging, and avoid discrimination.

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Changing the narrative is not a math problem where if we simply apply a formula we will get a perfect solution. It requires adapting strategies to different situations. This step highlights some key guidelines to avoid inadvertently reinforcing harmful narratives and ensure migrants are not reduced to their ‘migrant-ness’ or other ‘boxes’. The language, images and stories we share all play a role in this. Testing our messages in advance of a broad release can help ensure our audience understands the message in the way we’ve intended.

This toolbox is meant to serve as a living resource. If you have inspiring examples to share, would like to run workshops based on the tools or are interested in learning more, we would love to hear from you. Join us in standing up for migrants’ rights and expanding collective action for narrative change!

Genevieve Sauberli is a Human Rights Officer on human rights and migration with the UN Human Rights Office. Christina MacGillivray is a media consultant on human rights and migration with the United Nations Human Rights Office.

Illustrations by Ellena Ekarahendy

The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

What will make people care for you?

As a campaigner, you deeply care about your subject. And your ultimate goal in (that part of your) life is to get as many other people as possible to share your concern, and take action with you. But there are many misconceptions about how to do this. We share here a couple of clever insights that we pulled out of the article “What makes people care” from the Stanford Social Innovation Review.


First tip: Informing people doesn’t work

Social service organisations collectively spend millions of dollars each year on communications that focus on informing people. Sadly, these kinds of efforts ignore the scientific principles of what motivates engagement, belief, and behavior change. Consequently, a lot of that money and effort invested in communications is wasted.

Research from multiple disciplines tells us that people engage and consume information that affirms their identities and aligns with their deeply held values and worldview, and avoid or reject information that challenges or threatens them.

Research tells us that people are really good at avoiding information for three reasons: It makes them feel bad; it obligates them to do something they do not want to do; or it threatens their identity, values, and worldview.

People seek information that makes them feel good about themselves and allows them to be a better version of themselves. If you start with this understanding of the human mind and behavior, you can design campaigns that help people see where your values intersect and how the issues you are working on matter to them.

For example, researchers have found that people anticipating feeling pride in helping the environment were more likely to take positive action than those anticipating guilt for having failed to do so.1 

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” poet and writer Maya Angelou once said. Research backs her up. To gain influence on your issue, you’ll need to understand what compels people to invest their attention, emotion, and action. If you’re going to make a difference, you have to use the science of what makes people care as the foundation of your strategy.

Second Tip: Move from monologue to dialogue

When you walk into a crowded cocktail party, you do not loudly introduce yourself and spout facts and opinions from the middle of the room. Instead, you grab a drink, scan the room, and look for a conversation or group that interests you. You sidle up, listen for a while, and—when you have something to add—join the conversation. Organizations often aim their communication efforts toward building their own profile with messages and tactics that are more about them than about the issue they’ve set out to address and the audience they are addressing. They are essentially walking into a party, announcing their presence, and asking people to pay attention.

This requires advocates to move beyond a focus on building and disseminating a message to stepping into the world of their target community. Think of communication less as a megaphone and more as a gift to your audience. Does it help them solve a problem? Does it make them feel good about themselves or see themselves as they want to be seen? Does it connect to how they see the world and provide solutions that are actionable? If we want people to engage and take action, we have to connect to what they care about and how they see themselves.


1 Claudia R. Schneider, Lisa Zaval, Elke U. Weber, and Ezra M. Markowitz, “The influence of anticipated pride and guilt on pro-environmental decision making,” PLOS One, vol. 12, no. 11, 2017.

Online course “Communications for Advocacy” in 6 languages

Sogicampaigns and the PITCH program (Aidsfonds/Frontline Aids/Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) are launching a free 10-lesson online course on Communications for Advocacy. 

This course s based on insights of hundreds of campaigners worldwide and aims to help activists and advocates to truly engage, rally and influence people to their advocacy cause. 

The course contains many examples of successful campaigns, many exciting and inspiring videos, interactive exercises, quizzes, and concludes with a 10-step plan to build your communications for advocacy strategy.


We encourage all creative campaigners to check it out: If you think your communication can be improved, it will give you many ideas and examples and will guide you in becoming more strategic about your communication. If you think your communication is already ahead of the curve, this course will help you test your assumptions, and maybe challenge you on some aspects.

Access the online course in EnglishRussianPortugueseBahasa IndonesiaVietnameseBurmese



From megaphone to mosaic: five principles for narrative communications

By Alice Sachrajda & Thomas Coombes

from “The TILT, Reframing Human Rights for the 21st Century”

How can civil society groups and charities apply narrative work in practice? Based on our work with migration groups in the UK during the pandemic, we believe a crucial step is more narrative synergy between organisations that share the same values. Scroll right to the end for practical steps and more information about how you can get involved in collective narrative change.

Have you ever looked closely at a detailed painting and then slowly stepped back to see the picture take shape and come alive before your eyes? It’s a magical feeling when the smaller component parts complement each other and align to create a unified whole. This is what happens with an intricate mosaic, where small individual tiles collectively merge to create an image that is striking to behold.

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The same synergistic principle applies to narratives. We communicate by sharing our messages and stories, but it is their accumulation over time that form lasting, memorable narratives. When we communicate strategically we need to think not just about how we craft our own message, but also how we are adding to a greater whole and strengthening shared narratives in the process. In short: to be strategic we need to be synergistic.

As the Narrative Initiative writes:

“What tiles are to mosaics, stories are to narratives. The relationship is symbiotic; stories bring narratives to life by making them relatable and accessible, while narratives infuse stories with deeper meaning.”

Elena Blackmore, writing for PIRC, has also used this metaphor to powerful effect where she writes perceptively about #BlackLivesMatter and the response that is required to change harmful narrative mosaics:

“This is the narrative mosaic of white supremacy and it comprises hundreds of years’ worth of tiles of violent history. We can understand a narrative in this way: as a ‘coherent system of stories’.”

If communications work is about crafting the right kinds of words, visuals and feelings to get a message across, then strategic communications is about stepping back and thinking about the big ideas, attitudes and behaviours we want to shift. This means thinking not just about promoting the work of our own organisation, but choosing the right stories to tell about what is happening in the world today. This means communications based more around moments than on campaigns.

These reflections are based on recent work with Unbound Philanthropy and Migration Exchange during the pandemic. We have been working to help activist groups apply narrative messaging around Covid-19 produced by communications experts such as Anat Shenker-OsorioPIRCFrameworks Institute and IMIX to their daily work. And we have been having deep conversations about narrative change through our Narrative Working Group (NARWHAL) convenings, curated by Phoebe Tickell.

Thinking of narratives as mosaics leads us to collective communications strategy

If a narrative is a mosaic, our communications must build it up tile by tile.

Every day is a new opportunity to find new tiles to add. These tiles can be planned and created by your organisation. They might also come from an ally or from grass-roots supporters.

Creating new, striking narrative mosaics requires as many people as possible offering up the same sorts of ideas, creating images that bring to life our shared values and exchanging stories that reflect our worldview.

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We have designed a messaging house to help guide this process, drawing on the idea of a Larger Us developed by Alex Evans at the Collective Psychology Project as a way of articulating what unites groups working on human rights, environment, poverty, racial justice and others in common cause.

This messaging house contains simple “common sense” ideas that we can all repeat over and over again, and bring to life in stories, videos, drawings and graphics (find out more about the messaging house by scrolling down to the practical steps below).

We use a messaging house applies the mosaic principle because rather than asking every group to use shared branding or slogans, we instead invite everyone to inject a little bit of the spirit of our shared worldview into their work.

Applying mosaics-thinking to our communications strategies is crucial if we want to change narratives.

Getting the wording of our messages right is important, but communications is often about more than words: it is about images, stories and emotions stirred by cultural products.

Five principles for creating narrative mosaics with strategic communications

There are five principles we’ve learnt from mosaic-making that help us to get to the heart and soul of strategic communications. We explore and unpack each of these principles in more detail, below:

  • Principle 1: We need to unite around shared messages that capture the spirit of our communication. It takes many different tiles to make a mosaic. If all our tiles relay conflicting messages, our tiles will simply form a blur from which no narrative emerges. Only by constantly reinforcing a complimentary, shared worldview with stories and frames on a daily basis can we make our narrative salient enough to stand out.
  • Principle 2: We need to capitalise on key moments that arise — tapping into the zeitgeist, rather than purely relying on engineering the focus. Mosaic-makers innovate all the time. We need to be open to raising up what works and what resonates in response to key moments.
  • Principle 3: We need to build up powerful bonds of reciprocity. Building a mosaic is about elevating and building on motifs that work, and generating new, iterative content as a result. Reciprocity builds strong supportive networks, helps to further the message of a Larger Us and demonstrates that we are making progress together.
  • Principle 4: Apply the rule of thirdsThere is sometimes magic to be found in placing the subject off-centre, resisting the urge of pushing problems to the front and centre.
  • Principle 5: We need to accumulate multiple stories and messages. Mosaics are created by adding together multiple smaller parts, some of which are plain and reinforcing, peppering our communications with bursts of creative inspiration. Sometimes we need to experiment many times over to hit upon a powerful message that truly resonates. Everyone can add their tile to the narrative mosaic, even by retweeting another post or asking your supporters share some positive news.

Principle 1: Uniting around the spirit of shared worldviews

Andamento is the ability to capture the mood and ‘feel’ of the overall piece, described as follows by one mosaic expert:

“Never mind the design — a design is a design — but pay attention to what is going on in the background of a mosaic and it is there that you will find the melody, the choreography, the spirit of a mosaic.”

The same applies in our strategic communications: Messages are important, just as the design helps to create the overall picture; but it is also vital to capture the ‘andamento’ i.e. the spirit or the overall ‘feel’ of the piece. This is about more than just crafting and framing our words and projecting them out to all who will listen. Instead, it’s about working together, collectively, to achieve a bigger, shared objective: It’s about making our communication fizz with energy and sing out in symphony.

The message of ‘a Larger Us’ needs to be at the heart of our strategic communications work. It is more than just a design feature; it is the ‘andamento’ — the spirit that should pulsate through all our communications.

Many campaigns start from a ‘them and us’ frame, and there is power in mobilising people to join a side who share a common enemy or opponent. But we are not as polarised as we might think. The vast majority of us are kind, well-meaning individuals who can unite around shared, transcendental values built on love, kindness and care that need to be at the heart of all our messaging if we want them to be more powerful factors in our politics.

The team at PIRC has done tests showing that thinking the best of human nature helps support for social change. Rutger Bregman, author of HumanKind, reminds us of the goodness of human nature and warns us that pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy:

If you look at empirical evidence then you find that assuming the best in other people gets you the best results.”

Covid-19 has taught us that we are all in this together. If we want to highlight just how marginal extremists really are, we must proportionately balance stories of extremism with those that show we are part of a Larger Us, rather than a ‘them and us’.

While we have to counter the threat of extremists, calling them ‘the opposition’ or ‘the other side’ gives credence to what is a minority view, worthy neither of these terms, nor of a dominant place in our mosaic.

Elevating the voices of those who share and express the message that we are united, connected and hopeful is kryptonite to extremists who seek to divide us.

Principle 2. Thinking in moments, rather than campaigns

Signature campaigns are one way to change narratives, but small, daily stories that capture people’s attention and create a “word of mouth” buzz are vital tiles that add to narrative mosaic. Rather than international theme days and other planned events, these stories and content are relevant to the spirit of the times. On social media these are known as “moments”.

Moments have the added benefit of authenticity. Moments are not just a condensed part of a news cycle, they are something happening in people’s lives. Campaigns, by contrast, are something we plan inside our organisations. Moments can be an influential figure like the footballer Marcus Rashford taking a stand on a principle like free meals for children from poor families over the summer holidays or K-Pop stars ruining a Trump rally. Or everyday people doing something that gets people talking, like banging plates on their balconies during Covid_19. These moments tend to capture the zeitgeist of a particular time, and reveal something we already know or feel about ourselves and our societies.

The significance of moments is that they act like a spark in a tinderbox. They ignite passion in people and can often be the precursor to political or policy change, and in some cases can go on to create powerful movements, as we saw with #MeToo, #TimesUp and more recently with #BlackLivesMatter. We need to be ready to spot and amplify these moments when they arise. This means finding unusual allies, acknowledging the power and influence of public figures and recognising the significance of popular culture in catalysing social change.

We also need to sustain these moments and make sure that changes are woven into the fabric of our systems and structures. In particular, we each have a a duty to ensure that racial justice is woven into our conversations about narrative change.

Principle 3. Building up powerful bonds of reciprocity

Behavioural scientists often remind us of the intense power of reciprocity. It is one of the strongest social norms we have in our society. As Matthew D. Lieberman, author of Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, reminds us:

“If someone does you a favor, you feel obligated to return the favor at some point, and with strangers we actually feel a bit anxious until we have repaid this debt. This is why car salesmen will always offer you a cup of coffee.”

We can use this intuitive need to reciprocate with one another in our communications. If you want others to elevate and share your work, start by doing the same for others.

No one organisation can make a narrative salient by itself.

Even if you can secure coverage in a big news outlet, or the support of a celebrity influencer, it takes sustained repetition of ideas across multiple channels and platforms to achieve salience. We all need to share each other’s stories and content for it to have a chance of impacting how people think, feel and behave.

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Organisations, activists, artists and other people who share common causes can together create and source content that contributes to our narrative mosaics. This is about reciprocity: we all need to repeat each other’s ideas for them to become “common sense” narratives that people internalise and share. No organisation can, or should, try to produce this flow of content themselves, nor should they think they can distribute that content wide enough on their own. When we see something that reinforces our shared ‘Larger Us’ worldview from another messenger, we should flex every comms muscle we have to make it seen and talked about.

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Fortunately, myriad NGOs, charities and movements do not need to agree to the exact same talking points, slogans and hashtags. But they can articulate a shared vision and basic values they are working towards. All the different stories, reports and other outputs can then reinforce our shared idea of how the world works and should be. In other words, we can agree what we want the mosaic to look like, and then create tiles of our own that contribute to it, in our own different ways.

Principle 4. Give your subject space to breathe

Artists often work to a ‘rule of thirds’ principle, and mosaics are no exception. The act of off-setting the subject paradoxically helps to give it greater prominence. We can learn from this principle in our communications work. By off-setting we give our subject room to breathe.

Mosaic-makers create impact by moving the main focus of the design at least one third of the way towards the edge. Communicators can learn from that by not always pushing political divisions and social problems to the fore, but letting them sit slightly to the side of more personal and multi-faceted stories, in which the people affected by problems are not defined solely by them. This draws the audience in, touches them on a more emotional level and allows them to feel empathy, rather than pity, for the people we want to support. People who have moved to a country generally want to be seen as people, not as migrants or refugees. Make the audience care about the person first, and then invite them to relate to the situation.

In the new series New Neighbours about newcomers to Europe and the people who welcome them, the story is about the emerging relationships. The issues are there but they are not foregrounded, allowing alternative possibilities to become apparent.

Principle 5. Accumulation of stories

As George Lakoff teaches us, if your communication is based on narratives you disagree with, you risk reinforcing these negative narratives. He encourages us to make the moral case for our positions with the same values that we want to activate in all audiences, built on empathy, responsibility and hope. We know that critiquing stereotypical stories only reinforces them, that we need a flow of surprising stories that create a mosaic of tolerance and appreciation for others. In today’s media environment we can elevate myriad voices and empower people to tell their story, their way.

It’s the accumulation of different stories that makes a narrative. We should think of our communications outputs as tiles that need to be true to the spirit of the mosaic that is our narrative and our values, rather than a single canvas that needs to be perfected like a masterpiece. You cannot fit the whole mosaic on one tile, and not every story needs to capture every aspect of an issue.

We can share one story of a successful refugeeone story of a migrant who is helping out, just getting by with help from the community, and another who is grateful, if that is the emotion they themselves want to express. We also need stories of people who are not on the move, but are welcoming to those who are. Just as individual tiles need to be true to the spirit of a mosaic, we can be guided in selecting these stories by our own values, basic ethical guidelines and a desire to let people speak for themselves.

Practical steps for a mosaic-movement approach to narrative change

Step one: Agree on simple messaging

The first step is a set of shared messages, leading with the same values. The specifics of our messaging may vary for different audiences and contexts, but there are universal ideas and values that we all identify with. Articulating these will help us to respond to what is happening in the world today — to “message this moment” in the words of Anat Shenker-Osorio.

That is why we designed a simple messaging house to describe the ‘Larger Us’ messaging that ties together the values underlying migration work with other causes like climate change, social and racial justice and equality and inclusion.

We find this format of the messaging house helpful because it focuses attention on one, predominant umbrella message (in this case a Larger Us) and then explores three sub-messages that help to strengthen the overall proposition.

A messaging house focuses your communications on the ideas you want to get to get across, rather than reacting to the loudest voices or being derailed by cynical questions. It is built around our values so it can be applied to any issue or situation, keeping you “on-message”, as well as “on-narrative”. The fact that we are all connected to one another as human beings is just as important a principle to climate change as it is to migration and racial justice.

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Do take a look at the messaging house and see how you can apply it to your work. There is even a blank version you can use to adapt and apply the ‘Larger Us’ messaging to your own communications. We are happy for it to be an iterative tool and we welcome you to use it and add your comments, adjustments and input.

Step two: Organize content creators

Messaging is the starting point, but we need more than words to reach a mass audience. We need to elevate the actual stories happening in the world today that illustrate our messages without needing to use our jargon.

To that end, we can organise our supporters to be our chief storytellers. You can send them this simple cheat sheet to explain what kind of stories they can tell. That way, when they see a moment, for example, of cooperation between communities, they can take out their phone and tell the story themselves on social media. You can then elevate the best ones.

Creative artistic content can also bring our messages to life in emotive ways that may resonate with people the way political messages do not. A creative brief for cultural creators can inspire the people who can paint more beautiful tiles for our shared mosaic. For example, you can give artists and designers who want to support our cause this creative brief to articulate what you stand for, but leave them the creativity to bring those values to life in their own authentic way.

During the pandemic, for example, Fine Acts commissioned artists around the world to create small, simple works of art that would inspire hope, inviting people to print them into posters and sharing on social media. They are now curating works in support of Black Lives Matter.

Dancing Fox has a new project called “We were made for these times” combining art and stories that help us imagine a better world. To make people believe in the things we are calling for, we need the help of creative people to help them visualise what society will look like after our solutions are in place.

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Step 3: Gather and curate stories

When we see a moment that reinforces our shared narrative, we need to get people talking about it. And we also need to ensure that we have a diverse range of people telling and sharing their stories. Getting news media to cover those stories is a crucial step, reaching new audiences and giving them credibility. But once we secure that coverage, we need people to share that news story. Getting the media hit is only half the work, we have to push it out on social media to drive “word of mouth” buzz around it if it is to become a salient “moment” that grows our narrative mosaic.

It is on all of us to work together to build the mosaic. There are two basic things you can do to play your part:

You can add stories you think will build up the ‘Larger Us’ mosaic in this story bank, whether you see them in the news or hear about them happening at grass-roots level.

For example, the Relationships Project has created the Spirit of Lockdown storybook to gather “the moments when we’ve noticed one another, as we have seldom noticed before.”

You can share stories that are already in the story bank, as well as stories you see from other activists and organisations, through your personal and organisational social media channels. You can use this messaging.

Step 4: Salience via distribution

We want as many people as possible to see the videos produced for the Britain Connects and New Neighbours series because they encapsulate the idea of ‘a Larger Us’. We should be sharing them through organic social media posts, sending it to others to ask them to share as well and even buying ads of our own to make sure more people who are likely to share them further also see them. That is how positive narratives around migration will become salient.

If you have the resources, you can also run social media adverts to make sure people see and share the stories, running ads to these audiences we feel are most likely to share positive migration stories. Erica Chenoweth has written that successful non-violent civil disobedience requires activating only 3.5% of the population. We can use that same principle in trying to target the stories we want shared to those most likely to spread the word.

Ask your supporters, friends and allies to add tiles of their own. You can use mail-outs and whatsapp groups to ask them to share on-message stories with their friends. We can have a greater impact encouraging a wide community of people to share the same sorts of stories. The smallest, simplest small stories from their daily lives are all small stones that make up the mosaic.

An implication of this approach is that we also focus audience research on our closest supporters, not just persuadables or extremists. Our base, after all, are the people most likely to articulate our narrative to other people and bring it to life through their actions.

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In summary, civil society and charities need to be better at working together to make the most of the resources we have at our disposal to get the message out. In the words of The Narrative Initiative we need to “connect a narrative “nervous system” of collaborators.”

Are the press releases, tweets and videos we put out every day contributing to a shared mosaic, or are we simply all tiling our own bathrooms? If we want to change narratives, we can start by working together, particularly at the level of communications team. For example, the network of the people who actually run the social media accounts of the world’s biggest international NGOs set up earlier this year by Valeriia Voshchevska and Dante Licona is a perfect space to achieve reciprocity in our communications.

What happens next?

We can all work together to share values of empathy, kindness, equality, inclusion and solidarity. We can do this through a list of ‘Larger Us’ social media influencers who all agree to regularly share stories that are on-message. We can funnel stories to this list by getting grass roots organisations and cultural groups to see this as a resource when they want to elevate their work.

As a first step for building narrative reciprocity, we have created a common global space for anyone who wants to build ‘Larger Us’ narratives. If you are interested in our ideas, please share your thoughts below or get in touch here. We look forward to hearing from you!

The Crazy World of Biases

This article was written by Buster Benson and includes links to connect to his profile, website and publications

We definitely encourage you to follow his very smart insights into human psychology

A few key take aways :

  1. There is too much information out there. When presented with new information, we absorb the one that fits what we already know and discard the rest
  2. We trust ourselves and mistrust others: everything that comes from our side is seen as right, and what comes from others sides as wrong. This makes changing very difficult and makes “inside manipulation” very easy.
  3. Relatedly, we think we know what others are thinking. But this is often based on comparison to what we think ourselves: this leads us to think that people from other groups disagree with us, when maybe they actually don’t.

Human biases control our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. It’s impossible to campaign without being a master in understanding biases.

Happy reading !

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet : Because thinking is difficult

I’ve spent many years referencing Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases whenever I have a hunch that a certain type of thinking is an official bias but I can’t recall the name or details. It’s been an invaluable reference for helping me identify the hidden flaws in my own thinking. Nothing else I’ve come across seems to be both as comprehensive and as succinct.

However, honestly, the Wikipedia page is a bit of a tangled mess. Despite trying to absorb the information of this page many times over the years, very little of it seems to stick. I often scan it and feel like I’m not able to find the bias I’m looking for, and then quickly forget what I’ve learned. I think this has to do with how the page has organically evolved over the years. Today, it groups 175 biases into vague categories (decision-making biases, social biases, memory errors, etc) that don’t really feel mutually exclusive to me, and then lists them alphabetically within categories. There are duplicates a-plenty, and many similar biases with different names, scattered willy-nilly.

I’ve taken some time over the last four weeks (I’m on paternity leave) to try to more deeply absorb and understand this list, and to try to come up with a simpler, clearer organizing structure to hang these biases off of. Reading deeply about various biases has given my brain something to chew on while I bounce little Louie to sleep.

I started with the raw list of the 175 biases and added them all to a spreadsheet, then took another pass removing duplicates, and grouping similar biases (like bizarreness effect and humor effect) or complementary biases (like optimism bias and pessimism bias). The list came down to about 20 unique biased mental strategies that we use for very specific reasons.

I made several different attempts to try to group these 20 or so at a higher level, and eventually landed on grouping them by the general mental problem that they were attempting to address. Every cognitive bias is there for a reason — primarily to save our brains time or energy. If you look at them by the problem they’re trying to solve, it becomes a lot easier to understand why they exist, how they’re useful, and the trade-offs (and resulting mental errors) that they introduce.

Four problems that biases help us address:

Information overload, lack of meaning, the need to act fast, and how to know what needs to be remembered for later.

Problem 1: Too much information.

There is just too much information in the world, we have no choice but to filter almost all of it out. Our brain uses a few simple tricks to pick out the bits of information that are most likely going to be useful in some way.

Problem 2: Not enough meaning.

The world is very confusing, and we end up only seeing a tiny sliver of it, but we need to make some sense of it in order to survive. Once the reduced stream of information comes in, we connect the dots, fill in the gaps with stuff we already think we know, and update our mental models of the world.

Problem 3: Need to act fast.

We’re constrained by time and information, and yet we can’t let that paralyze us. Without the ability to act fast in the face of uncertainty, we surely would have perished as a species long ago. With every piece of new information, we need to do our best to assess our ability to affect the situation, apply it to decisions, simulate the future to predict what might happen next, and otherwise act on our new insight.

Problem 4: What should we remember?

There’s too much information in the universe. We can only afford to keep around the bits that are most likely to prove useful in the future. We need to make constant bets and trade-offs around what we try to remember and what we forget. For example, we prefer generalizations over specifics because they take up less space. When there are lots of irreducible details, we pick out a few standout items to save and discard the rest. What we save here is what is most likely to inform our filters related to problem 1’s information overload, as well as inform what comes to mind during the processes mentioned in problem 2 around filling in incomplete information. It’s all self-reinforcing.

Great, how am I supposed to remember all of this?

You don’t have to. But you can start by remembering these four giant problems our brains have evolved to deal with over the last few million years (and maybe bookmark this page if you want to occasionally reference it for the exact bias you’re looking for):

  1. Information overload sucks, so we aggressively filter. Noise becomes signal.
  2. Lack of meaning is confusing, so we fill in the gaps. Signal becomes a story.
  3. Need to act fast lest we lose our chance, so we jump to conclusions. Stories become decisions.
  4. This isn’t getting easier, so we try to remember the important bits. Decisions inform our mental models of the world.

In order to avoid drowning in information overload, our brains need to skim and filter insane amounts of information and quickly, almost effortlessly, decide which few things in that firehose are actually important and call those out.

In order to construct meaning out of the bits and pieces of information that come to our attention, we need to fill in the gaps, and map it all to our existing mental models. In the meantime we also need to make sure that it all stays relatively stable and as accurate as possible.

In order to act fast, our brains need to make split-second decisions that could impact our chances for survival, security, or success, and feel confident that we can make things happen.

And in order to keep doing all of this as efficiently as possible, our brains need to remember the most important and useful bits of new information and inform the other systems so they can adapt and improve over time, but no more than that.

Sounds pretty useful! So what’s the downside?

In addition to the four problems, it would be useful to remember these four truths about how our solutions to these problems have problems of their own:

  1. We don’t see everything. Some of the information we filter out is actually useful and important.
  2. Our search for meaning can conjure illusions. We sometimes imagine details that were filled in by our assumptions, and construct meaning and stories that aren’t really there.
  3. Quick decisions can be seriously flawed. Some of the quick reactions and decisions we jump to are unfair, self-serving, and counter-productive.
  4. Our memory reinforces errors. Some of the stuff we remember for later just makes all of the above systems more biased, and more damaging to our thought processes.

By keeping the four problems with the world and the four consequences of our brain’s strategy to solve them, the availability heuristic (and, specifically, the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon) will ensure that we notice our own biases more often. If you visit this page to refresh your mind every once in a while, the spacing effect will help underline some of these thought patterns so that our bias blind spot and naïve realism is kept in check.

Nothing we do can make the 4 problems go away (until we have a way to expand our minds’ computational power and memory storage to match that of the universe) but if we accept that we are permanently biased, but that there’s room for improvement, confirmation bias will continue to help us find evidence that supports this, which will ultimately lead us to better understanding ourselves.

“Since learning about confirmation bias, I keep seeing it everywhere!”

Cognitive biases are just tools, useful in the right contexts, harmful in others. They’re the only tools we’ve got, and they’re even pretty good at what they’re meant to do. We might as well get familiar with them and even appreciate that we at least have some ability to process the universe with our mysterious brains.

A couple days after posting this, John Manoogian III asked if it would be okay to do a “diagrammatic poster remix” of it, to which I of course said YES to. Here’s what he came up with:


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If you feel so inclined, you can buy a poster-version of the above image here. If you want to play around with the data in JSON format, you can do that here.

To get notifications about progress on the book that is evolving out of this post, and future bias-related news, sign up here.

TikTok – leading LGBTQ youth platform!

TikTok, the app famous for launching newly out rapper Lil Nas X, is a space where many LGBTQ teens feel safe to come out and connect. The best part? Their parents aren’t on it

This Peter may not be Peter Parker, but he is St. Louis, Missouri’s very own Amazing Spider-Man. The 17-year-old recent high school graduate is a member of the Spider-Gang, a cohort of devotees to the comic book character. He’s amassed nearly 21,000 followers on TikTok, the popular new social app whose young users have built massive followings by creating and remixing funny short-form videos.

Peter, who posts under the handle @crashlovesyou, has found his niche slinging webs in a Spidey suit at conventions around the country. He could be a stand-in for Spider-Man: Far From Home actor Tom Holland: He looks, talks and even shares the same name as the fictional webbed warrior. But at the end of Pride Month, Peter cautiously announced one major difference to his TikTok followers.

“TikTok allows us teens to express ourselves more openly, because the majority of our parents don’t know about it,” says Karol, a 17-year-old from Connecticut.


Karol is an up-and-coming TikTok creator with 33,000 followers. But offline, her friends and family don’t know she’s posting satirical videos about being the “disappointing” lesbian daughter of straight Catholic parents. “Parents are on Instagram a lot now,” Karol says. “So in a way, TikTok is definitely ‘gayer’ than Instagram.”

For some LGBTQ teens, the appeal of TikTok is how easy it is to go viral on it. The app functions around a default, algorithmic feed, known as the For You page, which features trending videos curated for each user based on who they follow and what videos they’ve previously liked. Unlike Instagram, TikTok’s default feed is centered on discovery; it’s not filled solely by accounts you follow. As a result, hot new content tends to bubble up quickly. Most teens I spoke with said they had a video go viral within months of creating their account.

While for some users, the intention isn’t always to create “gay” content, TikTok communities form naturally when liking videos with LGBT-inspired hashtags or TikTok’s curated video playlists around themes like “Show Your Pride.” Engaging with LGBT content prompts more LGBT content to surface on your For You page. TikTok is, at its core, a feedback loop. It’s easy to find your people.

That’s why many users create queer content more intentionally. “I wanted to post videos of me being a lesbian so others can relate to my content and push themselves to feel confident with their own sexuality,” says Serenity, 15, a California high schooler with over 107,000 followers.

TikTok’s top queer posts are largely positive. Many are sincere coming-out videos scored to “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross; others involve witty commentary on all the various “types of gay guys.” But sometimes the flood of support can turn punitive.



TikTok may be working out its moderation issues, but it remains a leading platform for LGBTQ youth to connect. “Trans men are getting some representation,” Damien says of one of the communities most often left out of LGBT spaces. As for the haters in his comments, Damien couldn’t care less about what they think of his content. “If they can post their progress with bodybuilding, I can [do the same] with my voice. It’s just a screen.”

Whom to follow on TikTok? This list might be helpful


Source: MEL Magazine




Is It Time to Retire the Word ‘Privileged?’

This article by Lewis Oakley first appeared in The Advocate


As an equality activist, it’s my job to keep track of the tools that effectively change hearts and minds — hitting the delete button on tactics that worked five years ago and keeping my eye on new and inventive ways to get others to empathize and understand.

If understanding is indeed the goal, the word “privilege” is no longer having the desired impact. And that’s giving it the benefit of the doubt that it ever did. It may be a good word for people to let out their frustrations, but if we’re serious about change it’s time to leave the word in the past.

As someone who studied linguistics at university, I understand how loaded this word has become. Whether intentionally or not, it implies the person you are talking about is somehow responsible for their difference. It’s calling them guilty.

The word immediately puts a person’s shields up. So much so that they actually won’t hear your point, they are too busy thinking of defenses.

As a bisexual activist, I rarely call someone biphobic. I may say that a certain thing they said was biphobic, but I know writing an entire person off as phobic isn’t going to help. No one has ever agreed to change their behavior because someone called them a name.

When I encounter negative perceptions of bisexuality, the first thing I do is ask questions. If you’re going to change someone’s perception, you need to know how their brain works. “So why do you think bisexuals will never be satisfied in a relationship?” “Okay, but surely you’ve been attracted to other women that aren’t your wife?” “Are you not satisfied?” “Then why wouldn’t I be?” The skill of an activist is to use someone’s own logic to prove the point.

Some may argue that a lot of people have accepted that they have privilege, and are fine recognizing it. This is true, and part of the battle is won with these people. However, the truth is, for many people, while they have privilege in certain ways, they don’t see themselves that way. They see themselves as a whole person; it’s labeling someone in a way they don’t recognize. It makes you wrong in their eyes before you’ve got to the point you’re trying to make. Some may also feel that you lack empathy; you might see them as privileged because they are straight or white, while they see themselves as severely damaged from their father’s suicide, for example.

Just a slight change in the wording can dramatically change responses and perceptions and encourage people to empathize; think of words like “lucky” or “blessed.”

Rather than exclaiming, “As a straight person you’re privileged,” try explaining “You’re lucky that you can walk down the street holding your partner’s hand and not worry about being attacked.”

For some reason, we’ve reached a point in history where we think shouting and name-calling will produce equality. When in truth, it’s just going to raise the temperature.

The next time you go to use the word “privileged,” ask yourself, Will this make someone understand the plight of the marginalized? Will this word have the desired outcome of changing hearts and minds?

Lewis Oakley is a U.K.-based bisexual activist. Find out more about his work at lewisoakley.com.