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Category: messaging

“Coronarratives” – Messaging in the time of COVID-19

Whether you are a non-partisan activist, part of a local LGBTQ + movement, or simply a socially engaged individual, adjusting your communication to the COVID-19 is surely a challenge to you.

This is why we have compiled a few resources to help you prompt your own thinking, and make the right decisions about how you frame the COIV-19 crisis.

Anthony Torres focuses on the frame of interdependency: Our destinies are all intertwined and only by working together  can we overcome the crisis. This frame is very much inspired by the environmental narrative.

You can access Anthony’s messaging guidance HERE.

Anat Shenker-Osorio, communication expert, complements this frame with a more political frame that the stipulates that the fight against the virus must encompass fighting against those who send us misinformation, try to profit from the crisis and strive to maintain the status quo by bringing unrest, fueling deeply-rooted stereotypes and prejudices… 

You can access more of her work HERE.


The Opportunity Agenda, an inspiring social justice communication lab, has issued recently messaging resources on COVID-19.

The social justice narrative that they develop focuses on race-class disparities in infection, as social and economic statuses make some people more at risk than others.

COVID-19 related messaging resources from OA might be found HERE.




“A rational conversation without lecturing” – How Irish feminist activists repealed constitutional ban on abortion?

With the global strengthening of the far right and policies advocating patriarchal patterns, for the last ten years we have witnessed a time in which women’s rights have been first on the strike.
This is especially the case in the US, where states are practically or literally banning the abortion procedures.
But there are other positive examples testifying to the trend going in the opposite direction. A trend that ranged from outright ban to majority acceptance of abortion as a women’s right.
It’s Ireland. How has the public managed to make this shift in three decades?
Irish activists Alibha Smyth and Tara Flynn recently spoke about the experience at Brave New Words.

Let’s take a look at what it looked like thirty years ago. The Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution has banned abortion since 1983. The women married learning that the embryo was a human being and that protected sex is virtually a sin. This situation led women to secretly go to the UK to have abortions, and have been acquiring contraceptives illegally, via Internet.



In 2016, Irish government summoned the so-called civic assembly, consisting of 99 members from different social groups, for the purpose of reviewing existing abortion measures.
And brave activists advocating women and reproductive rights gathered around the slogan Together for yes!
The result of the referendum is known – in 2018, over two-thirds of voters repealed the amendment.

How is this success explained?
Interviewees began the answer with one simple sentence that actually drives the essence – We listened to the target group.
Activists went out among the people, asked them what they thought, if they had any knowledge of it. They communicated, debated, talked.
And, based on the dialogue conveyed, they realised that they did not want harsh messages. That in the thirty years that the amendment existed, there was no room to articulate nor debate such issues.
This is why activists have decided to frame the issue of abortion so that it is seen in the light of the everyday life and the regular problems that the average Irish woman faces.
It was rational conversation, no lecturing, no imposition.

Activists also estimated that the abortion campaign would be striking and rounded if there was a personal stamp.
And there was the courageous Tara Flynn who spoke publicly about her experience of illegal abortion in Britain. Because she is already a popular face and a prominent TV and radio presenter, she talked about her experience in a humorous and personal manner, without condemnation, presenting that reproductive rights do not exist because of the whim but that they are an urgent need of all women.

An interesting lesson, but also an important incentive for all the activists around the worlds thinking that attitudes seemingly remain carved in stone and things are hard to change
On the contrary, Ireland shows that attitudes can change upside-down!
In a community dominated by deeply-entrenched religious doctrines, change came with a message entailing dialogue and discussion, in a non-intrusive fashion.
It seems simple, but experience shows that openly confronting an opinion with a contrary opinion is a very demanding job!
But, after all, in the case of Ireland, we can conclude that it has produced remarkable results.

Is information what people need?

This article first appeared on Freakonomics radio

The interesting take-aways for LGBTI campaigners:

  • Information is used by people depending on their existing views: The same piece of information, or explainer video, or real-life story, etc. will be used to REINFORCE attitudes, including negative ones, rather than challenge them.  It was pretty clear so far that information alone doesn’t change people. This article suggests it might even be counter-productive!
  • People live in closed social circles with people who are like them, so influencing others is increasingly difficult. OK, we all know this. But while it will be near impossible to get homo/transphobic people into an LGBTI-supportive group, it is much easier to get them into an unrelated group (say on fashion or make up or cooking or traditional handicraft) that will be LGBTI supportive when the time comes. It’s much more beneficial to invest into finding these groups than trying to get your target group to come to your “obvious” platform.
  • “The equivalent of 10-year-old lab rats hate broccoli as much as 10-year-old humans do. In late adolescence, early adulthood, there’s this sudden craving for novelty … And then by the time you’re a middle-aged adult rat, you’re never going to try anything new for the rest of your life.” Don’t waste your time. Concentrate on the period in life when we’re genetically engineered to explore new territories (physical or mental).
  • One of the key barriers to change is overconfidence in their own opinions. Rather than avoid the conversation or “bust the myths” by providing the “correct information” yourself, ask people to explain their own attitude and they will start loosing confidence because chances are that they won’t be able to come up with something totally convincing. And when they are off-balance, change can happen.

Full article:

Here’s an interesting fact: legislators in several Republican-controlled states are pushing to eliminate the death penalty. Why is that interesting? Because most Republicans have typically been in favor of the death penalty. They’ve said it’s a deterrent against the most horrific crimes and a fitting penalty when such crimes do occur.

But a lot of Republicans have come to believe the death penalty does not deter crime — which happens to be an argument we offered evidence for in Freakonomics. They also say the lengthy legal appeals on death-penalty cases are too costly for taxpayers. Some Republicans also cite moral concerns with the death penalty. So, a lot of them have changed their minds.

We’ve all changed our minds at some point, about something. Maybe you were a cat person and became a dog person. Maybe you decided the place you lived, or the person you loved, or the religion you followed just wasn’t working for you anymore. But changing your mind is rarely easy. Although if you’re like most people, you would very much like other people to change their minds, to think more like you. Because, as you see it, it’s impossible for the world to progress, to improve unless some people are willing to change their minds.

On this week’s episode of Freakonomics Radio: how to change minds, or at least try to.

Robert Sapolsky is a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University. He describes himself as half-neurobiologist and half-primatologist; he studies both neurons in petri dishes and wild baboons in East Africa. Sapolsky has a lot of experience with changing his mind. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew before he decided, at age 14, that “[t]here’s no God, there’s no free will, there is no purpose.” He used to be a classical music snob; then he married a musical-theater fanatic and director. Today, he often serves as rehearsal pianist for his wife’s productions.

Sapolsky has noticed something about mind-changing: it’s easier to do when you’re younger. In a survey he put together to look at people’s preferences in food, music, and so on, Sapolsky found that people do indeed become less open to novelty as they get older. Someone who hasn’t eaten sushi by age 35, for example, likely never will. He also found that humans are not the only animals that exhibit this behavioral pattern.

“[Y]ou take a lab rat and you look at when in its life it’s willing to try a novel type of food — and it’s the exact same curve!” Sapolsky says. “The equivalent of 10-year-old lab rats hate broccoli as much as 10-year-old humans do. In late adolescence, early adulthood, there’s this sudden craving for novelty … And then by the time you’re a middle-aged adult rat, you’re never going to try anything new for the rest of your life.”

There are a lot of reasons why it may be easier to change your mind when you’re younger. It could be the fact that your brain is simply more plastic then — something scientists assumed for a long time but now are starting to question. Or it could be that your positions are less entrenched, so it’s less costly to change them.

Or it could be that the stakes are lower: the fate of the world doesn’t hinge on whether you are pro-broccoli or anti-broccoli. But as life goes on, as the stakes rise, changing your mind can get more costly.

Several years before the United States invaded Iraq, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, signed onto a letter in support of such a move. At the time, Fukuyama was well-established as a prominent political thinker. In addition to writing a landmark book, he’s done two stints in the State Department. So his views on the Iraq War were taken seriously.

But as the invasion drew near, Fukuyama started to have second thoughts.

“My main concern was whether the United States was ready to actually stay in Iraq and convert it into a kind of stable, decent country,” Fukuyama says. “But even I was astonished at how bad the planning had been, and how faulty the assumptions were, that we were going to be greeted as liberators and that there would be a rapid transition just like in Eastern Europe to something that looked like democracy.”

In February of 2004, Fukuyama attended a dinner at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. The featured speaker was Dick Cheney. The crowd greeted the then-vice president with a big round of applause.

“And I just looked around at the people at my table and I said, ‘Why are these people clapping?’” Fukuyama says. “Because clearly this thing is turning into a huge fiasco. And that’s the moment that I decided, you know, these people are really nuts. I mean, they’re so invested in seeing this as a success that they can’t see this reality that’s just growing right in front of their eyes.”

Fukuyama paid a heavy price for his change of heart on the Iraq War. He was seen as having abandoned the neoconservative movement and lost close friends in the process. But to this day, he is surprised that so few of the supporters of the war remain unwilling to admit it was a mistake.

There’s another factor that may contribute to our reluctance to change our minds: overconfidence — our own belief that we are right, even in the absence of evidence. Just how much unearned confidence is floating around out there?

Consider a recent study by Julia Shvets, an economist at Christ’s College, Cambridge who studies decision-making. She and some colleagues surveyed over 200 managers at a British restaurant chain. The managers averaged more than two years on the job and their compensation was strongly tied to a quarterly performance bonus. The managers were asked to recall their past performance and to predict their future performance.

Shvets found that only about 35% of the managers were able to correctly say whether they fell in the top 20% of all managers, or the bottom 20%, or another 20%block somewhere in the middle. Forty-seven percent of managers were overconfident about their standing.

And these were people who had detailed feedback about their performance every quarter, which is a lot more than most employees get. How could this be? This is where memory comes into play, or maybe you’d call it optimism — or delusion.

“People who did worse in the previous competition tended to remember slightly better outcomes. People seem to be exaggerating their own past performance in their head when this performance is bad,” Shvets explains. “So what we conclude from this is that people, when given information about their past performance, use memory selectively. They remember good outcomes and they tend to forget bad ones.”

So maybe it’s not so much that people refuse to change their minds — or refuse to “update their priors,” as economists like to say. Maybe they just have self-enhancing selective memories.

Sothere are a lot of reasons why a given person might be reluctant to change their mind about a given thing. Selective memory, overconfidence, or the cost of losing family or friends. But let’s say you remain committed to changing minds — your own or someone else’s. How do you get that done? The secret may lie not in a grand theoretical framework, but in small, mundane objects like toilets, zippers, and ballpoint pens.

Steven Sloman, a psychology professor at Brown, conducted an experiment asking people to explain — not reason, but to actually explain, at the nuts-and-bolts level — how something works.

Chances are, you probably can’t explain very well how a toilet or a zipper or a ballpoint pen work. But, before you were asked the question, you would have thought you could. This gap between what you know and what you think you know is called the “illusion of explanatory depth.” It was first demonstrated by psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil.

“[P]eople fail to distinguish what they know from what others know,” Sloman says. “We’re constantly depending on other people, and the actual processing that goes on is distributed among people in our community.”

In other words, someone knows how a toilet works: the plumber. And you know the plumber; or, even if you don’t know the plumber, you know how to find a plumber.

You can see how the illusion of explanatory depth could be helpful in some scenarios: you don’t need to know everything for yourself, as long as you know someone who knows someone who knows something. But you could also imagine scenarios in which the illusion could be problematic, such as in the political domain.

Sloman and his collaborator Philip Fernbach basically repeated the Rozenblit and Keil experiment, but instead of toilets and zippers, they asked people about climate change and gun control. Unsurprisingly, most people weren’t able to explain climate change policies in much detail. But here’s what’s interesting: people’s level of confidence in their understanding of issues — which participants were asked to report at the start of the experiment — was drastically reduced after they tried, and failed, to demonstrate their understanding.

“It reduced the extremity of their confidence that they were right,” Sloman says. “In other words, asking people to explain depolarized the group.”

Matthew Jackson, an economist at Stanford who studies social and economic networks, used to believe that different people, given the same kind of information, would make decisions the same way, regardless of past experiences and influences.

That, however, is not what Jackson’s research suggests. In one experiment, Jackson had a bunch of research subjects read the same batch of abstracts from scientific articles about climate change. He found that people reading the same articles could interpret the articles very differently, depending on their initial positions.

In fact, information, far from being a solution, can actually be weaponized.

“There was a group of about a quarter to a third of the subjects who actually became more polarized, who interpreted the information heavily in the direction of their priors, and actually ended up with more extreme positions after the experiment than before,” Jackson says.

In other words, a person’s priors — which are shaped by previous experiences, influences, and social networks — play a big role in shaping current beliefs and decision-making processes. Steven Sloman, the Brown professor, thinks that the third factor is particularly important.

“[W]e believe what we do because the people around us believe what they do,” Sloman says. “This is the way humanity evolved. We depend on other people.”

So if our beliefs are shaped by the people around us, one antidote to inflexible thinking is simply, balance. Unfortunately, a great many of us are quite bad at creating diverse, well-balanced networks. People are prone to surrounding themselves with people just like them.

“We end up talking to people most of the time who have very similar past experiences and similar views of the world, and we tend to underestimate that,” Matthew Jackson says. “People don’t realize how isolated their world is. You know, people wake up after an election and are quite surprised that anybody could have elected a candidate that has a different view than them.”

You can find the full Freakonomics Radio episode, “How to Change Your Mind” at Freakonomics.com. You can also listen on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or any other podcast platform.

Go to the profile of Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio


Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio

Stephen J. Dubner is co-author of the Freakonomics books and host of Freakonomics Radio.


Don’t parrot… A short guide to avoiding common communication pitfalls

This article by Ralph Underhill, PIRC Associate and Director of Framing Matters was published by the Public Interest Research Center:

President Nixon famously said, “I am not a crook”.

With those 5 words, he managed to reinforce the idea, in the minds of millions of Americans, that he was, in fact, a crook. What he should have said is “I am an honest man”. When he used the word ‘crook’, he was parroting the language of his opponents, and simply reinforcing that negative association in people’s minds.

This is the first communications trap, which I call the…

Parrot, or the refutation trap.

So instead of environmental groups saying “wind turbines are not noisy eye sores”, they should be saying “the majority of people support renewables”. As George Lakoff has long argued, getting involved in denying things just gets you caught up in language that ends up associating your cause with unhelpful ideas. Here is a classic example of the parrot:

David Davis: “Brexit Britain will not be a ‘Mad Max’ dystopian world.”

Fig 1: The UK in 2020.

The point is, when we use words together – like ‘Brexit’ and ‘Mad Max’ – we are making associations in people’s minds and these can be unhelpful.

The second communications trap is the:

Chameleon, or the sanitising trap.

The chameleon (they are so awesome) is when we use jargon or euphemisms that make something we see as bad seem less terrible.

For example, why would a group campaigning on international issues ever use a term like ‘collateral damage’? It is a term created by the US military in order to make killing civilians sound more acceptable. ‘Collateral damage’ is a classic sanitising frame. Let’s call it ‘killing civilians’, because that is what it is. Likewise, ‘outsourcing’ or ‘down-sizing’ are other examples: they usually just mean ‘firing people’.

Fig 2: The original title ‘Killing Civilians’ didn’t play well with audiences.

The third communications trap is the…

Shark, or contaminated language trap.

While people didn’t go around hugging great white sharks before the 1970s, their image was certainly not as tainted by violence as it is now. The film ‘Jaws’ created huge negative associations with these majestic creatures, forever painting them in the public mind as man-eaters.

Fig 3: Woman saved from shark attack by giant lettering.

All words conjure up beliefs and associations in people and when we use terms with too many negative associations we can damage our cause. The shark trap comes in two forms, the contested term and the contaminated term.

A contested term might be something like ‘refugee’ which the right wing press have spent a long time trying to create negative associations with, but still resonates with many as people fleeing persecution. With a contested frame, we can still use it, and we might even be able to reclaim it, but we must tread carefully in order not to reinforce associations that are unhelpful. A contaminated term is one that we should avoid using at all costs, as we can no longer win it back. This might be something like “Make America Great Again”, where the negative associations are so strongly negative that the term cannot be repurposed for a different use.

The final communications trap is the…

Robin, or rose-tinted trap.

Robins are famous for looking cute, you will see them on Christmas cards looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But this is a lie, they are the Begbies of the animal world! If you have ever had two of them near you when picnicking you will know what I mean.

Fig 4: Begbie, exactly as he appeared in the original Trainspotting.

In communications terms, sometimes we seek to criticise something but the term used to describe it has overwhelming positive associations – like a robin. This means that when we use the term people see it as something positive that we are criticising. Let me explain. ‘Jobs’ are nearly always seen as a good thing: “you are lucky to have a job”, “this development will create jobs”. Talking about good and bad jobs just brings in the positive associations of having a job, because people don’t readily think of jobs as being bad. Instead, we must look at bringing up the issue another way, in terms of workers rights or working conditions, and sometimes that might mean avoiding the term ‘jobs’ itself.

A summary of the animal traps in poster form can also be found here.

Story or Narrative: what’s the difference?

We know that the world views of everyone are shaped by what “narratives” are out there. But what does this mean? and how does STORY-telling come into the picture.

This easy set of definitions developed by the Narrative Initiative brings a useful clarification:

Narrative Concepts

These core concepts articulate the different levels at which we engage with narrative specifically in the context of social change. Each category has discrete functions, expressions, and modes of transmission.


Simply put: “In a story, something happens to someone or something. Typically, a story has a beginning, middle and end.”


Narratives permeate collections or systems of related stories. They have no standard structure, but instead are articulated and refined repeatedly as they are instantiated in a variety of stories and messages. (Toward New Gravity)

Deep Narrative

Deep narratives are characterized by pervasiveness and intractability. They provide a foundational framework for understanding both history and current events, and inform our basic concepts of identity, community and belonging. Just as narratives permeate collections of related stories, so too do deep narratives permeate collections of related narratives. In Toward New Gravity, we used the term meta-narrative. Over two years of dialogue with peers in the field, we’ve evolved to a preference for the term deep narrative. We see that deep narrative lends itself to more illustrative uses.

These foundational terms are interconnected and reinforce each other over time. We find the concepts much easier to hold onto through an example:

  • The movie Jaws is a story about an insatiable man-eating shark
  • All the stories about insatiable, man-eating sharks add up to a broader narrative of sharks being dangerous and predatory creatures
  • The narrative and stories about sharks rest on powerful deep narratives about the human relationship to nature and a fear of the unknown

So when we are telling our stories of LGBQI+ struggles and/or liberation, how much attention do we pay to broader narratives and, most importantly, to deep narratives?

Sometimes our stories reinforce deep narratives which are broadly unhelpful, like the idea that there are two genders only.

The “screening” for deep narratives should be an essential part of message development.

Hope counters hate in polarized and populist narratives

This article appeared in OpenGlobalRights

Giving people a sense of optimism about and control over their future is the best way to stop populist narratives from taking root.

With the global rise of populism, and far-right narratives increasingly seeping into the mainstream, the most powerful way to challenge hatred is not shouting people down—it is empowering them.

When people feel in control of their own lives, they are more likely to show resistance to hostile narratives, and are more likely to share a positive vision of diversity and multiculturalism. People need to feel listened to and understood, to feel empathy, and to know there is a positive alternative.

Hope not Hate was founded on the very principle that if we are to counter narratives of hate, we must offer hope. Hate is often a response to loss and an articulation of despair. But when given an alternative that understands and addresses their anger, most people will choose hope.

Hope starts with understanding

In the polarised immigration debate, with advocates for migrant rights and open borders pitted against aggressive and sometimes violent opposition, it is easy to overlook the majority of people who sit in the middle, holding more moderate and balanced views on migration. Public opinion is not static, but it can move in any direction. If activists fail to engage with these people in the middle, who will not necessarily think the same way and hold anxieties about migration, the only people speaking to them will be those who exploit and amplify these fears.

These conversations are not about tolerating prejudice, and can take on a very different meaning for people of colour than for white allies. There is also a section of the population who hold engrained hostile attitudes towards others—it is simply not possible to change everyone’s mind.  But for many of us in the human rights community, fear around having “difficult conversations” is holding us back.

Recently, our organization together with British Future, ran the largest ever public engagement on immigration hearing from almost 20,000 people and travelling to 60 towns and cities across the United Kingdom, from Shetland to Penzance, to talk about migration with normal people.

We found that it was possible to meet a consensus on immigration, and although the conversations we had were primarily for research, the conversations in themselves worked to change attitudes. Through deliberative discussion, and removing the fear of being shouted down, participants developed often left with more positive and nuanced views on migration issues.

We also found that when people talk about immigration, they project national narratives through what they see in day-to-day life. These conversations were often about so much more than immigration but about people’s kids, and their friends, about their problems and frustrations. They were about opportunity, identity and hope, and about where these things had been lost.

Changing attitudes means changing the atmosphere in which they develop

The differences we found in the way that people developed their views on immigration often reflected a broader story about dissatisfaction with participants’ own lives.

In Kidderminster, a market town in the West Midlands, we were told that “the good times have gone”. Lost industry and changing work, local decline, alongside changing neighbourhoods and increased diversity, meant that identity issues and people’s standard of living became intertwined.

To share positive narratives, make people feel good

Having spoken to people up and down the United Kingdom, I found that where people feel in control of their own lives, they are more likely to show resistance to hostile narratives, and are more likely to share a positive vision of diversity and multiculturalism.

Our recent report, Fear, Hope and Loss, pulls together six years of polling from 43,000 people and maps political and cultural attitudes in England and Wales to neighbourhoods of 1,000 houses. Unsurprisingly, we find that it is areas which have lost most through industrial decline, places with little diversity or opportunity, where the greatest enmity toward immigration is concentrated. These are places where up to 61% of over-16s do not have a single educational qualification, where jobs are few and far between, and when work is available, it is precarious and badly paid.

In contrast, we find those who hold the most positive outlook on immigration and multiculturalism are mostly in core cities or elite university towns, prosperous areas where there is ample opportunity.

Resistance to change is not only about a decline in welfare and opportunity, but these anxieties trigger a defensive instinct to protect and reassert a social position. In our conversations, we found that a sense of unfairness underpinned much hostility towards migrants and minorities. A sense that British or English identity is waning becomes more pronounced for those who feel that something has unfairly been taken away. A view that things are working better elsewhere, for other people, for migrants, offered a direction for broader resentment.

Understanding why people feel like they do about immigration is not about pandering to prejudice, but about genuinely understanding what lies underneath, and working to rebuild the communities which have lost the most.

The shock and despair many felt when Britain voted to leave the EU offers lessons on communicating hope. The effectiveness of the Leave campaign was about offering something more, about taking back control. Predicted economic damage of leaving the EU is staggering, but those who want to remain in the EU will not win by projecting doomsday scenarios. The pessimism felt by remainers just does not resonate with people who desperately want change. In a National Conversation discussion in Grimsby, a woman told me that of course things will get better after Britain leaves the EU, because “it could hardly get any worse”.  If remainers really want Britain to stay in the EU, then they need to show how things will be better, fairer, and more hopeful than they currently are.

Campaigning with hope

Hope, an optimism based on an expectation of positive outcomes in our personal circumstances, is the best resilience to hate. What gives us hope means many different things to different people, but for many, hope has an economic element. As someone on Grimsby, a fishing town with high level deprivation, told me, hope is knowing “there’s a buffer between you and abject poverty”. While this may not seem to be asking for much, this is not a hope that exists everywhere.

Campaigning with hope means we need to understand what hope means to people, and where it is missing. We need to create the conditions where hope is possible for everyone.

The growing polarisation we see stems from growing divides in our society. But optimism is the best resilience to hate. If we want to shift the debate, we have to start by understanding where these perspectives come from, by engaging in meaningful ways, and by offering hope.

Getting Hope back into the picture

This paper appeared in Open Global Rights

Its authors advocate for a change in mindset of campaigners for Human Rights.

While some of their points are specific to “mainstream” Human Rights issues, that is issues with which a majority of people are theoretically OK but don’t actively support (like Freedom of Expression), some lessons hold true for campaigners for minority issues (i.e. issues that a majority of people does not support, like homosexuality in conservative countries)

Lesson 1

Talk about solutions, not problems. People want to be paired with positive stories and results, not stories of loosing victims. And by talking about problems, you reinforce their presence in people’s minds, making them sound more and more “natural”

Lesson 2

Talk about what you stand for, not what you oppose. People need a vision for the future. People need to see that we share a common vision. This is what will make them support your cause.

Lesson 3

Be part of the solution, not the problem: People need to see you as someone who brings an answer, not someone who brings trouble. It can be an answer to the conflicts they feel as several of their values are opposing each other. Or an answer to a grim society, etc.



Full article

For a human rights movement dedicated to exposing abuses, positive communication does not come naturally. But to make the case for human rights, we cannot rely on fear of a return to the dark past, we need to promise a brighter future.

Hope is a pragmatic strategy, informed by history, communications experts, organizers neuroscience and cognitive linguistics. It can be applied to any strategy or campaign. By grounding your communications from the values you stand for and a vision of the world you want to see, hope-based communications is an antidote to debates that seem constantly framed to favour your opponents, so that you can design actions that set the agenda rather than constantly reacting to external events.

A hope-based communications strategy involves making five basic shifts in the way we talk about human rights. This guide has been produced in collaboration with Thomas Coombes (@T_Coombes) to help you apply to any aspect of your daily work.

Shift 1: Talk about solutions, not problems

While the human rights movement will always have to expose abuses, we also need to show how to fix them. Positive communications are about talking about what we want to see, not just what other people are doing. It is much harder for leaders to excuse not tackling problems than it is to justify failing to implement solutions.

The danger of focusing all our attention on the worst crises is that people become inured to it. When we focus on the problem, we reinforce it in the mind of our audience. Or as George Lakoff wrote, “People tend to adapt to a new state and take it as a new reference point.”

The sense of a world in crisis pushes people into the hands of populists who offer them security, and a return to some imagined idealised past.

Caption: In India, the BJP’s 2014 Achche din election campaign promised that “Good Days are Coming”. If populist leaders are able to promise a happy future, why can’t human rights groups?

We need to convince people that another world is possible. Visionary ideas change the world, and people who put them forward set the agenda instead of being on the defensive. Campaigning against austerity measures, for example, are unlikely to make decision-makers act differently unless they make the case for a viable alternative, be it greater public investment or thought-provoking initiatives like Universal Basic Income.

The environmental movement made this shift when it realized that stories of impending doom created despondency instead of urgency. The LGBT movement shifted from campaigns against discrimination to shared values by focusing on one of many possible policy solutions: equal marriage, a call rooted in love and compassion that everyone could relate to. If we want something to change, we need to stop just saying “no” to the problem, but give governments something to say “yes” to, by putting forward bold policies: smart human rights solutions that trigger debate, and showing what the desired transformation will achieve. Even in the darkest crisis, we can always focus on the first step towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

Shift 2. Highlight what we stand for, not what we oppose

The human rights movement should show how human rights is a practical application of universal shared values like compassion, solidarity and dignity, rather than defining rights by the absence of their violations (“a world without torture”, “protection from harm”).

The movement’s favourite expression today is “not a crime”. Journalism is not a crime. Refugees are not criminals. This fuses together the concepts of criminality and human rights in the minds of our audience, invites a debate about whether or not journalists are criminals. It’s no surprise, then, that surveys constantly show people think human rights protect criminals (nearly four in ten globally, according to a 2018 IPSOS survey). But worse still, it misses the chance to tell our audience what journalism brings to our society and propose measures to give us more of it.

Human rights advocates tend to do this because we believe that raising awareness is enough, that if we just let people know that journalists are being treated like criminals, we will trigger outrage and shame. Instead of name and shame, we need to name and frame. We need to call for what we want to see and spell out the shared values at stake.

Talk about the policy you want, explain how the government could do it, and explain what values it would be living by if it implemented them. Tell stories that build up our way of seeing the world without necessarily directly dealing with the issues we work on every time.

When human rights organizations talk about values, they tend to find justification for human rights in national values. But to find things that unite people around the cause of human rights, we should look beyond narrow national frames. Most “tribes” are “imagined communities” that require a common enemy to exist, something today’s populists are adept at exploiting. Human rights, as opposed to rights that accrue to national citizenship, require that people feel like they belong to a common human family. That cannot be constructed with any common enemy. We need frames that focus on the things that unite human beings, not those that keep us apart.

In new human rights messaging guidance, Anat Shenker-Osorio warns that “Evoking national identity brings ‘us/them’ top of mind and makes respondents less receptive to others’ rights”. Instead of saying “As Indians/Europeans/Christians, we believe in treating each other fairly”, Anat invites us to say “as caring people”. This bigger “we” cultivates a sense of belonging to a different, more universal identity: our common humanity.

If the human rights movement were to stop speaking within the frames of our opponents (security, the economy or other, national interests), what narrative would we shift to? What is the ideal human rights frame?

The human rights movement needs a new narrative. Today we operate in issue silos, tackling each right one by one on the merits specific to that case. As a result, wider audiences understand human rights as something that protects us, that we are “entitled to”, rather than something we can all use to make things better.

We tend to visualise what we are against, not what we are for: hands grasping bars illustrate injustice, but what does justice look like?

We should instead talk about a common, universal world view, a society where people take care of each other. A common world view that we can strengthen in the minds of the public day by day, story by story, tweet by tweet.

If we do not make the case for the world we want to see, who will?


Shift 3. Create opportunities, drop threats

When we talk about solutions, we give people an opportunity to be part of making things better, instead of using threats or guilt to make them act.

We need to reflect on the experience of being part of the human rights movement. We want to build, we want to take society on a journey to a better place, but when we talk we lean heavily on the language of conflict, which is divisive. Do we want people to think of us as fighters, radical and divided, defending the interests of the few, or builders, constructing something for all?

When we talk about human rights as protection from harm, our implicit message is based on fear and self-interest. These could be your rights. Imagine if your rights were taken away. One day it could be you.

But there is another way. We can appeal to the better angles of our nature. Human rights can connect people in solidarity. It can offer a chance to act on the human desire to be a good person, do the right thing, and help other people.

Successful movements are propelled forward by enthusiasm and passion. While Donald Trump united his base with the simple red baseball cap, ordinary people demanding women’s rights queued for hours to buy “Together for Yes” buttons in Ireland and thronged the streets wearing green scarves in Argentina. Symbols of belonging are not just about fundraising or powerful images, they create a shared sense of belonging that elevates a cause to something historical, momentous and inevitable.

But we cannot generate lasting passion and enthusiasm that pressures leaders purely through outrage and disgust: we must celebrate what we stand for. Joyful, inspiring content like Planned Parenthood’s Unstoppable campaign serves not just to inspire, it creates political momentum:

For people to hear our messages they need to see us as unifiers, people who build constructive solutions, people who will take them on a journey instead of fighters. We also need them to feel like they live in a less polarised culture, by contributing to a popular mood of togetherness and community—the ideal breeding ground for human rights friendly policies.

Indeed, more and more research points to the fact that fear and pessimism triggers conservative and suspicious views, while, hope and optimism tend to more liberal views. New research from Hope not Hate, for example, says:

“Where people are more likely to feel in control of their own lives, they are more likely to show resistance to hostile narratives, and are more likely to share a positive vision of diversity and multiculturalism.”

In Hidden Tribes, a 2018 report from More in Common, insists that the media landscape accentuates the conflicts but downplays the solidarity in our society. It advises us to find common ground to counteract the divisions magnified on our screens with stories of human contact and respectful engagement that “spotlight the extraordinary ways in which [people] in local communities build bridges and not walls, every day.”

Shift 4. Emphasize support for heroes, not pity for victims

Instead of inducing pity for victims, offer people an opportunity to side with heroes, and be a part of making change happen. Show them ordinary people who show extraordinary perseverance, determination and courage. Help your audience make connection to individuals, not groups, by highlighting the little details that  everyone can relate to.

If we want people to be compassionate, show them other people being compassionate. Presenting people in a way that induces fear, pity and anger may also inadvertently contribute to dehumanisation. If a politician calls a group of people animals, do pictures of those people in cages reinforce that metaphor? Faced with dehumanizing politics, human rights must do everything it can to re-humanize people.

A focus on re-humanizing people as an end in it itself opens up a whole new avenue of potential strategic operation for human rights campaigns, in which organizations pursue attitudinal change that would make possible a raft of policy improvements. We can focus on telling positive stories that will change attitudes towards the people we are trying to help.

More in Common research in Italy identifies not only fear of migrants but also a sense of solidarity and a disgust with racism, arguing for the need to strengthen values of hospitality and empathy, demonstrating “the real-world integration stories of migrants into Italian cultural life—in areas such as language, sport, food, community activities and entertainment.”

These kind of insights can be the basis for targeted content that tells humanising stories to specific audiences based on their values and interests, like the Swiss NGO that served up YouTube ads introducing refugees to people before they could watch racist videos.

Much of our audience has in-built stereotypes about “other” people, that sometimes will not be changed by hearing their story. But, as the HeartWired guide for change-makers written by communication strategists Amy Simon and Robert Perez notes, we can open them up to change by showing them someone like them engaging with the “other” and changing their mind.

The HeartWired approach’s focus on changing mindsets offers a new long-term strategic goal for human rights communicators – focus on campaigns that bring about long-term shifts in attitude towards other groups of people.

People who change their minds and decide to help are also heroes, as in this powerful for add for marriage equality in Ireland where the heroes are traditional parents supporting their children.

These are also stories of a changing society, stories that show how change happens, and offer a glimpse of the world we want to see.

Practically, this means creating social media moments based on interactions between people, that organizations can package as b-roll and images and send to digital news organizations like AJ+ and NowThis News, changing the narrative from “us vs them” to one of humanity. A Danish travel agent used DNA to show a group of people how much they had in common, Heineken asked people who were very different to build a bar together, and Amnesty International Poland asked refugees and Europeans to look in each other’s eyes for four minutes.

We are in a world where the majority of people want to do the right thing. But crisis and conflict-driven media narratives paint a different picture. We need to tell stories that reinforce the human rights worldview—where people take care of each other, and stand up for the rights of people far away just because they are all human.

Above all, we need to tell stories of humanity and compassion, thus reinforcing the idea that human rights are about people standing up for each other. We need stories that put the human in human rights.

Shift 5: Show that “we got this”! 

Political strategist Mark McKinnon says all campaigns are either a narrative of hope, fear, threat or opportunity. How do we talk about hope and opportunity when human rights defenders are under attack and we need to defend ourselves, to fight back?

We need to stop talking about human rights under attack. That makes us seem like a losing cause and who wants to get on a train going in the wrong direction?

You light a candle when its dark, and you need human rights most when they are absent. Human rights defenders have “long been on the front line”, but frames of crisis and peril can inadvertently harm perceptions of the movement’s effectiveness, as Kathryn Sikkinkrecently argued.

People want to be part of something successful. Amnesty International France are running a “Thrill of Victory” campaign to associate the words “Human Rights” with “victory” instead of “problem” or “violation”.

In her pioneering study of human rights language, Anat Shenker Osorio urges the movement to display a quiet confidence:

“Where white nationalism offers an explanation and antidote for what feels like the world spinning out of control, human rights often provide a storyline that cements the feeling of unrelenting and accelerating change. Although the human rights paradigm is, by many measures, about order and known outcomes, the sense that “we got this” or there could be some steady, reliable, normalcy rarely comes from human rights.”

To show that “we got this”, we need to show more human rights in action. What does it really mean to do human rights and what does this look like? What is the picture we want people to have in their head when they think of human rights, human rights defenders and human rights activism? For some, this might mean holding protests, calling up politicians and writing letters to political prisoners for others it could be people coming together at community events or cultural moments.

Whatever they are, the activities the human rights movement undertakes need to tell a story of change, and show that human rights are not just a thing that we are born with or passively receive from governments, but something we do: a tool for making our societies better or a way of living together. Describing human rights as actions helps indicate that we must constantly make choices to cultivate and grow them.

Moreover, we need to change the expectations and associations with the very words “human rights”, explaining them as a metaphorical “tool” that we put in the hands of ordinary people to make change. Anat Shenker-Osorio’s research provides several avenues for further testing: Is human rights a shield or insurance policy that protects people from harm, a map or compass that points us in the right direction, or string or glue that binds us together in our common humanity? This way of thinking about human rights can not only inform our messaging, it can revolutionise the way we human rights and other organizations carry out their mission.

There is hope for human rights. People share our values and they want to do what is right. We just have to get better at activating those values, and talking to people about them.

These shifts will feel unnatural to many in the human rights movement. But the evidence shows they are the path to victory. And human rights is too important not to do whatever it takes to win.

A Toolkit to Change Hearts and Minds

This manual tells the story of how activists and researchers in Nigeria, Cameroon, Zambia and Mozambique explored new ways to influence public opinion on sexual and gender diversities, with support from the UN and a support team from the South African organisation Singizi.


“This is a manual by activists for activists. As activists one of our main jobs is that of trying to persuade other people to see the world differently, to stop doing one thing, and start doing another. As sexual orientation and gender identity activists living and working in places where we are criminalised, where forming organizations is sometimes prohibited, and stigmatisation and descrimination is real and dangerous – that makes our job really hard.

We hope that this tool kit will help you to find new ways to do the work of persuading people to think about and act towards people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities and expressions in a more open and understanding way. It will provide some ideas about how to go about doing that in even the most difficult places to work.”

Access the toolkit HERE

A Guide to Changing Someone Else’s Beliefs

Listen to this story



Changing minds is hard to do: When our most dearly held opinions — things like political convictions, religious beliefs, morals, and core principles — are challenged, our brains put up one hell of a fight to protect them. Research has shown that when deeply held beliefs are called into question, the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes emotions, kicks into high gear as if we were encountering danger, leaving us in no mood to consider a difference of opinion.

And yet people convincing other people to believe things is what makes the world go around. Whether you’re selling a product, angling for a promotion, or running for office, the odds are good that your job requires you to influence and persuade people in some capacity. And outside of work, many of our social relationships are built on shared beliefs: We often get along best with people who agree with us.

The same science that helps us understand how beliefs are formed can actually help us get better at changing them. The first thing you need to understand about persuasion, explains Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, is that what you’re saying matters far less than who you are.

“Most of us think that the message and the merits of the message are the things that will convince people,” Cialdini says. “That’s usually not the case. Very often, it’s the relationship we have to the messenger. It’s not always about the argument, but about the delivery.”

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s much easier to influence people who are already close to you. This is in part because their brains are already primed for the right chemical reaction. Neuroscientist Paul Zak has spent most of his career researching oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with love, happiness, bonding, and — as Zak’s research has demonstrated — trust.

“It makes you more sensitive to social information,” he says. “I can more effectively persuade you if I flood your brain with oxytocin.” If you’re trying to convince a friend, family member, or partner of something, your odds are better if you soften them up with reminders of your closeness: Warm temperatures, eye contact, and touch all prompt the release of oxytocin. “Give them love, give them affection,” Zak says. “Tell them, ‘I really want to help you understand this thing.’”

Of course, you can’t just go around hugging everyone you need to sway to your point of view. But even for acquaintances and other loose ties, you can still use psychology to your advantage. Cialdini says that understanding a few universal principles of human behavior can help make you a master influencer.

“People want to give back to those who’ve given to them,” Cialdini says. “That’s the principle of reciprocity.” A 2002 study via Cornell University found that when restaurant servers brought customers a mint or candy along with their bill, tips went up almost three percent. If they added an additional mint to the tray, tips went up even more.

“If the server puts one mint on the tray and then turns and says, ‘You know what, you’ve been such great guests, here’s another mint,’ tips go up 20 percent,” Cialdini says. “The key is personalizing what you give; that can change people dramatically.”

“You can make the case that if an idea is unique, people will want it.”

But coaxing open someone’s mind isn’t as easy as just buying their affection. Instead, make them feel listened to. Pay attention to your friends and coworkers, and give gifts that are simple but meaningful. Learning someone’s coffee order and surprising them with a cup, for example, could have a much bigger effect on their willingness to listen than giving them a Starbucks gift card.

Another strategy: Use the rules of supply and demand to your advantage. The rarer something is, the more people want it, and the more they’re willing to pay for it. This same principle, Cialdini says, can apply to belief and influence.

“To some extent, you can make the case that if an idea is unique, people will want it,” he says. This might even offer an explanation for why some people are more susceptible to fake news or conspiracy theories or why they’ll cling to information that’s been resoundingly disproven. “They’re now in possession of a piece of information or knowledge that not everyone holds, and it sets them apart,” he says. “It explains why we’ll believe ridiculous things.”

The perception of scarcity becomes a more powerful incentive for people to get on board with your ideas “if you can make the case that unless we move now, the benefits of this cause or approach will be lost to us,” Cialdini says. “‘We have a limited time in which to elect people who are favorable to our side; we’ve got to move’ — that spurs people into action.”

If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely already experienced another principle of persuasion psychology: authority. Cialdini and Zak are published authors with advanced degrees — experts in their fields — so you’re likely more willing to accept what they have to say about the science of influence at face value.

“When people are given an expert’s position on, for instance, difficult economic problems, the areas of the brain associated with critical evaluation flatline,” Cialdini says. “If an expert says it, we don’t have to think about it.”

If you’re trying to influence someone’s opinion on a topic that you’re well-educated in, that’s a good time to brag about your resume. “Mention your background or experience or degrees,” Cialdini says. “If you can get people to believe you’re an expert and get them to see you as trustworthy, no one can beat you.”

That trustworthy part is key: You can be the most educated, qualified person around, but it won’t matter if people don’t trust you. To that end, Cialdini recommends a shortcut that may seem counterintuitive: “We’re trained to begin with our most compelling arguments — strongest ones first,” he says. “To establish trust and credibility, you should begin by describing the weaknesses in your case.” People might be taken aback, he explains, but they’ll like that you’re being straight with them. “Then, you show how the strengths overwhelm the weaknesses, and you win the day.”

You can also use a person’s history to your advantage — after all, no one is more persuasive to us than, well, us. Tailor your pitch to match things they’ve done or said in the past. (That might mean doing a bit of digging on a LinkedIn or Twitter feed — just don’t bring it up to them in a way that seems creepy or off-putting.)

“Align your recommendation with a statement of theirs,” Cialdini says. “Like, ‘I really appreciated what you wrote about equality and fairness. That’s why I’m asking you to move in the direction of greater diversity.” No one wants to be seen as going back on their word, so this tactic works especially well on social media. “The more public it is,” Cialdini says, “the more powerful that commitment to consistency.”

But one of the best strategies for changing someone’s beliefs is also the simplest: We’re far more easily influenced by people we like or have things in common with. Again, this is where an internet search can be your friend: If you find commonalities or shared hobbies with someone, it can be helpful to mention them before you launch into a sales pitch. Even if it’s as basic as rooting for the same sports team or binging the same Netflix show, you’ve established a common bond.

You can also try genuine compliments. “Not only do people like those who are like them; they like people who like them and say so,” Cialdini says. “If it’s a phony compliment, people will see though it, so wait until you find something you really like about what a person said in a meeting, a position they took that you agree with, or a good job they did on a task and then tell them so.”

You don’t need to employ every one of these tactics every time you’re working to persuade someone. Sometimes, just one strategy fits the bill; other times, a situation might require a combination of persuasion methods. But the most important thing to remember when it comes to changing beliefs is that the facts are sort of secondary: The human element is what matters. “The mistake people make is using logic. For normal humans, data and evidence isn’t the way to change a mind,” Zak says. “We’re social creatures, and we’re fascinated by other humans. It’s not about the story. It’s about the storyteller.”


Kate Morgan

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The Washington Post, USA Today, Slate, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

Stop preaching the converted: Talking feminism in online video gaming!

This article which first appeared on creativetimesreport may seem irrelevant at first sight, but it’s actually a VERY IMPORTANT one! It is a great example of someone who went out of her “comfort zone” and stopped preaching the converted. A strategy at the heart of all good campaigning work. Her example, and the lessons she shares, are enlightening!


Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

[Chastity]:Abortion is wrong and any woman who gets one should be sterilized for life.
[Purpwhiteowl]: should i mention the rape theory?
[Snuh]: What if they don’t have the means to pay for the child and got raped?
[Xentrist]: clearly Chastity in sick
[Snuh]: What if they are 14 years old and were raped?
[Chastity]: I was raped growing up. Repeatedly. By a family member. If i had gotten pregnant i wouldnt have murdered the poor child. because THE CHILD did not rape me.

This intense and personal discussion regarding the ethics of abortion unfolded in the lively city of Orgrimmar, one of the capitals of an online universe populated by more than 7 million players: World of Warcraft (WoW). After several years of raiding dungeons with guilds, slaying goblins and sorcerers, wearing spiked shoulder pads with eyeballs embedded in them and flying on dragons over flaming volcanic ruins, I decided to abandon playing the game as directed. Fed up with the casual sexism exhibited by players on my servers, in 2012 I founded the Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft to facilitate discussions about the misogynistic, homophobic, racist and otherwise discriminatory language used within the game space.

As a gamer who is also an artist and a feminist, I consider it my responsibility to dispel stereotypes about gamers—especially WoW players—who have been mislabeled as unattractive, mean-spirited losers. At the same time, I question my fellow gamers’ propagation of the hateful speech that earns them those epithets. The incredible social spaces designed by game developers suggest that things could have been otherwise; in WoW’s guilds, teams come together for hours to discuss strategy, forming intimate bonds as they exercise problem-solving and leadership skills. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, this promising communication system bred codes to let women and minorities know that they didn’t belong.

Angela Washko,The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness: Red Shirts and Blue Shirts (The Gay Agenda), 2014 (excerpt).

Trying to explain to someone who has never played WoW (or any similar game) that the orcs and elves riding flying dragons are engaging in meaningful long-term relationships and collaborative team-building experiences can be a little difficult. Typical Urban Dictionary entries for WoW define the game as “crack in CD-ROM form” and note, “players are widely stereotyped as fat guys living in there parents basements with out a life or a job or a girl friend [sic].” One only needs to look into the ongoing saga of #gamergate—an online social movement orchestrated by thousands of gamers to silence women and minorities who have raised questions about their representation and treatment within the gaming community—to see how certain individuals play directly into the hands of this stereotype by attempting to lay exclusive claim to the “gamer” identity. But gamers, increasingly, are not a homogeneous social group.

World of Warcraft is a perfect Petri dish for conversations about feminism with people who are uninhibited by IRL accountability

When women and minorities who love games question why they are abused, poorly represented or made to feel out of place, self-identified gamers often respond with an age-old argument: “If you don’t like it, why don’t you make your own?” Those on the receiving end of this arrogant question are doing just that, reshaping the gaming landscape by independently designing their own critical games and writing their own cultural criticism. Organizations like Dames Making Games, game makers like Anna Anthropy, Molleindustria and Merritt Kopas and game writers like Leigh Alexander, Samantha Allen, Lana Polansky and others listed on The New Inquiry’s Gaming and Feminism Syllabus are becoming more and more visible and broadly distributed in opposition to an industry that cares much more about consumer sales data and profit than about cultural innovation, storytelling and diversity of voices.

What’s especially strange about the sexism present in WoW is that players not only come from diverse social, economic and racial backgrounds but are also, according to census data taken by the Daedalus Project, 28 years old on average. (“It’s just a bunch of 14-year-old boys trolling you” won’t cut it as a defense.) If #gamergate supporters need to respect this diversity, many non-gamers also need to accept that the dichotomy between the physical (real) and the virtual (fake) is dated; in game spaces, individuals perform their identities in ways that are governed by the same social relations that are operative in a classroom or park, though with fewer inhibitions. That’s why—instead of either continuing on quests to kill more baddies or declaring the game a trivial, reactionary space where sexists thrive and abandoning it—I embarked on a quest to facilitate conversations about discriminatory language in WoW’s public discussion channels. I realized that players’ geographic dispersion generates a population that is far more representative of American opinion than those of the art or academic circles that I frequent in New York and San Diego, making it a perfect Petri dish for conversations about women’s rights, feminism and gender expression with people who are uninhibited by IRL accountability.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012.

WoW, like many other virtual spaces, can be a bastion of homophobia, racism and sexism existing completely unchecked by physical world ramifications. Because of the time investment the game requires, only those dedicated enough to go through the leveling process will ever make it to a chatty capital city (like Orgrimmar, where most of my discussions take place), meaning that only the most avid players are capable of raising these issues within the game space. At such moments, the diplomatic facades required of everyday social and professional life are broken down, and an inverse policy of “radical truth” emerges. When I asked them about the underrepresentation of women in WoW—less than 15 percent of the playerbase is female—some of these unabashed purveyors of “truth” have attributed it not to the outspoken misogyny of players like themselves but to the “fact” that gaming is a naturally male activity. Many of the men I’ve talked to suggest that women are also inherently more interested in playing “healer” characters. These arguments are made as if they were obviously true—as if they were rooted in science.

When I ask men why they play female characters, I’ve repeatedly been told: “I’d rather look at a girl’s butt all day in WoW”

Women now have to “come out” as women in the game space, risking ridicule and sexualization, as more than half the female avatars running around in WoW are played by men (women, by contrast, are rarely interested in playing men). Unfortunately this is not because WoW is an empathetic utopia in which men play women to better understand their experiences and perspectives; WoW merely offers men another opportunity to control an objectified, simulated female body. When I ask men why they play female characters, I’ve repeatedly been told: “I’d rather look at a girl’s butt all day in WoW,” “because it would be gay to look at a guy’s butt all day” and “I project an attractive human woman on my character because I like to watch pretty girls.” I found these responses, which were corroborated by a study recently cited in Slate, disturbing to say the least. They also bring to mind Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the male gaze in her influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” published in 1975: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.”

The simulated avatar woman customized and controlled by a man who gets pleasure out of projecting his fantasy onto her is in strict competition with the woman who talks back—the woman who plays women because, as Taetra points out in the image below, for women it is logical to do so. Women haven’t been socialized to capitalize on—or in many contexts even to admit to having—sexual desires and consequently do not project sexual objects to conquer and control onto their avatars.

Angela Washko,The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness: Playing a Girl, 2013 (excerpt).

As I continued to facilitate discussions about the discriminatory language usage on various WoW servers, I realized that the topic generating the most negative responses and the greatest misunderstanding was “feminism.” Here’s a small sample of the responses I’ve gotten when asking for player definitions of feminism (and framing my question as part of a research project):

[Chastity]: Feminists are man hating whores who think their better than everyone else. Personally I think a woman’s job is to stay home, take care of her house, her babies, her kitchen and her man. And before you ask, yes I am female
[Xentrist]: Feminism is about EQUAL rights for women
[Hyperjump]: well all you really need to know is pregnant, dish’s, naked, masturbate, shaven, and solid firm titties. feminism is all about big titties and long stretchy nipples for kids to breastfeed.
[Taetra]: Feminism is the attention whore term of saying that women are better than men and deserve everything if not more than them, which is not true in certain terms. Identifying with the female society instead of humans. Working against the males instead of with.
[Yukarri]: isnt it when somebody acts really girly
[Try]: google it bro
[Holypizza]: girls have boobs. gb2 kitchen
[Raspberrie]: idk like angry more rights for females can’t take a kitchen joke kind of lady
[Defeated]: is that supporting woman who don’t make me sammichs? they need to make my samwicths faster
[Kigensobank]: i dont know if WOW is the best place to ask for feminists
[Mallows]: I think that hardcore feminists often think that women are better lol and they change their mind when they don’t like something that men have that is undesirable
[Alvister]: da fuq
[Misstysmoo]: lol feminism is another way communism to be put into society under the pretense of
protecting women

[Seirina]: Feminists are women who think they are better than men. Theyre nuts. Men and women are equal. We’re just sexier.
[Yesimapally]: Big Chicks who love a buffet but hate to shave their hairy armpits??
[Nimrodson]: i think it’s a word with too many negative/positive connotations to be worth defining
[Dante]: woman are usefull as healer
[Scrub]: yes, women were discriminated against while back, but after many feminist movements the laws were changed. It is now the 21st century and women have all if not more rights then men do. so the feminist activists are doing nothing more then creating drama

The tone of many of these comments reflects what one might find on a men’s rights forum. Recently the gaming and men’s rights communities have overlapped unambiguously, as Roosh V—a so-called pick-up artist dubbed “the Web’s most infamous misogynist” by The Daily Dot—just created an online support site for #gamergate supporters despite not being a gamer himself. I conducted an interview with him for another (seemingly unrelated) project a week before he announced this site.

Angela Washko, BANGED, currently in-progress

Angela Washko, BANGED, currently in progress.

Most of the women I’ve addressed in WoW do not see themselves as victims within this system, likely because their scarcity greatly increases their value as projected-upon objects of desire (as long as they don’t ask too many questions) without having it related to the physical body outside of the screen. Among the women I’ve talked to, I’ve found that there are two common yet distinct responses to my questions about feminism and being a woman inside of WoW. Response type #1: “Feminists hate men and feminism encourages physically attractive women to be sluts.” Response type #2: “Feminism is about equal rights for women, but I don’t talk about it in WoW because bringing up issues about the community’s exclusivity compromises my participation in competitive play and makes me a target for ridicule.”

Opportunities to interact online without potential repercussions for one’s offline life are becoming fewer and fewer.

Of course phrases like “get back to the kitchen/gb2kitchen” or “make me a sandwich” can be said in jest, but they nonetheless reinforce conservative viewpoints regarding women’s roles. The overwhelmingly popular belief communicated in this space—that women are not biologically wired to play video games (but rather to cook, clean, produce and take care of babies, maintain long, dye-free hair and faithfully serve their deserving men)—creates a barrier for women who hope to excel in the game and participate in its social potential. This barrier keeps women from being taken seriously for their contributions within the game beyond existing as abstracted, fetishized sex objects. Women who reject this role may be publicly demonized and called “feminazis.”

Unfortunately I did not learn how to turn WoW into a space for equitable, respectful conversation, as I had intended. Instead I came away with some thoughts about how much bigger the issues are than the game itself. Back in the days of dial-up modems, when my family finally realized the impending necessity of “getting the internet,” there was a huge fear of allowing anyone to know “who you really were.” Anonymity was the default then, and protecting your identity was key to avoiding scams, having your credit card information stolen, being stalked IRL or whatever else parents everywhere imagined might happen if someone on the internet knew your “real identity.”

What I learned early on from playing MUD games (text-based multiplayer dungeon games—precursors to MMORPGs like WoW) was that you could actually be quite intimate, revealing and honest with little consequence. There was no connection to your physical self in that kind of setting. But that seems to have changed drastically since the transition from Web 1.0 to 2.0. Web 2.0 has all but eliminated the idealized possibilities of performing an anonymous virtual self, moving internet users toward performing an (often professionalized) online version of one’s physical self (i.e., branding). The possibility of anonymity has disappeared as an increasing number of sites, Facebook foremost among them, require us to use our real names and identities to interact with other individuals online. Opportunities to interact online without potential repercussions for one’s offline life are becoming fewer and fewer.

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2013

Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2013

Though I had initially hoped to convince many WoW players to reconsider the adopted communal language therein, I quickly realized that this was both a terribly icky colonialist impulse on my part and that its persistence was related to a more complicated desire to hold on to a set of values that is becoming increasingly outdated and unacceptable. Throughout my interventions in the massively multiplayer video game space, I’ve found that WoW is a space in which the suppressed ideologies, feelings and experiences of an ostensibly politically correct American society flourish.

“It’s just a bunch of 14-year-old boys trolling you” won’t cut it—gamers are not a homogeneous social group.”

In many areas of physical space, racism, homophobia and misogyny play out systemically rather than overtly. It has fallen out of fashion to openly be a sexist, homophobic bigot, so people carve out marginal spaces where this language can live on. WoW is a space in which the learned professional and social behaviors (or performances) that we all employ as we shift from context to context in our everyday life outside of the screen are unnecessary. At the same time, this anonymity produces one of the few remaining opportunities to have a space for solidarity among those who are extremely socially conservative in a seemingly unsurveilled environment unattached to participants’ professional and social identities. For the players I talk to, my research project provides a potentially meaningful platform to share concerns about how social value systems are evolving while protected by the facade of their avatars.

Thanks to the emerging visibility and solidarity of visual artists, writers, game makers and other cultural producers fostering a “queer futurity of games” (to quote Merritt Kopas) and more inclusive internet spaces in general, I believe that new spaces will be produced by and for those targeted by #gamergate and its ilk. I hope that efforts will move beyond examining how marginalized groups are represented and move toward creating game spaces that promote empathy. Rather than playing a female blood elf solely because you like the design of her ass, players would be allowed to fully experience the perspective of a person they might not understand or agree with. Perhaps by living as an other in this queer utopian game space, players will come to respect people unlike themselves; at the least, they will have a harder time denying that the experiences of other gamers are valid, acceptable and even worth celebrating.