We are at a moment where there’s more media attention, research and advocacy on behalf of global human rights than ever before. Given our common interests and goals as members of an international human rights community, it’s surprising how infrequently and ineffectually we communicate and contribute directly to one another’s work. Our recent research on the efficacy of human rights messaging is both informed by this gap and an effort to bridge it.
We know that advocacy groups often deal with issues, ranging from climate change to marriage equality, that are hotly contested by the general public. To be effective, advocates must first change people’s minds before mobilizing them to act. A campaign’s messaging strategy is crucial, since the way information is conveyed affects how people process it (see work by Slovic; Kogut and Ritov; Kahneman), and their subsequent willingness to engage in behavior that helps others.
Yet when we asked human rights advocates about whether and when their messaging strategies are effective, they reported having a sense of what works based on past experience, but having little systematic evidence to support those intuitions. Constrained by limited resources and donors that prioritize action rather than research or administration, advocacy groups often cannot afford to field-test their messaging strategies, or conduct systematic studies of their effects. To paraphrase one advocate that we spoke with, they often have to throw everything against the wall, and hope something sticks.
This is a problem, since untested messaging campaigns may be ineffective, may backfire, or may have other unintended consequences. Bec Sanderson, for example, finds that national security arguments for the protection of human rights are just as ineffective as national security arguments to deny human rights. Nyhan and colleagues find that campaigns aimed at correcting misinformation about the effects of vaccines actually increased some misperceptions and reduced the intent to vaccinate for families most likely to not vaccinate their children. Similarly, critics have argued that efforts to advocate on behalf of “innocent women and children” often leave adult and adolescent non-combatant males at risk (see, for example, Charli Carpenter’s work here and here, and critiques by Emily Cousens and Jennifer Saul of the narrative surrounding and response to the Syrian refugee crisis). Human rights practitioners and scholars agree that we must move towards more evidence-based advocacy.
Motivated by this need, our work published in a recent issue of the American Political Science Review [ungated], uses a survey experiment to test the efficacy of the three types of messaging strategies (or frames) most commonly used by human rights groups in their campaigns. We found that personal frames—ones that emphasize an individual case or story of victimization—have the greatest impact in mobilizing consensus and action (in this case, signing a petition to stop the use of sleep deprivation during police interrogations). Providing information about the rights abuse and its consequences, or highlighting the reader’s agency were generally ineffective strategies. In a follow-up study, we confirmed the effectiveness of personal narratives, and found that combining them with other framing strategies did not diminish their effects (as had been previously thought), but also added little value. Elsewhere [ungated], we found that after reading a personal narrative, people were more likely to continue their activism by donating money to the human rights campaign. However, information about the nature and scope of the rights abuse played an important role in motivating donations from those who had not previously been mobilized. Across all of these studies, we also found that it is easier to change minds than it is to spur on people to act, a fact consistent with much of what we know about political action more generally.
While generally personal frames are more effective in human rights advocacy campaigns, we also know that the specific content and details of the story matter as well. For example, Courtenay Conrad and colleagues find that Americans are more supportive of the use of torture when a victim is identified with an Arabic name, or when the interrogator is identified as a member of intelligence services, as compared with other scenarios. Our newest study shows that the sex of the victim featured in the campaign narrative has little effect on consensus or action mobilization, but the description of their gender role, and the gendered or sexualized nature of the violation affects whether the audience sees the victim as vulnerable, recognizes the act as a human rights violation, and chooses to take action to end the practice.
Of course, messages may have different effects on different audiences. For instance, different types of human rights arguments appeal to different demographic groups that vary based on age, sex, religiosity, and party identification, among others (see Allendoerfer; and Arves and Braun). In general, though, campaigns that make the issue relevant to ordinary people, that highlight a personal narrative, that appeal to emotions and values, and put forward positive arguments in favor of a position rather than focus on making counterarguments, tend to be more effective, while “educating with facts”, countering misinformation, focusing on agency of the audience, and arguing procedural issues tend to be less successful. Still, there is much more we need to know about what makes advocacy messaging campaigns effective, and under what circumstances.
We also need to better understand other types of human rights messaging. While advocacy groups need to communicate with the general public, they are often most clearly heard by elites. We do not know much about the most effective ways to project messages beyond elites to reach a wider audience, even though such communication can have major impacts on public opinion [ungated]. We also don’t know whether the way in which advocacy groups communicate with the media and the other elites differs, and if that has an effect on outcomes, even though advocates typically have very different messaging strategies for each (for instance, Amnesty International releases both media-focused “Press Releases” and elite-focused “Background Reports”).
In many ways, we are in the infancy of evidence-based advocacy. It is an area in which the social sciences can have real and important impacts on world policy and outcomes. As one human rights advocate notes, “Taking audience insight research and turning it into effective communication with human rights sceptics is a significant, but necessary, challenge.” Despite high-profile examples of poor advocacy-related social science, an abundance of recent careful, ethical research by scholars, as well as more opportunities for scholars and advocates to share ideas (such as this, this, this, or this), can go a long way to informing more effective advocacy, and meet that challenge.