According to an annual survey from the pro-democracy NGO Freedom House, released earlier this year, political rights and civil liberties declined in roughly 33 percent of the world’s countries in 2017. Strongmen are on the rise. Advocates working to reverse this worrying global trend aren’t giving up, though, and they’ve got a new idea for how to shift the terrain in their favor: narrative change.
Narrative change seeks to challenge commonly accepted perceptions about the way the world works. It builds, according to Brett Davidson—the director of media and narratives in the Public Health Program at the Open Society Foundations—on a “growing body of research in fields such as psychology, cognitive science, political science, and sociology showing that people do not make decisions through a pure rational process, and that emotion and a range of cognitive biases play a hugely important role.”
In other words, advocates who promote narrative change, are interested in rallying the public to their cause more through appeals to the heart than the head.
The new approach is born from necessity. Many advocates report that the traditional tools for challenging authoritarians resonate less today in a media environment that rewards fluff and creates little space for complexity. And the strongmen themselves have become adept at telling their own (misleading) stories, often leaving rights advocates on the defensive.
For a look at what one group is doing to prompt fresh ways of spurring innovation in campaigning on human rights, I recently visited a competition hosted by Fine Acts, a globally oriented nonprofit organization based in Sofia, Bulgaria. The organization brought together 24 artists, techies, graphic designers, and others for Fine Acts Labs—a two-day competition to generate new, concrete ideas to move the human rights agenda forward. They focused on places where governments increasingly are cracking down on organizations that promote democracy and defend rights: Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.
My first takeaway from the experience was surprise—not mine, but rather that of the people who were assembled in Sofia. This was a group of politically conscious people from varied backgrounds, yet most were stunned at being asked to help. They assumed that fighting for human rights was a job for human rights “professionals,” not for everyday people.
But after learning details from the Fine Acts Labs on closing civic space in Europe, these newly minted rights advocates took to their new role. There was a buzz in the giant, loft-like room, as 12 teams of two worked feverishly over 48 hours to develop their ideas.
The winning team, Weronika Jurkiewicz and Michal Szota, both from Poland, proposed the development of a board game where the object of the game was to “put yourself in the shoes of a dictator and suppress, take over, and shut down” as many civil society organizations as possible. Fine Acts will provide them €5,000 and other help to develop the game.
“We liked the idea because it was fun-loving,” said Yana Buhrer Tavanier, the co-founder and director of Fine Acts. “It didn’t tell you how to think about these issues. It gave you a chance to experience them.”
Tavanier believes this approach—providing the public with a chance to learn through experience, rather than bombarding people with facts—is key to changing hearts and minds.
“Facts that challenge our convictions are usually met with resistance,” Tavanier explained. “In order to change minds, one needs to tap into emotions.”
“Art is one of the most powerful tools to create a visceral response and forge action from empathy,” she continued. “Work that brings together advocacy and art can move thousands of people to think differently about issues they might not have truly considered before.”
A runner-up in the competition wanted to invoke an emotional response to the problem of fake news on the internet. Gabriela Luhova and Anna Zsofia Kormos, meanwhile, wanted to place a smart mirror in a crowded public space. The mirror would take the image of whoever looked at it and immediately add it to other images that would flash across the screen. Sometimes the images would portray the subject in unflattering ways. The project is intended to show how easy it is to manipulate images today and to give people a brief sense of what it’s like to be demonized (like the billboards used in Hungary to vilify refugees, for example).
Part of the promise of Fine Acts and other groups like them is that finding a new way to raise public awareness of oppression can be very difficult in closing societies, which usually lack a robust free press. Work like this can play an important role for those who want to find a more comfortable way to engage in debates about the nature of their political system but are unsure of how—or where—to start.
In this way, the work of Fine Acts seeks to impact the individual, causing him or her to rethink (or think about for the first time) his or her perceptions and political decision making.
Tavanier, who worked with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee as a campaigner previously, and currently consults groups such as Amnesty International, notes that in this narrative change work, she and her colleagues are more comfortable with taking risks.
“We are not afraid of stepping outside of the well-known path, as it is often boring and ineffective,” she says. “We recognize that we might fail. We need to create spaces where it is OK to take risks and fail. We can win big by experimenting, and can also learn a lot from failure.”
Going forward, narrative change projects like Fine Acts Labs face a fundamental challenge: finding ways to translate their engaging projects into meaningful policy change and measurable shifts in the political culture.
But if the enthusiasm of the participants and the “stickiness” of the ideas they generated in a short period of time is any indication, these sorts of narrative change approaches are likely to be an important tool in broader efforts to push back against governments who flout democratic norms.