Political communicators know that the language we use influences how we see an issue and what solutions we support. For example, experimenters found that when crime was described as a ‘beast’, participants were more likely to favour a policy of tough enforcement measures. Whereas when it was described as a ‘virus’, participants were more likely to support social reforms. Politicians frequently use this technique of ‘framing’ to convince voters to go against their own interests. But activists can respond by reframing the debate on their own terms instead of repeating our opponents’ messages.
Even the title of legislation can be make-or-break
Sometimes politicians carefully choose a title or shorthand for a law or policy in a way that fires up their base and makes it awkward for opponents to get their message out.
Think of the recently adopted EU Regulation on "Terrorist Content", often referred to as #TERREG on social media. Digital rights groups, including Liberties, criticised the proposal because its provisions are so sweeping that it’s likely to muzzle free speech and public debate over the internet. But every time an NGO criticised the proposal for its foreseeable shortcomings, we almost automatically had to distract from our message by adding the qualifier that we support the fight against terrorism. Rather than focusing our messaging on how the internet is key to democracy, activists ended up repeating the EU’s framing that this law would combat terrorism while defending ourselves for protecting free speech.The label given to the proposal is deliberate: this law fights terrorism. And who’s going to disagree with that? The label is repeated by the media who report on what politicians say. And activists repeat the title ourselves when we contradict it, without realising that it’s not a neutral label: it’s framed. In the end, supporters, reporters and opponents alike all emphasised the frame that this (clumsy) law fights terrorism. Instead, opponents of the law could have focused on re-labeling the law, led their messaging with how important a free internet is to nurture everything we value, and displaced the #TERREG hashtag as the only reference point on social media.
Cognitive linguist George Lakoff points out how the Republicans in the USA have invested heavily in think tanks and training to develop and popularise their frames. Among his examples are the way George W. Bush framed tax cuts for top earners as ‘tax relief’ as if tax is a burden or affliction, rather than an investment in the people. Even while saying ‘tax relief’ was wrong, Democrats helped to entrench this thinking that tax is something we’re unfairly saddled with, because they repeated the frame.
We don’t have to argue from within our opponent’s frame. Effective reframing can reverse the situation, if the new frame catches on. For example, when UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s ‘community charge’ was re-framed as the unpopular ‘poll tax’.
Hungary’s government masters framing
Recently, Hungary's authoritarian government tabled a bill that was easily pushed through parliament. Orbán framed it as a law to protect children from paedophiles. Every time an opponent, independent journalist or foreign government would criticise the law saying that ‘this is not a law to protect children from paedophiles’, they would entrench the government’s framing. Why? Because of the way our brains work. If I tell you not to think of an elephant, what are you thinking? If I tell you I’m not a crook, what are you thinking? Directly negating a frame ends up reinforcing a frame in our minds. So even though on the surface we think that we’re telling people that a law discriminates against LGBTQ persons, our audience is subconsciously thinking, this is a law against paedophilia.
So how should activists have reframed this? First, open with what you stand for: what’s your cause and why should anyone else care? On this particular issue, it could be to remind our audience that most of us have experienced love in our lives and that sharing love and being close to someone is a common human experience - regardless of who we’re attracted to. Second, point out what is really going on. Hungary’s authoritarian regime has consistently manufactured phantoms supposedly attacking the country’s security, economy or culture. Previously it was people who migrate, philanthropists, the EU. Now it’s LGBTQ persons. Why? In part to play to their own base. But scapegoating is also about division and distraction. Divide voters against each other along irrelevant differences so they don’t unite against you to demand an end to corruption and proper investment in public services. And in this case, divide the kaleidoscopic coalition of political opposition using a wedge issue ahead of an election. Third, come back to your main message before telling people what they can do to show their support. This basic structure for dealing with political hate and disinformation campaigns has been labelled a ‘truth sandwich’.Journalists and activists need to pause and think about the terms they use in their reporting and campaigning. In an age where some politicians deliberately mislead and spread hatred, journalists need to ask if merely relaying their words is really helping to educate and inform the public. And activists need to start focusing more of their messaging on what they stand for, rather than what they stand against.