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04 new narratives for human rights


Amnesty International




01 02 03

Innovation Category


Developing new positive narratives for an alternative future.


Using social media as a cost-effective way of testing new narratives and telling new stories — about what and who human rights are for — in different countries.

Main Features of the Populist Context

Populist narratives tend to be reinforced by compelling stories and myths that draw on universal tropes, such as anti-elitism, that they promote using digital media to bypass traditional media. This tactic essentially turns social media into an anti-pluralist tool for promoting — without debate or scrutiny — their vision of a divided and dangerous world. As rational critiques of populist narratives are frequently discredited, some civil society organisations (CSOs) have found “myth-busting” strategies to be less effective in combating populist messages than telling alternative stories that relate to people’s daily lives. In this way, organisations can avoid the frames of existing narratives, instead creating viable alternatives that by their very existence undermine the two core elements of populism.

According to Anat Shenker-Osorio’s cognitive linguistic research, human rights advocates often use language that at best confuses audiences and at worst reinforces negative perceptions of human rights. For example, framing rights as abstract entities that are arbitrarily “bestowed” on people — robbing people of agency — has perpetuated ambiguity about what rights are in the public mind. Without a consistent definition of human rights, why they matter and how they work, moral calls to action are often reduced to simplistic claims that refugees, women, journalists, or activists should not have their rights taken away or “be treated like criminals”. This enables populists to undermine the legitimacy and relevance of human rights, especially for the anti-elitist “us” that they claim to represent.

Audience research, global polls and focus groups have shown that “persuadable” audiences have a very limited understanding of human rights. Many view them as “distant”, “heavy” and politically informed, and are skeptical of their relevance to their own lives. Others do not understand who benefits from human rights, and assume that they unfairly favour certain groups, such as criminals, terrorists, or sex workers, or that they only apply to victims of abuses such as torture or political imprisonment. Populists actively perpetuate these misunderstandings and, because there are few alternative messages, human rights organisations are vulnerable to populist narratives that prey on feelings of loss and insecurity. Too often, CSOs frame human rights in terms of problems — as ways of listing abuses — rather than solutions to universal challenges encountered around the world, or tools for building a fairer society.

Human rights organisations are rarely able to articulate what they stand for, how their values translate into action, and how those actions will impact societies. Historically, their communications strategies have clustered around reactions to international crises, often resorting to naming, blaming and shaming tactics. In order to communicate a moral case for action and path forward, CSOs should develop a new vocabulary of solutions and shared values. Not only would this explain how human rights create change but also, by tapping into universal human values, return human rights to a “common sense” position in the public consciousness, rather than a reactive one.

Role of Digital Media

Populists usually have a very simple story to tell, know the response they want to elicit and are adept at using the media and digital marketing tactics to influence the public. They have gamed social media algorithms to promote stories from dubious sources that fit their narratives. They have invested heavily in advertising to inject their narratives into the social media feeds of specific target audiences. In the USA, Donald Trump’s campaign has already spent over $16 million on social media advertising since November 2018. In Brazil, India, the Philippines and beyond, populists continue to use Facebook and WhatsApp groups to spread hate, fear and division.

Despite efforts to regulate social media platforms to stem the worst abuses, digital marketing is here to stay. CSOs should therefore find ethical ways to harness it for positive outcomes. For example, disseminating content on Facebook posts can transmit values-based messages, and also test them much more cheaply than more time-consuming focus groups. This should be seen as a more accessible tool that can be used with, rather than instead of, other forms of testing, especially as content that makes people click, share and sign may not necessarily signal messages that will win debates. It can, however, be a first step that helps to set organisations in new directions.

Main Features of the Innovation

To identify new potential ways of talking about human rights, Amnesty International has applied social media tools primarily used for fundraising to a new end – testing positive narratives. It is an example of how civil society can use social listening, A/B testing, audience segmentation and micro-targeting to promote positive narratives around human rights. These tests aimed to act on recommendations from Anat Shenker- Osorio’s cognitive research by:

Framing human rights as actions that people practice, rather than abstract objects or goals “bestowed” on people by governments.

Casting human rights as a collective vision for entire societies rather than individual protections.

Using constructive vocabularies about “journeys” and “building” instead of conflicts.

Framing human rights as universal tools for safer, happier and more peaceful lives rather than individual self-interest and extrinsic values.

At the end of the testing process described below, two key potential narratives emerged as new ways of talking about human rights:

a) human rights as “rules of the road”: as guidelines for living together and treating each other fairly;

b) human rights as the “glue” that binds us together in our shared humanity.

As a result, Amnesty International has developed a brand strategy centred on telling stories that illustrate humanity in action.


Main features of the testing process

The process began with an exploratory phase auditing quantitative audience research previously carried out by Amnesty International offices in several national markets and meetings with street fundraisers to see what themes emerge in face-to-face conversations with people on the street. The target audiences for the Facebook testing were identified using the platform’s tool to target “lookalike audiences” – people with a similar profile to current followers. These people had strong affinities for human rights and human rights organisations. They came from a broad mix of regions ranging from Barbados to Botswana and Estonia to Zambia.

The first round of testing focused on engagement, rather than recruitment. Amnesty International’s brand team applied four sets of Facebook ad copy about human rights to three separate videos: a profile of an activist, a short inspiring animation and an upbeat video for the annual report launch. The videos were run multiple times with different Facebook ad copy. In this first phase, the “cause/glue” and “rules of the road”-themed ad copy performed best. The traditional “safety net” message performed poorly and subsequently was dropped from Amnesty’s messaging strategies.

The second round of testing applied the four best-performing narratives to an upbeat video produced by Amnesty International France (itself based on the insight that people want to be part of a successful cause). Each narrative was paired with three different versions of a sentence of text, each of which varied by swapping single words. For example, instead of “fighting” for a better world, alternative texts spoke of “moving”, “finding the way”, “making”, and “standing together”. The study found that casting human rights as a connective force performed best.

The third round tested which values messages would drive a higher rate of sign-ups to a human rights organisation. It centred around recruitment in 24 emerging markets, especially Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan. Four bespoke animated short videos were created to illustrate the following ideas:
·· Change/Hope (an empowering message)
·· Humanity (a uniting message)
·· People Power (traditional activism)
·· Compassion (a traditional aid message)

In the tests run by Amnesty International’s digital marketing and brand teams, the “humanity” message performed best, with “change/hope” and “compassion” messages enjoying varied success in certain markets. The traditional “people power” message performed the worst.

The purpose of A/B testing is not to identify definitive new messages, because the content that performs best can vary according to factors such as its quality, relevance to a target audience, how it fits algorithms and even the time of year it is posted. A/B testing should instead be seen as a means of trialing innovative new messaging and sense-checking regular content in combination with other testing methods (which can only be used intermittently by most organisations).

Key Takeaways

  1. In order to combat populist anti-elitist narratives, civil society groups need to frame their causes in terms of binding communities together rather than confronting governments. To do this, they should work together to brainstorm new tactics, share positive results and, crucially, work together to cross-promote content that tells stories reinforcing a common narrative: operating as a unified, multi-faceted movement rather than separate brands.

  2. Civil society groups need to test using metaphors from everyday life that can explain core concepts like human rights to audiences. In these tests, language around “humanity” tested well, while conceiving human rights as a “safety net”, a “confrontation”, or “protecting victims” proved less effective. Hope-based communications workshops (see case study 11, pg 114) suggest the language and imagery of “gardening”, “building” and “eating together” are promising vocabularies for human rights. Continuing these workshops could identify further potential narratives and metaphors for A/B testing.

  3. A/B testing and direct targeting offer an accessible space for testing unusual content around values and assessing impact across different audiences. It also can be used to target content directly to decision-makers. This simple tool is now standard across the digital marketing sector and national politics, particularly in the USA, but CSOs should experiment to find unique and ethical ways of using it. For example, it could be used to promote the authentic voices of communities and supporters with user-generated content. Messages that perform well in A/B tests could be trialed with focus groups (even if these are informal gatherings of supporters) and in daily communications.

  4. Human rights groups could start developing creative content based on concepts of “rules of the road”, “a way to treat each other better” and “the glue that binds us together in our shared humanity”. They can then apply these potential framings to current issues, using them to identify and promote everyday stories that bring these narratives to life.

Innovation Categorisation

This is an emergent, adjacent innovation for message framing and testing, adapting existing tools and tactics for new uses and audiences. It is also starting to expand beyond Amnesty International to several human rights organisations.

Innovating Organisation

Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 7 million people in more than 70 countries. It campaigns for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.

Innovation Report     2019