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.