Keyboard crusaders

| April 13, 2021

In an attention economy, the loudest voice isn’t always the most impactful. At a time when supporters of various causes are shouting louder than ever, Monash experts are finding new ways of getting important, accurate information to the community using a different tactic.

The activism model of persuasive communication isn’t necessarily the most effective.

It’s part of a research-based strategy to determine how to get clear messages, from trusted sources to large audiences. And what the team at the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub has discovered about what works and what doesn’t might surprise you.

Cape of good hope

In 2020, a couture cape embroidered with the names of female directors was the biggest star of this year’s Oscars fashion red carpet, for what seems like all the wrong reasons.

Its wearer, Natalie Portman, was making a statement about the Oscars’ failure, yet again, to nominate a woman for best director. But the actor became the subject of a social media pile-on accusing her of hypocrisy, given her production company’s record on hiring female directors, and noting the cost of Portman’s cape would have been better spent on women’s charities.

Natalie Portman on the red carpet at 2020 Oscars

Natalie Portman on the red carpet at the 2020 Oscars.

But what seems like an own-goal for Portman’s image could actually be an example of messaging at its most effective.

Dr David Holmes, head of the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub and expert in communications and sociology, specialises in finding the most effective ways to communicate with audiences.

Dr Holmes says the activism model of persuasive communication isn’t necessarily the most effective. He and his team specialise in a different type of communication, undertaking detailed research about where people are putting their attention, and identifying the already trusted voices with large platforms. The aim is to have people thinking about climate change by inhabiting all the places they could possibly be putting their attention.

A huge proportion of attention worldwide is on the Oscars red carpet fashions. By including her activist message as part of her outfit, which she would be photographed in and asked about, Portman ensured that people – particularly those who might not otherwise have been paying attention – heard her message about lack of female representation in the Best Director category.

“In the digital space you can organise, share a vision and mobilise groups to action.”

Whether it was a deliberate strategy from Portman we’ll never know, but Dr Holmes says her approach ticked plenty of the right boxes.

“She’s using a stage generating a really huge amount of attention to make a political statement, but that on its own is not enough to be effective – it might have a short-term impact, but then the message fades away,” he says. Of course, Portman already has a following as a celebrity with an identity through which is channelled the consciousness of millions. But even a celebrity must compete in the attention economy.

In this case, Portman’s message was kept alive by the social media follow-on and amplification beyond just her followers. Despite the negative attacks on Portman personally, the ‘long tail’ on social media actually strengthened her message, says Dr Holmes.

“It means her message is continuing to be given attention. And that’s the key – a message needs to be repeated over and over and over. And to be truly successful, it also needs to be relevant to resonate – Portman’s statement was directly related to the event she was attending, which also adds to the impact.”

Rallying the troops

Activism in its variety of forms has been front and centre in Australia and globally over the past year or so – the schools’ strike for climate attracted a reported four million participants around the world; protests and street riots in Hong Kong that started in early 2019 remain ongoing (dampened only by the coronavirus epidemic); and a Chilean anti-rape protest song has been adopted at women’s marches around the world, videos of the chant going viral on social media.

School students striking on climate change

Schools strike for climate attracted a reported four million participants around the world.

Social media and the online space have become a critical part of activism, used as a tool to recruit and organise activists around a common cause.

Dr Brady Robards, a sociology research fellow with Monash’s Faculty of Arts, says social media can be a great place for learning and experiencing different views and perspectives.

“The digital and the physical are tightly meshed,’ says Dr Robards. “It can be a great political organising source – they can be sites for mobilising action and connecting people.”

But online activism has been criticised in the past as ‘slacktivism’ – signing an online petition, retweeting or liking something on social media is seen as low-effort and low-effect.

Dr Robards, however, says ‘slactivism’ gets an unfair rap. He says so much of our communication is done online these days, the impact of signing an online petition or sharing a link or an article can be bigger than people realise.

 “It can start a conversation. You can’t underestimate the impact of that,” he says.

He says not everyone is in a position to demonstrate political views by taking to the streets.

“In the digital space you can organise, share a vision and mobilise groups to action. The two aren’t separate anymore.

“I don’t think you can say that Person A or Person B is more impactful because one attends a protest and the other signs an online petition. I think it’s a trap to say they don’t have an impact.”

Students protesting on climate change

Dr Stefan Kaufman, a behaviour change researcher from BehaviourWorks at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute, agrees.

“There (are) people who have the temperament, skills, time and interest to go out there and wave banners at protests, or do often quite creative and interesting direct-action,” he says.

“… There are models of social change – such as Fran Peavey’s Heart Politics … [in which] you work out where you can fit in the model of change, and, if you’ve got the appetite and desire to be an activist, be an activist. But you can also be someone who supports those activists by doing petitions or helping with funding or just showing up at the rallies they organise, while trying to do your day-to-day life things, too, and I think all these things create the preconditions for change.

“This can also include activities in day-to-day life such as thinking about how you run your home, transport, diet, etcetera, in line with your values and the science on what is good for you, your community and the world. How you spend your money can influence business and governments also.”

Resources an issue

Online activism might also be the only type available to those restricted by physical, geographical or other issues. But for many of us, it’s simply all we can manage in our day-to-day lives, Dr Kaufman says.

One of the major challenges to activism, online or offline, is the amount of resources – be it attention, time or money – people can give to issues that aren’t impacting their immediate day-to-day. For many it’s a matter of survival; putting food on the table, paying the mortgage.

It’s this attention deficit Dr Kaufman attributes to the challenge of getting people to act on an issue that’s not an immediate problem.

“We all have only a limited budget of attention – or ‘worry’, as some researchers call it – we can apply to these things,” he says.

He says experts estimate between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of our decisions every day are driven purely by habit.

“For example, once you’ve worked out how to get to work via your favoured route, you tend to just do it and stop thinking about it. It’s only when there’s a disruption to the train line or your car doesn’t work that you’re forced to think of another one. This is a good time to intervene and help people try new routines that could become new, more desirable habits.”

That’s part of the reason why the seemingly abstract nature of threats such as climate change can prevent activism – because they lack the direct impacts that force us to rethink our habitual behaviours. Research shows that in order for people to take constructive action in the face of climate risks, they need to:

  • feel that their own actions, and everyone else’s, can actually make a positive and direct impact on the threat
  • be able to visualise tangible examples of the threat
  • believe action is expected by people important to them, and that action is what most people would do
  • feel that the benefits of action outweigh the benefits of doing nothing.

All in all, it’s a demanding list, and analysis shows the messaging from those opposed to climate change is taking advantage of that.

“It appears PR firms and political strategists opposed to change may have read some of the same research – for example, emphasising the costs of action, or that it will make no difference anyway,” Dr Kaufman says.

That’s why the seemingly abstract nature of threats such as climate change can prevent activism – because they lack the direct impacts that force us to rethink our habitual behaviours.

While for many Australians over recent months climate change has been a very real, direct disruption forcing change, there are just as many who don’t feel the daily impact, or don’t believe climate change is the cause.

Taking it to the streets and screens

Extinction Rebellion protests throughout Australia
Extinction Rebellion protests throughout Australia.

But those taking to both streets and screens with the aim of driving action are changing their tactics and strengthening the disruptive nature of protest. In Australia, governments – state and federal – have been going head-to-head with activist groups who are using increasingly controversial tactics.

Recent Extinction Rebellion protests throughout Australia that disrupted traffic, public transport and events, and saw protestors glueing themselves to streets and buildings, drew the ire of commuters and politicians, sparking calls for stronger penalties for protestors causing major disruption. In Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk rushed through new laws to criminalise locking devices used by protestors, and expanding police powers to search suspected activists.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison also made his position clear, threatening to outlaw climate protests, including organised boycotts on products, companies or brands.

Dr Kaufman says the Prime Minister’s widely-reported speech to the Queensland Resources Council last year made it clear the federal government isn’t encouraging “bottom-up” action on climate change. He appears to be trying to discourage activism and frame activist disruptions negatively.

“What I was hearing was that the ideal Australian is a quiet Australian who gets on with living and lets the government take care of big issues like droughts and bushfires and climate change in a way that makes as minimal an impact on people’s day-to-day as possible – no costs or inconvenience.

“Scott Morrison seemed to be saying the government would actually prefer you didn’t change your lifestyle or become an activist, that you should resent activists’ interruptions, and not participate in shareholder or consumer activism – ultimately, that ‘quiet Australians’ are much preferable than noisy Australians, or ones that are at least constructively vocal.”

Cause and effect

The Prime Minister’s attack on secondary boycotts was sparked by a number of highly successful campaigns being run by online groups. Sleeping Giants Oz and Mad F**king Witches use social media to rally their followers to action on a variety of issues. In 2019, both groups drew significant attention for the impact their social media-led campaigns were having on the advertising revenues of broadcaster Alan Jones’ morning show on 2GB Radio in Sydney.

Following comments made by Jones on his radio show about “shoving a sock down the throat” of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the groups asked their followers to politely and respectfully contact advertisers on Jones’ show querying their support for violent language against women, and advising that they would not be purchasing from their business unless they stopped advertising on the show.

Mad F**king Witches, (MFW) which has more than 55,000 members, recently reported that as of February 2020, more than 400 advertisers had withdrawn from the show. Media reports late last year attributed a 50 per cent drop in advertising revenues on Jones’ show to the campaign.

The accessibility of the online world means there are now ways for many more people to support and to take action on issues they care about, in ways that can actually have an impact, not just make them feel good.

MFW’s most recent campaign, along with Sleeping Giants Oz and The Chaser, is a boycott of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. There are signs the campaign may be having an impact. Roy Morgan research from February this year shows readership of News Corp mastheads taking a hit, with the Daily Telegraph losing a whopping 15.5 per cent of its readership both online and in print. The group’s mastheads also have also reported a nine per cent hit to revenue in the three months to December 31, 2019.

There’s no way yet to know if the boycott campaign is even partly responsible for the drop, but it’s clear this style of activism is growing in popularity and, potentially, impact.

The campaigns are sustained, the message is consistent, and appearing in places where people are already putting their attention – some of Dr Holmes’ top tips for impactful messaging.

This stealthier approach, where a message is quietly everywhere, is more effective than a one-off headline. The accessibility of the online world means there are now ways for many more people to support and to take action on issues they care about, in ways that can actually have an impact, not just make them feel good.

And dipping a toe in the world of online activism could be a way for some of those “quiet” Australians to find a voice.

This article was published by Lens.