2020 is a lot. If we left it at a global pandemic that would be enough, but we’ve also seen the rise of the largest demonstrations for racial justice in US history, the highest rate of voter turnout our country has seen, and a significant defeat of Trumpism at the polls.
This year has been a year of leadership from multi-racial movements and organizations led by Black people and people of color – making Defund The Police a common concept, shifting the electoral map in the country, and building power for the long haul.
We’ve seen on the ground strategists win by leveraging stories and messages that build political power and seed and amplify a new common sense to make hope, justice, and liberation more possible.
Join ReFrame along with our c4 partner, This Is Signals, Wednesday November 18th at 8PM EST (7PM Central / 5PM Pacific) as we host a panel with ReFrame from Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania share their experiences building narrative power in 2020 and their visions for the years ahead.
This LIVE discussion, hosted by Renee’ Mowatt and Ivie Osaghae, will feature these movement leaders:
Abril Gallardo, Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA)
Many who believe in justice are fighting hard for victories at the ballot box. However, our opponents are spreading disinformation that threaten the just future we are all working towards. This disinformation seeks to disrupt trust in accuracy, and rides off of old narratives that have used racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia to target and divide our communities for decades.
Today, this disinformation is spreading at unprecedented rates. If we hope to win narrative battles and shift the cultural terrain, we need to disrupt the disinformation that is affecting our communities the most (think: birtherism, all the varieties of Black/Brown/Asian wedges, blaming racial justice movements for the wildfires and violence caused largely by climate change and white domestic terrorists).
This year, chaos agents, who are interested in sowing discord and division, put some of our movement organizations at the center of conspiracy theories and disinformation attacks, threatening to delegitimize our work, sow distrust among our communities, and suppress our power. Many of us have heard and seen these conspiracy theories and lies littering our newsfeeds, circulating among our members, and maybe even from our Problematic Uncles.
But we can and are fighting back. Defending our communities against disinformation is inseparable from our organizing and integral to winning our fights for justice in this upcoming election and beyond. And often, the best defense is a strong offense that neutralizes disinfo before it spreads. Let’s start with a few tools that we’ve developed with the Disinformation Defense League for organizers across our movements to deploy RIGHT NOW.
For more juicy resources, check out #DisruptDisinfo and tools like these from MediaJustice‘s Week of Action against Disinformation.
For the FULL Disinfo Defense Toolkit, co-curated by ReFrame and PEN America, click here.
We know the work of making sure our communities aren’t manipulated by disinformation is draining. We must do this work together. That’s why ALL OF US need to equip ourselves, take care of each other, & share the load because defending against disinformation isn’t an extra thing. Right now, our best defense is our organizing, relationships, and our work, but we all know disinformation doesn’t end with the election. For a look at our stance on the long game, check out our blog, “Fighting Disinformation, Building Narrative Power.”
We are facing a storm of disinformation, conspiracy theories, half-truths and lies. But organizers know what’s up.
We just need relevant tools to push back while continuing to advance our work for justice. We understand that while the details of the disinfo might be new, the underlying narratives that make the disinfo believable have been advancing for decades.
These new disinformation streams give emotional urgency to these narratives, often by exploiting fear, and thrive in voids of clear, factual and equally emotional information. As we respond to disinformation and misinformation, it’s our job to start seeding counter narratives that innoculate against disinformationby creating a new common sense where racist, sexist and homophobic values have no place, and therefore little cognitive traction through which to spread (Check out our blog post for more).
This toolkit can help you do this, during this election season and beyond.
Thank you to all who contributed tools and resources to this first edition:
Note: When you open the toolkit, you can navigate through it by clicking on the page numbers of each tool in the table of contents. Tools that are also online contain external links to those original webpages. These webpage links are marked by blue rectangles (if viewing with Adobe or Preview), hyperlinked, or the actual URL is included.
At ReFrame, we envision a world where marginalized communities have the power to shape meaning and material conditions toward justice. To get there, we first need to understand that the terrain on which we’re operating is stacked against us. We are organizing and telling stories on an uneven playing field, where the underlying narratives have long been shaped by a vast and resourced network of highly conservative forces. While narratives are never static and are always up for contention, conservative narratives of racism, sexism and homophobia have been built into the functioning of society and continue to undergird many systems and institutions today.
This is the playing field on which disinformation and misinformation is spreading. Disinfo and misinfo spread because the content invokes narratives that feel like common sense to certain audiences, including anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and red-baiting. While the details of the disinfo might be new, the underlying narratives that make the disinfo believable have been advancing for decades. These new disinformation streams give emotional urgency to these narratives, often by exploiting fear, and thrive in voids of clear, factual and equally emotional information.
So how do we combat disinformation and misinformation? The same way we work to even the playing field and shape meaning and conditions toward justice for the long term. By moving strategically to control the debate, and by building social power for the long term.
Another way to talk about social power is narrative power. At ReFrame, we define
narrative as a collection of related stories that are articulated and refined over time to represent a central idea or belief.1 We must build the power we need to have our narratives matter– narratives that advance racial, economic, gender, and climate justice. The more our narratives build influence and traction, the more we even the playing field toward justice, and the more we change conditions to even this playing field, the more our narratives can matter. As we respond to disinformation and misinformation, it’s our job to start seeding counter narratives that innoculate against disinformation by creating a a new common sense where racist, sexist and homophobic values have no place, and therefore little cognitive traction through which to spread.
We’ve known for years that our opponents lie and manipulate people to maintain and consolidate power. They’ve used advertisements in news media, made deceitful phone calls to voters, and posted anonymous and misdirecting flyers in shops. What’s different is that the digital realm, a realm in which we make meaning and sense of the world and connect with people, has created the opportunity for a wider range of bad actors to spread disinfo, and has allowed for more varied and targeted ways for it to be spread. That is exactly what’s happening today, and it is contributing to a sense of chaos that can feed into mounting fascism, unless we launch an increasingly coordinated movement response.
Tracking, combatting, and neutralizing disinformation isn’t separate from our narrative power-building approaches as organizers and advocates. Instead, we see it as something we should integrate into the work we’re already doing — print and social media scanning, 1:1 conversations on the doors and on the phones, the ways we communicate with our bases and our members, and how we organize and work with journalists and digital platforms. That said, we also need to combine forces with others who are doing larger platform accountability campaigns, journalist education and organizing, and building networks of trusted messengers, disruptors and meaning makers across all sectors of society (see our Movement Framework for Disinformation Response).
It’s going to take more than a pithy tweet that goes viral to neutralize disinformation and seed the narratives that we want to be common sense, although it might help from time to time. We don’t have to choose to strategically respond to disinformation or spend our time building narrative power – to try to prioritize one or the other. In these times and in the fights we are in for our lives and the lives of people we love and care about, we can and need to do both.
Let’s build power, fight lies and fascism, and win the world we long for.
Stay tuned for our Disinfo Defense Toolkit, co-curated with PEN America coming soon!
1: This definition was developed by Narrative Initiative in conversation with 100 strategists, as outlined in their paper Towards a New Gravity
2: The concept of the internet as the “digital realm” comes to us from Kairos, from their Medium post, Building Power Online
Exploring the narrative weather of Covid-19. The Rona Report is a project of ReFrame and Solea Signals.
COVID time is confusing. It can feel like light speed and sloth slow all at once. The same goes for public debate at this time; trending concepts like “flatten the curve” and “Grandma Killer” can appear and disappear within days and weeks, while narratives that we’d like to see disappear, like “Yellow Peril” and “Government as freedom-killer,” threaten to become further entrenched.
Navigating the dynamics of this narrative space is no easy task when we’re putting out the fires and running from crisis to crisis. The Rona Report is here to help those of us who don’t have time to find the signal in the noise. We’re drawing out trends and analyzing them to offer you possibilities to leverage them toward big change.
This week, in our inaugural Rona Report (see endnote for research methods), we’re exploring narrative weather trends from the past three months around Covid-19, the economy and workers.
Want to make sure you receive future Rona Reports and other nerdy behind-the-scenes-banter about building a narrative weather station? If you haven’t already, make sure you sign up here.
“THE ECONOMY, STUPID!”
In 1992 political strategist James Carville declared, “The economy, stupid.” This became a core message for Bill Clinton’s winning campaign against George H.W. Bush. The message became a mantra, and “the economy” became a primary driver of U.S. narrative in modern times. This is no different under Covid-19.
When looking at the conversation about the economy during Covid-19, two primary trends emerge: the Trump Economy and the Covid Economy.
The Trump Economy is used as a way to talk about the economy before Covid-19, an economy that centers economic growth over human life. The phrase simultaneously casts President Trump as primarily responsible for a growth economy, while denouncing any government action that would interfere in the free market.
The Covid Economy is used as a marker to distinguish the economy during the pandemic from the Trump Economy that we had “before.” Stories inside this trend range from unemployment to economic depressions, recessions, recovery, supply chains, bankruptcy, the stock market and stimulus or austerity. These stories generally reinforce the ideals of neoliberalism, and refer to people as consumers or workers.
TRENDS IN TRUMP ECONOMY AND COVID ECONOMY FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
While the Trump Economy trend dominated through March, the Covid Economy began to contend for popularity in April, at times surpassing the Trump Economy in volume.
After April 16, the Covid Economy reemerged as more popular than the Trump Economy and remained more popular for the rest of the month.
Amidst these two trends, we wondered how social movement reframing of the economy compared. We explored the popularity of Solidarity Economy and Care Economy.
The Solidarity Economy or the Care Economy are reframes that center the humanity of workers, caring for people over profit, mutual aid, regulation for equity, and the transformation of the economy around these values. They center demands like cancelling rent and forgiving student loans as advanced by “the People’s Bailout” and “Recovery for All” campaigns. While these demands are necessary, our research shows that interest is higher around the topics of unemployment, hazard pay, personal protective equipment (PPE), and paycheck protection (see graphs in Workers section below).
TRENDS IN SOLIDARITY AND CARE ECONOMY VS. COVID AND TRUMP ECONOMY FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
Just because the Solidarity and Care Economies haven’t hit the same volume as the Trump Economy and Covid Economy, that doesn’t mean we should abandon them. On the contrary, it means we should double down on posts, stories and other content that lift up conversation around these reframes. The political and economic terrain is still shifting. Right now the data suggests that conversation on the Solidarity and Care Economies rises in response to dominant frames. We can take advantage of these patterns and push this rise in conversation to larger peaks with greater coordination in the framing and timing of our communications.
Our scanning shows a specific urgency to name and claim the Solidarity, Care and other transformed economies that we deserve: economists, finance think tanks and media that cater to big business and stock traders are already talking about the Economy of the Future. While we focus on the reform demands that our communities urgently need in this crisis, we also need to articulate our visions for how to make these reforms permanent. Otherwise we surrender the parameters of what’s possible to what is currently trending: corporate-driven conversation about “back-to-normal” or “business as usual economics” or “post-corona” GDP, goods, services, and human capital, or at best new models of green neoliberalism like aPlanetary Health Index. We must start talking about the economy of the future or we surrender this vision to corporate America once again.
Our small listening exposed a frame across content that America is The Economy. This frame shows up in rhetoric that conflates individual freedom and returning to work. This conflation is used to justify anti-immigrant policies and sentiment in the name of giving jobs back to American workers (code for “deserving white workers”). We must be cautious to not equate people with the sole identity of worker or small business owner. We must prop up values of internationalism and interdependence that we need to push back against racism and xenophobia and achieve a just recovery. There is an opportunity in this challenge to push the nation toward the revolution of values that is long overdue.
With 33+ million people in the United States laid off, furloughed and out of paid work, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the conversation about jobs, labor, workers, wages, and the role of the government in relationship to protecting workers and regulating corporations and the economy.
While we are all in this together, historic and present day systemic racism means that Black people, Native people, Latinx people and some segments of Asian-American communities are getting sick and dying at far higher rates than white people. There are many reasons for these disparities, and one of them is that it is people of color, and often women of color, who are disproportionately exposed to the virus because they hold down frontline jobs.
In this context, it’s of course more important than ever to fight for workers’ rights. But just as everything in the rest of the world has changed, the way we demand these protections also has to change.
Similar to the economy search, the popularity volume trend of Workers Rights has erratic peaks and valleys but overall the pattern is steady. By the middle of March we see the emergence of Essential Workers as a core trend with significant volume increase over workers rights.
TRENDS IN WORKERS RIGHTS AND ESSENTIAL WORKERS FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
When we explore unemployment in comparison to workers rights and essential workers, we can see that the peaks and valleys of essential workers and unemployment are similar but the volume of unemployment is much higher.
TRENDS IN WORKERS RIGHTS AND ESSENTIAL WORKERS VS. UNEMPLOYMENT FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
Taking it a step further we begin searching for the patterns in search popularity around demands coming from individuals, communities and organizations in response to the economic crises under Covid-19 including hazard pay, paycheck protection, and unemployment benefits.
TRENDS IN HAZARD PAY, PAYCHECK PROTECTION AND UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
While we searched for several variations of PPE for workers, the volume is negligible in relationship to wages and salary for workers. Finally, we explored other demands in relationships to unemployment benefits and the CARES Act (which included paycheck protections for some). These included canceling rent, student loan forgiveness, and the people’s bailout.
TRENDS IN CANCEL RENT, STUDENT LOAN FORGIVENESS AND PEOPLE’S BAILOUT VS. UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS AND CARES ACT FEB 8 - APR 29, 2020
Our scanning found that unemployment and unemployment benefits are dominant conversations with far higher volume of interest than workers rights or any of the specific economic demands made by our movements.
There is a tremendous opportunity to lead with a broad tent of demands that benefit workers under the banner of unemployment benefits.
Entering the debate where its volume is highest allows our demands to be heard by more people and also gives us the opportunity to use expanded unemployment as a springboard toward a cascading set of demands and policies we need.
The conversation about unemployment can be used as the hook to elevate the Solidarity Economy and Care Economy.
Both frames need to include an explicit and implicit race and gender lens.
Linking all of our workers’ rights and economic demands to unemployment benefits allows us to point back to a progressive narrative about the role of government. We can then seed the ideas, beliefs and values for the future of the government and an economy that provides economic security to all, both now and in a post-Covid-19 world.
When we talk about workers, we might think twice about casting them as either “essential” or as “heroes.” This language can reinforce the idea that some workers are essential to keeping Capitalism running for profit but that their bodies and their health are disposable, or that workers are soldiers, eligible for sacrifice in the war economy. Consider using “frontline workers” more consistently, and naming economic necessity and race and gender bias as structural forces that shape who makes up this workforce, rather than innate heroism.
Interrupt the false dichotomy that we have to choose between saving the economy and saving lives. Instead we can name that there is no more important business than saving lives, and that the integrity and sustainability of our economy depends on a humane and evidence-based approach to the pandemic. We can use examples like the Works Progress Administration and The New Deal to showcase policies that supported both work and people’s humanity while being careful to not prioritize “back to work” over health and safety. We can also use examples from other countries where businesses have had to abruptly close after reopening caused spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Establish the ideas and values of the Economy of the Future. We must move the needle beyond “Trump economy” and “Covid economy” and define “the Economy of the Future.” Whether it’s the Care Economy, the Solidarity Economy, or the Green New Deal, we must seed the vision that the government is responsible for the regulation of corporations and the distribution of resources for an equitable and healthy economic future for all. We can begin by providing a steady drumbeat to prop up the crisis measures that should become a permanent feature of our society: expanded unemployment, better health protections and compensation for some workers, the CARE Act, and stimulus checks that should be the precursor to Universal Basic Income. There is already proof these things are possible.
Be explicit about race, class and gender within the Economy of the Future We know from the seminal work of Makani Themba, and from the messaging work of Anat Shenker-Osorio and Ian Haney López, that when we erase race from our communication we set ourselves up for policies and practices that further entrench institutional racism. The small listening we conducted shows that we are good at talking about race, class and gender in discussing disparities in COVID rates and economic impacts. In some cases we are also good at talking about disparities in access to relief. We can take the additional step of naming that any economic recovery must set the groundwork for an equitable economy of the future where race, class and gender based disparities in health and economic security are eliminated.
Provide for ourselves, but also demand the government we need to make transformative change. Our small listening of partners and progressive forces showed that our messaging and stories have focused heavily on mutual aid. While mutual aid is beautiful, necessary and literally life-saving, we can name that this community action can and should be enacted by the government on a larger scale. We frequently concede that the government doesn’t care about us and therefore will not implement the policies required to regulate the economy and take care of people’s most basic needs like shelter, food, and resources. Instead, we can distinguish between the current federal government as it has been shaped by neo-liberal ideology and the expanded, responsive and participatory government we need: a government that should function as a guarantor of collective rights, a regulator for mutual aid, an investor in public services, and an expression of multi-racial democracy that enacts economic policies that care for all people.
Name, pressure and delegitimize elected officials who are choosing profit over life. Prop up elected officials who are getting it right. Instead of just broadly naming “the government” as untrustworthy and inefficient, directly target and call out specific elected officials for their inability to keep people safe. Give concrete examples of how their failure to govern directly leads to sickness and death that leaves no one untouched. Give concrete alternatives by pointing to elected officials who are taking bold action to protect life while also providing economic relief and making measured plans for economic recovery.
Speak to the bigger “we” that has been created by this moment, and appeal to cross-racial solidarity among the 99%. Our economy is built on discrimination and exploitation, and this pandemic is hitting poor people, women and other people of color harder than ever. Demands to reopen the economy are spearheaded largely by white privileged conservatives at the expense of Black and Brown people working in frontline jobs, as well as elderly people and disabled people. Unemployment insurance (and other pieces of the social safety net) has long been framed as an encouragement to laziness and sloth, a definite racial dog whistle.
There is a new landscape of possibility: the vast numbers of us who are economically and physically vulnerable because of the pandemic constitute a larger “we.” A broader set of us share material conditions of uncertainty in this crisis as well as a heightened sense of responsibility for each others’ health, which can lead to an increased sense of social solidarity. This larger WE can be encouraged to take action to pressure our government to more fully transform the economy.
We are here with you. Our hearts and thoughts are with everyone who is struggling right now.
Like many people across the country, at ReFrame, we are sorting through the many layers of worry and stress to prepare. We are shoring up our staff and networks to survive this crisis, and to lean into the opportunity COVID-19 is presenting. (We took our team through threat modeling as a part of our organization practice and supported them to use the tool for personal planning. And leaned into some good old SWOT planning).
Many of us are worried about the worst: what if my family gets sick? What if my partner loses their job? How will my parents have income? Will my friend have somewhere to live? These worries extend beyond our homes to our neighbors, to our communities, to our states, and to our country.
These worries feel heavier, because we all understand that as a society, as governments, and industries respond to the pandemic – these responses will shape norms and rules in society for the foreseeable future.
Common sense in society is up for grabs, and what is true about society can significantly shift.
The question is: How will we move in this moment to shape the post-pandemic world in ways that were unimaginable two months ago?
These cracks in the opposition and the impacts of the crisis stretch across geography, race, gender, class, generation and political affiliation, we have a responsibility to move differently.
We have also seen the emergence of distributed mutual aid networks that are utilizing new technologies, existing strong networks (parents, faith, community, identity, etc) to take care of each other, driven by solidarity and not the market.
The fumbling of our opposition and the spontaneous rise in solidarity are heartening, and we are just in the beginning.
As in any crisis, that window of what is possible, of what people understand to be true could shift towards national protectionism and authoritarianism. But it doesn’t have to.
We believe we can shift it towards a common sense where the government becomes a vehicle for mutual aid, a different economy where the market doesn’t dictate social goods like healthcare, a society built on trust and solidarity (the narratives that undergird so many existing campaigns).
While we wrestle with the heaviness of this moment, the uncertainty, the fear, we have an opportunity to collectively write the story of what our world will become in the days, months, and years after the coronavirus pandemic. This will require us to move beyond the practical challenges we all face in our existing work.
This moment requires us to move differently and shift what we have been doing, not to match the challenge of today, but to build tomorrow.
We are talking with our partners, listening to our networks, and making plans for what this moment calls for and what we think is possible. We will be leveraging our relationships and lessons from some experiments in narrative to find the right next step. Over the next couple of days we will keep you in the loop of what we are seeing and what we are doing, and how we can work together in these times.