SEATTLE, Washington — In an era of social media, constant news streaming and ever-changing circumstances, the average individual is oversaturated with information about the world around them. Headlines constantly read of unfortunate tragedies and press releases always make things seem more complicated. It is all too easy to feel helpless in the wake of all the world’s countless problems. But how helpless are we really? The Borgen Project talked to Dr. Mathew Krain about how individuals can best mobilize change.
How to Mobilize Change
With troubles all around, it can be hard for individuals to really know what they can really do to help. A study by Fransman and Lecomte in 2003 found that citizens across several countries, including the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada, overwhelmingly felt that issues of global poverty and hunger were majorly important and should be prioritized. People across the globe, particularly in the United States, are painfully aware of global poverty. So how should organizations like The Borgen Project work to mobilize change from the people ready to help?
In collaboration with Kyla Jo McEntire, an alumnus of the College of Wooster, Dr. Matthew Krain and Dr. Michelle Leiby’s 2015 study examined how human rights organizations framed their mobilization outreach. In addition, they analyzed how well these methods worked. This was largely meant to examine the effectiveness of mircomobilization, which they defined as the work done by organizations to “mobilize consensus about the nature of rights abuses and then mobilize action to change rights behavior.” (page 407) In other words, they wanted to find the best ways for advocacy organizations to reach out to and mobilize everyday citizens.
To set up the experiment, they first identified three “frames,” or methods of communicating information, that HROs most frequently use. Informational frames provide objective facts and statistics about a situation or issue. They operate on the assumption that, by increasing an individual’s knowledge on an issue, the individual will become more likely to act. Personal frames focus the audience’s attention on a particular episode of an individual’s story within the broader issue. This frame personifies the situation and builds a sense of empathy to create an emotional connection. Finally, motivational frames act as a call to arms by “creating feelings of agency and efficacy — suggesting that they can act, and that their actions can create the desired outcomes.”
The two authors quickly got to work investigating which of these frames would be the most impactful in two areas: consensus mobilization and action mobilization. The former measured how much the participant agreed on the severity of the issue that was presented. Meanwhile, the latter measured how likely the participant would be to take action such as signing petitions, contacting lawmakers or donating.
Using the Personal Frame
“Our findings across all the articles that we’ve done so far, is that the personal frame is actually the most powerful frame for getting people to care about human rights,” Krain explained in an interview in September 2020. While informational frames increased people’s concern, they weren’t as effective as personal frames in getting people to care. However, all of the frames worked better compared to nothing.
Krain attributes the success of the personal frame to its ability to get us to feel rather than to analyze. By dumping inconceivable numbers and rattling off statistics, informational frames can be good to build a base of knowledge. However, informational frames push us to calculate rather than to feel. Meanwhile. the personal frame “activates our sense of concern or outrage, and makes us more likely to be willing to change our minds,” he says.
So what does this all tell us about the way we can mobilize our peers, both within the context of The Borgen Project and in everyday life? Subsequent studies suggest the same principles apply in interpersonal advocacy as well.
According to Krain, studies currently being conducted by advocacy organizations suggest that in-depth, non-judgemental conversations are best. Conversations in which advocates are able to share both informational and personal frames have a significant effect on people.
Beyond the Study
Despite the newness of this literature, Krain seems to be optimistic. These findings suggest that we can advocate for issues such as global poverty by simply having open conversations with others. Finding ways to personalize situations and becoming personally familiar with the injustices also helps. Once people empathize with the suffering of others, they become much more ready to act.
That is where Krain suggests the situation can get a bit sticky. In his own words, the question very quickly becomes, “how [do]you advocate on behalf of people that some people don’t believe are innocent, or victims, or vulnerable or deserving of advocacy?” Therefore, the authors have turned their joint research to this question over the past several years. They are now focusing on advocacy groups for prisoners, sex workers and mental health generally.
As their research progresses, Krain and Leiby hope to find more answers to the question of how organizations and individuals alike can frame and discuss important advocacy issues to best mobilize change.
In the meantime, research suggests the best way to mobilize change is to humanize the issue at hand. Global poverty is not just about the numbers. It is true that as of 2017, about 689 million people across the globe live in extreme poverty. Additionally, experts estimate that between 40 million and 60 million more individuals will fall into poverty over the course of this pandemic. However, these numbers represent people with stories. The best way to advocate for global poverty reduction is to tell those stories. So let’s tell them.
– Angie Bittar