Do you know what your opponents are really thinking? Are you aware of what other evidence (or ‘evidence’) they are also seeing, in addition to yours? Do you understand why they distrust or reject your evidence, and believe an alternative?
Every project or programme, regardless of the area of research or work, needs a robust, flexible communications strategy. Staff have to be constantly scanning the horizon, watching for opportunities to both teach and learn, and to participate in shaping the debate. Central to any communications strategy is an accurate and thorough stakeholder analysis. But do you put as much work into identifying and understanding the ‘foes’ you need to counter, as you do for the ‘friends’ you want to support?
It could be argued that one of the great communications failures so far this century is the Remain campaign for the 2016 British referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. Even had there been a neutral source of indisputable facts, it’s the job of the campaign teams – and the media – to ask the question ‘so what?’. Even when we agree on the facts behind an issue or problem, there will always be different opinions about the best way to address the issue or solve the problem. But when there is no widespread agreement about the veracity of facts – or when those facts are not published and lies are not challenged by a neutral party – how can honest debate even begin?
Carole Cadwalladr, of The Observer, is the main journalist behind the investigation that uncovered the finance and data scandal behind the Leave campaign. Carole’s Ted Talk from the opening session of the Ted 2019 conference in Vancouver has gone viral – nearly a million views in a week. ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy’ outlines how the social media platform was used and hijacked during the referendum campaign to spread a great deal of highly targeted false information.
While few of us ever work on a project with that profile or budget, a social media strategy, often including Facebook advertising, has become a fundamental part of any communications strategy. (At very least if your communications strategy doesn’t include a social media strategy, you’ll need to make the case for why not.) But how many social media strategies really escape the bubble of like-minded allies?
It was commonplace during the campaign to hear Remain voters decrying the false information on Facebook posts being shared by their Leave-voting friends and family. But unless your own Facebook account identified you as a Leave voter, you weren’t seeing the half of it. Facebook adverts, in particular, appear unbidden on timelines, all day and night, and are gone again with one refresh, making it difficult for even a journalist on a major newspaper to track.
We’ve recognised the power of social media for some time. We’ve seen abuse through censorship and manipulation, and we’ve seen cases, such as the Arab Spring, where social media was a valuable tool for freedom. But only now are we beginning to see mainstream recognition and evidence for how social media has been used to undermine the fabric of even the most ‘free and open’ democracies. And how it has been allowed to do so because allowing it to do so generated a profit.
Those people working in areas of international development that are obviously controversial are probably better than most at assessing the ‘foes’. But really it’s something that we all need to start to take more seriously. No matter how well you build your bridges, if unbeknownst to you someone else is digging out the foundations, your work is going nowhere.