Human rights groups must refine their communications strategy – study

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MANILA, Philippines – After being labeled as conspirators against the government, human rights (HR) organizations must “resume political discourse” and step up their communication strategies to win the so-called information war, according to a new study highlighting the struggle to better communicate with the public.

Among the conclusions of the study entitled “Human rights in survival mode” is that many of these groups still lack effective communication strategies – some seeing it as mere “peripheral” work to their advocacy and grassroots campaigns – which have made them more vulnerable to disinformation and targeted attacks.

The Asia Foundation-funded report by US-based Filipino academics Jonathan Ong, Jeremy Tintiangko and Rossine Fallorina came to this conclusion after interviews with workers from 41 local and Filipino international human rights groups and allies. sectoral from December 2019 to March 2020.

The study published by the Harvard Kennedy School is also a rare scientific overview of the perceived shortcomings of the human rights movement, which is experiencing an “unprecedented crisis” of legitimacy in a highly polarized society.

While the attacks on them aren’t exactly new, there is “something about this current moment that is different in terms of the attack and the harassment,” Ong said in an interview with the Inquirer.

Take control of the storytelling

But even caught in the crosshairs of the “information war” launched by pro-Duterte supporters, human rights organizations simply “left this battle, did not participate. [in] this war, or have not faced it enough. They mentioned that they were attacked but if you look at their investment [in terms of expertise or workers], it’s really missing, ”he added.

This is also why their message often starts off strong but gradually fades away, allowing disinformation agents – troll farms and pro-Duterte influencers – to take control of the narrative and falsely label the work as human rights. of “conspiracy” to destabilize the government.

“We even have examples of [organizations] who have stopped using the term human rights because he has too much baggage, ”noted Ong. “But if you stop using it, you authorize the [administration] to define the terms of what human rights are.

Among other things, the study found that many human rights groups treat communication “as a set of disparate tools, activities and platforms rather than as a long-term, coherent strategy to regain control of human rights. major political speeches and reshaping public engagement with, and perception of, human rights.

In fact, only 16 of the 30 organizations they surveyed have a full-time communications staff member. Often, this work is entrusted to the advocacy or community manager.

According to the study, many of these staff are also “rarely supported by additional training and equipment.” Many groups struggle to divert funding from stronger communication work, while others maintain their responsibility is to “help the most vulnerable”.

Change in public confidence

Unsurprisingly, this left them just as exposed. Partly because of President Duterte’s unfounded rhetoric against human rights defenders, accusing them of being organizations of demons and supporters of criminals, drug addicts or communists, the movement saw a sudden and dramatic change in public confidence.

Many social and development workers interviewed for the report, for example, sometimes felt unwelcome in villages and schools. Often, they said, the military had warned residents against any interaction with “activists” who supposedly wanted to indoctrinate them into communist thought.

Online, human rights defenders are also the subject of a smear campaign by trolls and disinformation networks that has had a huge impact on their mental health. Among other things, they are accused of being more sympathetic to criminals and beholden to foreign donors, thus casting doubt on their integrity and criticism of Duterte’s policies.

Even so, Ong said, many organizations have yet to invest in cybersecurity infrastructure and resources to empower and protect many of their front lines.

Some, especially seasoned advocates, do not feel the need to innovate in their campaigns which are predominantly based on anger and outrage – the “-ismos: pasismo, imperyalismo, kapitalismo”, as Ong describes it – and fail to succeed. therefore not to capture a wider audience.

Related issues

“Sometimes human rights organizations are so focused on their principles, their ismos and their jargon, but they also need to be understood by the masses,” he said. “They need to follow these conversations using language most people can understand and resonate with.”

Of course, the movement is not without pioneers. The study shows, for example, that groups like Metro Manila Pride and Child Rights Network challenged traditional “doom” campaigns using a positive and creative communication approach.

These initiatives, he said, were less about jargon and more about human stories of success and empowerment. By making advocacy for gender equality and children’s dignity more relevant, groups have made waves in mainstream campaigns and have been more successful in legislative lobbying.

Human rights organizations also have to deal with the public’s genuine feelings of deprivation of human rights – which hold them captive to a populist president – instead of simply “staying above the fray,” he said. declared Ong.

Specifically, the study called on advocates to “speak their language and meet them where they are” rather than dismiss their fears and anxieties.

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