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Like many, I was distraught after the 2016 election. I felt lost, and I didn’t know where to begin to try to stop the massive trainwreck our country was heading towards. How could I use my particular skills to make a change? How could I leverage my skills to allow others to use their skills effectively?
I’d like to tell you about what I’ve come up with: an app that amplifies liberal points of view (more importantly: effective liberal points of view). Before we get to that, though, I want to briefly discuss some relevant concepts and relate them to the challenges the left faces.
Frames are a special type of perspective for looking at an issue – political or otherwise. They describe an issue such that only one perspective could be considered morally correct. Frames hit you at a gut level. If you’ve done it right, you never have to explain why your perspective is correct; it’s intuitively obvious.
I’ve found the best way to illuminate this concept is to give examples, so let’s discuss a pair of frames used by the right and the left, respectively, to frame the issue of gay marriage: Defense of Marriage and Love is Love.
“Defense of Marriage”
This frame does the following:
- Implies that marriage is under attack
- Uses adversarial/divisive language
- Centers marriage
Up until the late 2000s, gay rights activists attempted to fight this frame by negating it. Gay marriage is no threat to ‘traditional’ marriage, we said. If this is about defending marriage, why don’t you care about divorce? Even the bible is full of non ‘traditional’ marriages so what do you even mean? How will gay people getting married prevent or disrupt heterosexual marriages?
This tactic… was not very effective (and you can see this in the political results). The reason why is because negating a frame only reinforces it. It’s agreeing that the terms of the debate are on the correct grounds, that the question we were trying to answer was: should marriage be defended or not? On a gut level, if you ask someone “should [good thing] be defended?” they’ll answer yes, even if there’s no threat to it. As a result, the whole frame tilted the scales towards conservatives, and the more we tried to argue with them from within the frame, the worse we made it.
“Love is Love”
- Is an undeniable truism
- Implies the universality of human experience
- Centers equality and rights
This frame worked for gay rights activists for the same reason Defense of Marriage worked for social conservatives. Who could disagree that love is, in fact, love? How could we, as a society, tell people whom they could or could not love? Our cultural tradition is full of stories of love that was against the grain of society, but won out anyway. In this frame, there is only one morally correct course of action: let people marry whomever they want!
Unfortunately, effective liberal frames like this one are a rarity for structural reasons. As it turns out, it’s harder to spread a liberal frame than it is to spread a conservative one.
The ubiquity of conservative frames
It stands to reason that conservatives seek to ‘conserve’ the status quo. The status quo is, shall we say, the most familiar ‘quo’ to the general public. As a result, it’s usually easier for conservatives to come up with effective frames, since the familiar is easier to understand while the unfamiliar is, well, scary.
Changing the status quo, then, requires extra work to make it palatable. And when you’re dealing with an issue that primarily affects marginalized folks, the public may further discount your frame because of who is delivering it.
Conservatives don’t have these problems: if they come up with a good frame, it usually tells people to just keep doing what they’re doing, it comes from people who have social and political power, and it often echoes the rationalization already in the back of people’s minds. And the right has been using this to their advantage, especially in this age of social media and digital personalities.
The internet and bot armies
At this point, I’ll refer you to an excellent series by Ian Danskin about how the alt-right has been bringing long abandoned modes of thinking back into mainstream awareness. If you care about the danger the alt-right represents, I cannot recommend you watch those videos highly enough. Seriously. Go watch them. I’ll wait here until you’re finished.
I don’t want to summarize those videos (which you watched, right??) but suffice to say, the alt-right has been using the advantages they do have, and manipulating both social media and the regular media to spread their frames. You’ve probably heard the term ‘SJW.’ Or ‘reverse racism.’ Maybe even ‘white genocide.’ Yeah, that’s all them.
Right now they’re a small, fringe group, but they have structural advantages and they’re determined. There are lots of ways they spread their frames, but one of the most obvious ones is something called astroturfing. Astroturfing, if you haven’t heard of it, is a fake grassroots campaign, and it’s not new. Lots of groups have or do use them to make a certain point of view more popular than it is:
- The Russians did a lot of this to divide Sanders voters from Clinton
- It looks like ISP corporations did this to make repealing net neutrality look vastly more popular than it was.
- Oil companies have done this to combat environmental protections
Basically the way it works is these groups create a lot of fake accounts, post an opinion (expressing a frame), and use all of their fake accounts to like/share/retweet/repost/etc and spread the frame across social media with a seemingly large backing. Liberals inevitably argue with this opinion, but because they rarely offer up a counter-frame, they end up spreading that frame to their own followers. Often, liberals end up doing half the work of popularizing the frame.
With all this going on, how can liberals create effective frames and make them ubiquitous?
AskNot is a project that aims to effectively spread liberal frames using an actual grassroots userbase (on Twitter, currently, but we have bigger plans for the future). There are two parts to doing this.
- First, AskNot collects or creates effective progressive frames. To collect them, our framing experts go through social media discussions on the issues of the day looking for liberal frames that appear effective. We do the work of separating out the arguments that just try to negate conservative frames, and collate the arguments that frame issues on our terms. If no effective frames exist, we create them ourselves.
- Second, we send this list of effective frames to the users of our app, who can simply go down the list retweeting them. It’s a simple way for our users to contribute to the cause on a regular basis that doesn’t require large donations of time or effort. Just retweet the frames we’ve selected or crafted to spread effective liberal perspectives around social media.
If we want to change the conversation and make a difference on a national level, we need to talk about the issues on our terms. More than that, we need to get other people to talk about the issues on our terms.
The app is built, but not publically available yet. We need your help! We’re looking for people to help us comb through social media to find and refine the frames we need. We’ll teach you how to do it, there’s all sorts of fun reading and analysis for you nerdy types, and you’ll have a huge impact on the course of the project. If you’re interested, please sign up here. No really. Sign up. The midterms are around the corner, and time is running out.