In an atmosphere of heightened national tensions and rampant misinformation on social media, communication from local leaders and other credible and influential leaders is paramount in preventing, de-escalating, and even healing from intimidation, division, confusion, and violence throughout the election season.
However, like any powerful tool, communication can also do damage — even when backed by the best of intentions. This presents a conundrum: Leaders must respond promptly and clearly to violence, intimidation, and misinformation; they must not inadvertently add momentum or legitimacy to the very things they’re trying to prevent or resolve.
Over Zero is an organization that partners with community leaders, civil society, and researchers to harness the power of communication to prevent, resist and rise above identity-based violence and other forms of group-targeted harm.
Elected officials are powerful messengers to defuse tensions and risks of violence, set positive behavioral expectations decrying violence, and reaffirm the community’s confidence in and commitment to democratic processes. They can be particularly effective when acting in coordination with stakeholders, including other leaders within and outside of government. Download a comprehensive messaging guide from Over Zero for state and local officials amidst the threat of political violence in the lead-up to and throughout the state capital protests and events planned for January 17-20, 2021.
Below are some of their best practices that we hope will be helpful to all community leaders during these challenging times. Learn more about Over Zero and the great work they do at their website where you will find more resources, toolkits and case studies.
1. Continue to promote positive norms and vision. Be FOR something not just against something. Tell the story of what IS rather than what is NOT.
→ For example, talk about all the people who worked together to drive voter turnout, how everyone from bipartisan volunteer poll workers to elected officials and judges have worked hard to ensure this election was free, fair, and legitimate. Speak to how you will work across your community during this transition period.
2. Show positive action as the norm - in messaging and through examples and actions. Luckily, there are lots of great examples. Again, you can speak to the record turnout, the efforts from people from all political parties and backgrounds to ensure a smooth election even amidst a pandemic.
→ Note: While election-specific examples are great, feel free to use other examples of positive, community-minded behavior as well. This can illustrate how far-reaching norms of care and cooperation are. For example:. “In Durham we take care of each other, as evidenced by the incredible interfaith drive for hunger relief that resulted in 20,000 pounds of food being delivered).
3. When you feel you need to talk about negative behaviors and actions or want to make a statement condemning them, remember that repeating a narrative or talking about actions can make them appear more prevalent/powerful. This can make people who disagree with negative behaviors more nervous about speaking out and embolden people who might take negative action.
→ For example: Messages like “hate is everywhere” or “people are more divided than ever before” can exacerbate these dynamics; instead, consider “people are saying they are tired of division, and doing [xyz] about it.”
4. When calling out negative behaviors, use a “norm sandwich”: tell the positive first, then show that the negative behaviors are harmful and aren't approved of/engaged in by most people, and end on a positive + a call to action.
→ For example: “We had an incredible election, with high turnout, transparency, and generally smooth administration even in the face of a pandemic; we have a clear result and clear processes to finalize certification and move into a transition. Now people are ready to move forward. Baseless claims and attempts to draw out the process and attack local election officials are damaging not only to our democracy, but to the countless people who have volunteered their time and energy to ensuring every vote is counted. Americans are ready to move on and to continue to build stronger communities, and a stronger country, together.”
→ Remember: Where you see attempts to escalate a situation, sow tension and division, and shift the narrative in that direction, it can be tempting to respond and buy into those frames. If you buy into those frames and give them oxygen, you can inadvertently help build a story of division or fuel a narrative you're hoping to counter. Stay focused on what you are for and the types of actions you want to move people towards. Work to build momentum in that direction.
5. When you're rowing in a good direction, keep paddling! If things are calm and good, don't rock the boat, move to positive stories about your community and keep channeling peoples' energies and actions towards those stories!
Countering misinformation and using measured language
1. Keep providing accurate information about what's going on. Provide correct information to make misinformation less salient.
2. Be as specific as possible when referring to contentious claims or events. The more specifics that are provided, the less room there is for speculation.
3. Continue to avoid speculation and alarmism in your public communications.
4. Be cognizant of word choices and metaphors. Even if not intended to do so, language that compares events to natural disasters (e.g. “violence erupted”) or compares people to pests, disease, etc (e.g. “a swarm of people”) can increase tensions and the risk of violence.
5. Remember: Never repeat baseless claims. This gives them more air. If you feel like you have to mention a claim, first tell the correct information. Use the Dos and Don'ts for correcting misinformation.
6. If you are considering talking about violence, use the Dos and Don'ts for talking about violence: provide context, show condemnation and positive norms, and be careful how you talk about groups.
Activating shared identities and values
1. Continue to activate and speak through multiple and cross-cutting identities. It is a really critical moment to undermine a zero sum narrative.
2. Tell stories of people engaging in positive actions now and tie shared identities and values TO those actions.
3. Keep connecting to your existing network - see how people are doing, what they're thinking. Get on the same page and message. See how you can coordinate in your community based on what you're seeing.
4. Express gratitude to people who are modeling positive behavior. Again, tie this behavior to values and shared identities when possible. (e.g. We are so proud of all the Akronites who volunteered their time at the polls. From directing parking at polling centers, to counting votes, so many Akronites showed us what civic responsibility looks like in action; this week, in Akron, faith leaders brought their communities together to discuss how to support each other through the current spike in COVID-19 cases). This can be through your public messaging, but also reaching out directly to local officials in your community or state who you see standing up for democratic processes — let them know you appreciate it!