Using mass media to create positive behaviour change and peacebuilding
From a report by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)
Thousands of people are killed each year as a result of violent conflict. But this is only one part of the human cost. Impact on families and communities can be felt decades later. Millions of individual decisions underpin these tragic impacts: people decide either to stoke hatred or to confront it, to fight or to lay down weapons, and to forgive past conflicts or to repeat them.
Mass media and propaganda has often been used as a tool to generate hatred and perpetuate conflict. The purpose of this review by BIT was to understand whether it can also be a tool for maintaining and rebuilding peace. They reviewed the evidence of mass media’s impact on peacebuilding behaviours to identify if (and how) it works, and to suggest approaches for harnessing mass media in the future.
The 3 main takeaways were:
Mass media can drive sustained changes in behaviour. They found evidence of mass media affecting a wide range of conflict behaviours, from increased willingness to speak out against interpersonal violence, to encouraging militants to put down weapons, or increasing engagement in peaceful democratic processes. Some effects persisted months later, even for videos just a few minutes long.
Changing audiences’ perceptions of their social environment drives changes in behaviour. Mass media can change behaviour without affecting underlying attitudes. Instead, it often changes audiences’ perceptions of how other people would behave. Sometimes it does this directly, by using storylines of people acting positively or supporting those who do. Sometimes the media provokes discussions with friends and family, and in doing so reveals how they feel about a behaviour (for better or for worse...).
Media can backfire, and we need to improve our understanding of what works. Not all media interventions achieve their desired effect. Many have no effect at all, and some make things worse. In order to start using mass media effectively for peacebuilding, we need to learn what works through robust evaluations of new and existing programmes.
Studies demonstrate that mass media can increase uptake of treatments for malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia, HIV testing and awareness, and child survival across a range of low and middle income countries.
In Benin, access to community radio stations increased parental spending in children’s education and led to an increase in literacy rates amongst children.
In Nigeria, a film in which characters reported corruption helped shift social norms around corruption and increased citizens’ reporting of it.
In Rwanda, a radio drama focuses on the story of two fictional villages with a history of violence towards each other, and the reconciliation process between them. Throughout the show, a set of educational messages related to conflict and reconciliation are weaved in. Listening to the show helped to build trust towards out-groups and increased the ability of listeners to engage in perspective-taking, by imagining the genocide from the viewpoint of an ethnic group different to their own.
In India, radio advertisements were used to campaign against vote buying in the run up to the 2014 general election. The adverts emphasised the incentives of politicians who give ‘gifts’ to voters, and the likely consequences of voting for them. The radio advertisements caused a shift in allegiances equivalent to approximately two million changed votes.
A series of Ugandan edutainment videos about domestic violence increased both men and women’s’ willingness to report incidents, and even reduced women’s’ actual experiences of violence over the following six months.
Recommendations for using mass media for positive behavioural change are:
Show social endorsement of positive behaviours, and sanctioning of negative behaviours. If media interventions affect behaviour by changing perceptions of the social context, it is important that messages about the social context are clearly delivered. As well as showcasing positive behaviours to normalise them, media storylines should include community reactions to different behaviours. These should emphasise supportive reactions to positive behaviours, and chastisement of negative behaviours (if these are shown at all).
Focus on measuring behaviours, not attitudes. When creating their theory of change, peace-building actors should not assume that a change in attitudes will result in, or be necessary, for a change in behaviour. This also has implications for measurement. If we ultimately care about behaviour change, measuring attitudes (whilst often easier) tells us little. Instead, the focus should be on measuring behaviour, which can be complemented with secondary measures of perceived norms.
Encourage group listening and watching. Our perceptions of group norms are not always accurate - in other words we often don’t know what others really think about a particular issue. When we engage with content alongside others it can update our perceptions and either help to reinforce the message (if the norms of the group align with the message), or undermine it (if group norms run against the message).
Make content easy to share and actively encourage recipients to do so. Media that is shared through social networks can have substantially greater impact. Not only do more people encounter the media, we are often more receptive to information shared through our networks than from anonymous sources. First, content should be easy to share. Secondly, viewers or listeners should be explicitly asked to share the content, and to tell friends why they think it is interesting or important. Even a simple request like this can quickly scale impact.
Include short-form content as part of mass media intervention. People get bored easily. Short-form content is more likely to keep people engaged and is also cheaper to produce, and can be nimble enough to respond to recent news events. Given this and it’s clear potential for impact, short-form content should be considered as a key tool for a peace-building media strategy.
Evaluate core messages in short-form first to understand their impact. Whilst short-form media can be effective, there is still a place for longer-form media, which is likely to attract a different audience (non-social media users, for example) and might help to communicate more complex messages. However, testing core messages in short videos first could provide a low-cost way to identify which will be the most effective before developing the extended version.
Ensure content is entertainment focused. None of the recommendations around content will make a difference if the target audience doesn’t listen to or watch it. For long-form media, the starting point should be an engaging plot and characters. The science on how to make it impactful should be fitted within that, not the starting point.
Consider alternative mediums to engage new audiences. Radio and TV interventions can be effective, but they can require regular engagement and may not always be consumed by the target audience. As well as shorter content designed for social media, there are promising interventions using video games and VR which could help to reach new audiences.
Don’t assume that what you’re doing will work. Evaluate instead. Mass media interventions can be complex to evaluate, but there are lots of innovative approaches that will radically improve your understanding of the impact your media has. This is not just a nice add-on: there are plenty of examples of ineffective (or actively harmful) media. If your media is reaching a large audience, you’re spending a lot on it, or both, then evaluation is critical.
Download the full report here.
How are we using social media personally and corporately to bring peace, bring positive behaviours? Or do we create division, sow discontent?
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From a report by the Behavioural Insights Team (BI, 21/02/2023