Telling stories

First published by Linux User & Developer.

It’s well known that the Devil has all the best tunes, but I’m starting to suspect that the Devil has all the best stories too, and he’s sharing them out between politicians, civil servants and tabloid-esque journalists.

One reason we founded the Open Rights Group was that we kept seeing news stories that were horribly unbalanced and we wanted to provide an alternative voice. In many cases, it was clear that some underpaid journo had been handed a press release, told ‘make a story out of this’ and they’d just cut and pasted it. But the rank idiocy that passes for journalism in some newspapers has nothing to do with overstretched hacks; it is instead all about what sells.

Outrage. Oh, we love our outrage, our scare stories, our righteous indignation. Papers publish tripe because tripe sells. Politicians, civil servants and big business PR departments know that outrage stories get picked up and spread liberally about, like crap in muckspreading season. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, just that it’s dramatic.

“Although hysteria and alarmism rarely make much sense, politicians and the media are often naturally drawn to them,” says John Mueller of Ohio State University in his article about politicians’ and the media’s response to terrorism, A False Sense of Insecurity? He continues, “The media appear to have a congenital incapacity for dealing with issues of risk and comparative probabilities — except, of course, in the sports and financial sections.”

Despite being two years old, Mueller’s article reads as if it was written yesterday. He suggests that politicians/the media should “inform the public reasonably and realistically about the terrorist context”, but both those groups know that outrage sells. Politicians in particular understand that scaring the bejeezus out of people makes them feel more at risk than they should and will help justify questionable policies and legislation. This effect is neatly described by risk communication expert Dr Peter Sandman with the equation:

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

The hazard, or actual risk, is a fixed quantity, so the only way you can increase the perceived risk is by increasing the outrage people feel. Sandman discusses this from the point of view of companies or governments wanting to minimise outrage over disasters such as oil spills, but they, and the media, also use it the other way round: they maximise outrage to increase perceived risk and convince the public that drastic solutions are the only way to deal with the hazard.

Whether it’s ID cards, data retention, or the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, terrorism provides a handy stick for the Government to beat us with. Instead of calming the public down, they use intense rhetoric to increase outrage so that we’ll accept their ‘solution’ without question. Anything that makes us feel safer.

The music industry has also used outrage tactics to up the ante. By equating file sharing to terrorism and organised crime, they have managed to demonise P2P, proposed a new type of levy on ISPs and media device manufacturers called the ‘Value Recognition Right’, and attempted to hijack the European Data Retention Directive for their own ends.

And of course, it’s not just terrorism. If there’s anything more powerful than suicide bombers it’s the threat to our children from paedophiles. Talking up the risks to children is also effective in raising support for a number of privacy-invading databases and laws, and it’s harder to counter. When someone says ‘Even one attack on a child is one too many’, all avenues for rational response are closed.

Activist groups could fight outrage with outrage, but that way madness lies. Activists exist, by definition, on the margins, so it’s essential to avoid getting tarred with the brush of ‘fringe nutjob’, but instead to work hard to earn a reputation for producing calm, comprehensible and truthful material. I know of one environmental group which is routinely ignored by many journalists because it has a reputation for exaggeration.

Of course, repudiating scare tactics puts the ethical activist forever on the back foot, because our opponents are happy to tell big scary stories and as human beings we respond more to big scary stories than we do to the mundane. So the 52 lives lost to terrorism last year seem more shocking than the fact that of the 512,993 deaths that occurred in the UK, around three quarters were caused by circulatory disease, cancer and respiratory disease. Heart attacks aren’t big scary stories, unless they’re happening to you.

So we face a challenge. We need to make digital rights issues relevant to our readers, despite the fact that the most important issues can be the hardest to communicate: they tend towards being complex, technical and, dare I say it, a bit dull. We need to understand what strikes a chord: the real effects on real people and businesses, with truthful facts and clear statistics. We need to use the English language to greatest effect, eschewing jargon and, when appropriate, using metaphor and simile to explain ourselves. We need to tell stories that will capture people’s imagination and help them empathise and understand.

In short, we need to give the Devil a run for his money.