Nicholas Kristof on Technology and Activism
In 2009, Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece for Outside magazine called “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World,” where he explored his lessons learned so far in trying to use his column to engage a particular audience with overwhelming global issues.
"I was enraged by what I found and, as a New York Times columnist, wrote time and again about these atrocities on the op-ed page. Yet at first the public reaction seemed to be a collective shrug: Too bad, but isn't that what Africa is always like? People slaughtering each other? Anyway, we have our own problems."
Kristof decided to turn to the social sciences, specifically social psychology, for help. He discovered the importance of focusing on two things. The first is hopefulness: Don’t present a challenge as insurmountable, because it will just cause people to give up before they’ve tried to help. The second is scope: Don’t frame an issue in terms of the masses—for instance, the thousands of people starving in Africa—but rather in terms of one person and one story.
These strategies have worked for him, but how do they apply to grassroots activists? In this inaugural edition of our "Three Questions" series, Kristof offers his thoughts on activism in the digital age.
You covered the Chinese pro-democracy movement in 1989. As you see it, what are the new advantages and disadvantages facing pro-democracy movements nowadays in light of technological advancements?
Technology raises the costs of repression. Authoritarian regimes have huge incentives to repress, but also tend to be embarrassed by it. So if one can get out videos, photos, and stories of those people who are being tortured or abused, it becomes a huge disincentive for governments [to violently repress].
It’s much easier to do this now—Iran was a good example of the way that images and news can now be circulated among people. Obviously, at the end of the day, a disincentive doesn’t mean that governments will not harm people. Yet it does raise costs.
The other thing I think technology is good at is spreading word in a dictatorship about, for example, how many people are disaffected and do not buy the propaganda. There tends to be a feeling that: “I don’t like your regime but everyone else does.” [But] when one can spread anonymous comments through the internet and text messages it can stop people from assuming that everyone feels different from them. So that’s one way that new technologies can facilitate movements.
What advice would you give to grassroots activists trying to get people like you to notice them so they can get their cause onto the global agenda?
One mistake that activists make is that they tend to focus on the arguments that they themselves find the most compelling. The challenge isn’t to preach to the choir, it’s to broaden the choir. There are different arguments for appealing to one’s base from the argument they should be making to broaden that base.
Activists also need to get smarter about marketing. We always flinch at the idea of marketing a cause. We think it’s what a company does for a brand of lipstick or a soft drink, but it is infinitely more important to get people to care about a cause where human lives are at stake.
As a result it is even more important to market that cause in a way that people will pay attention to it and support it. If one doesn’t try hard to work on that messaging then one’s cause won’t get attention, and we will miss real opportunities to improve people’s lives.
Marketing is a huge challenge for the people who are engaged in causes. They should embrace marketing rather flinch at it.
Your tactic of focusing on an individual to engage your audience has worked for you so far, but if everybody started doing it, would people become inured to it, causing it to stop working?
That is a problem. But I think that at the end of the day our minds are constructed so that we respond to individual stories. I think that’s kind of just the way we are made, so if you get more causes that are trying to compete by telling individual stories and improving the marketing, then ultimately the better causes will win out. And ultimately that will probably be a good thing.
Also, there is some possibility that we will just get more people engaged in these sorts of causes. There are a lot of people who would like to support a good cause but don’t because they are worried about corruption, whether or not they can really make difference, and administrative costs. People are just skeptical. If one can address those kinds of concerns and reduce that cynicism then one can expand the pie, so that, while there are more calls to become active, there are more people engaged in these kinds of causes.