Friday, August 27, 2021

NARAL believes pro-lifers are winning the online messaging battle

Photo Credit NeONBRAND from Unsplash

On August 20, Alex Roarty published "Podcasts, comedians, freedom: How an abortion rights group is changing its strategy." He covers how NARAL is trying to make up perceived lost-ground in the online debate on abortion. His article is an interesting look at the strategic planning of the pro-choice side. Here is my random collection of quotes and notes:

The national abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America has spent the year intensively researching how it can close a so-called “virality gap” online with voters.

This surprises me. It usually feels as if the pro-choice side has more coordinated and savvy messaging, and our side is made of many small, disparate groups, more grassroots and less far-reaching. I'm curious what research NARAL is looking at that leads them to believe they are losing a battle on messaging.

NARAL has recently started restructuring its organization:

The restructuring [including ending the autonomy of nearly a dozen state-based affiliates] has received harsh criticism — including from some officials within the organization. Some of the heads of state-based NARAL affiliates, unsure of their own future with the group, argue that the digital strategy siphons resources away from local, in-person persuasion they consider more effective.

I've also seen criticism of this move as some abortion rights activists urge pro-choicers to stop donating to NARAL and go more local instead (see here and here).

NARAL officials say if legal protections [of abortion] are diminished or outright removed nationwide, it will heighten the need to win the public debate.

I read two implications here. 

  1. The law somewhat truncates public debate and changing law is at least as important as changing hearts & minds (although the two are connected).
  2. Perhaps until now pro-choicers haven't had to fully engage the public debate. 
Since Roe, the law has been decidedly on the side of abortion advocates. Roe v. Wade & Doe v. Bolton made it nearly impossible to pass meaningful abortion restrictions before viability (about 5 months into pregnancy). This legal status quo isn't some comfortable middle ground. Polls generally find that Americans are open to abortion for medical emergencies and/or abortion early in pregnancy, but get far more resistant when it comes to abortion for any reason ("elective" abortion) and/or abortion after the first trimester. If that description is the middle ground, the current legal status of abortion is much further to the pro-choice side. Despite lobbying groups' dramatic protestations that there are hundreds of new "anti-choice" restrictions every year (definitions of "restriction" are broad), on a national level the U.S. has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world. Even the recent controversy over Mississippi's 15-week ban misses the part where that ban would still leave Mississippi abortion law lax by international standards (see "European Gestational Limits on Elective Abortion" pg 4). 

The pro-choice side has had a distinct advantage in terms of the law; has that meant they haven't had to engage as fully in terms of hearts and minds? I imagine it's easier to defend the status quo than to fight for major change. Would it be enough for pro-choicers to reiterate the same primary arguments with more vigor, or would they need to start making new arguments? Would they need to address our points in more depth, or would they be better served doubling down on different subjects? It's hard to predict how this debate will transform if Roe goes.

Research conducted by NARAL, shared with McClatchy, suggests that online users are more likely to find more content supportive of abortion rights on Google. The dynamic flips, however, when users are on a social networking site like Facebook or watch videos on YouTube.

Makes me wonder how we can flip the dynamic on Google too...

These were the types of voters — many of them not consumed by politics day-to-day — NARAL was failing to engage with, Montemarano said. And it led to what she described as a “virality gap” between her side and abortion rights opponents, with the latter having more success promoting their viewpoint across the internet. “To me, there was this big gap in the middle,” she said. “Where is everyone else? What information are they seeing? What are they believing? How can we reach the people beyond the activists?"

"How can we reach the people beyond the activists?" is a question I think about almost daily. Our target audience, I suspect, is rarely pro-life or pro-choice activists. It's the people on the fence and/or people who have opinions but aren't particularly involved, which describes most of America. How do we bring them down from the fence to our side? How do we get them to engage? (The last question was the primary motivation behind our project How To Be Pro-Life.)

Group leaders say that rather than emphasize health care or other issues connected to abortion, they plan to emphasize a message of freedom from political interference, emphasizing that conservatives who oppose abortion rights want to control people.

So is this the primary message we need to counter? If so, first step is to emphasize it's not only conservatives who are against abortion. There are people from all walks of life against abortion. Second step is to emphasize our motivation isn't to control adults but to protect children. We've touched on this before:

Original tweet here

NARAL’s plans to nationalize its operations means the group could part ways with its 11 state-based affiliates. The plan was unveiled in June, to the anger of many affiliates. And many of them say retooling the digital effort matches their broader concern about a group more focused on the national big picture than local issues that can often have the most impact on the public.

Which has a bigger impact: national messaging or local changes? 

Of course ideally we find ways to work on both, which underscores again how important pregnancy resource centers can be. In fact, as Alexandra Desanctis explains, a recent study came out which found women considering abortion who visit pregnancy resource centers are 20% less likely to get abortions than those who don't visit such centers. Local pro-life work has a major impact.

I also wonder if the tension between national and local efforts partly explains why the pro-life and pro-choice sides seem continually deadlocked in terms of swaying the public. Perhaps the pro-choice side is, as it anecdotally appears to me, more formidable with national messaging, but the pro-life side has a grassroots game strong enough to keep up. Or, if NARAL's recent research on the "virality gap" is accurate, maybe the exact opposite is true.

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