How to use storytelling to create Pro-Social Media

node leader
16 September 2019

How to use storytelling to create Pro-Social Media - James Armstrong Director of Marketing and Innovation

As a charity Phoenix have been actively using social media for around eight years. It offers us an opportunity to share knowledge and experience about drugs and alcohol away from the sometimes suspect agenda, or poorly informed opinions, found within more traditional forms of media. Over this time, we’ve developed a highly engaged group of followers and friends and a compassionate community of support.  

However, none of us need spend long on social media before we encounter what Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the web described on its 30th anniversary, as the “unintended negative consequences of benevolent design (of the web), such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse.”

Often the online discourse on drugs and alcohol is prompted by news stories that set the tone for outrage and conflict. Just as angry and provocative headlines stir the emotions of the public on the street in order to sell papers, there can be a similarly attention-seeking approach online. It is hard to shake the underlying feeling that this polarised online discourse of anger and outrage is driven by stigma. In response to this, late last year we started to think about how we could shed light on the stigma that is at the root of how drugs and alcohol are presented in British social media. Having a clearer idea of this would ultimately help the sector combat it effectively.

What is stigma

There are various types of stigma, and all create barriers to treatment and support. We know that self-stigma breeds feelings of guilt and shame in people who need help, and delays their accessing of treatment, prolonging harm and suffering for them and their loved ones. Societal stigma limits access to resources such as funding for treatment, access to jobs, homes and social engagement. Structural stigma influences the multiple social policies that discriminate against the people who use our services and their families. Stigma has the potential to invade all forms of social interaction because it exists, perhaps unconsciously, in the minds of so many people. However, people’s minds can be changed if we start to understand how the feelings and attitudes that lead to stigma are formed.

The mental short cut

Stigma can be seen as a mental short cut. It bypasses nuanced understanding of complex issues and, upon hearing the word ‘drugs’, it leads our thought process directly to a sense of threat and danger. This creates social distancing between the stigmatiser and the stigmatised, and contributes towards the dehumanisation of the stigmatised, painting them as something to be feared. We all, to some extent, fear what we do not understand. People with little or no experience of drug and alcohol issues have no other information to draw on to temper their fear, and are, therefore, particularly susceptible to this mental short cut.

Attribution Error

The notion of attribution error tells us that people tend to unduly emphasise other people’s character, rather than external factors, when explaining their behaviours. This effect has been described as ‘the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are’. This is especially likely to occur when someone has little experience of the external factors that drive addiction. The mental short cut of hearing the word ‘drugs’ and immediately associating drugs with fear leads people with drug and alcohol problems to be personally blamed and shamed. As people learn more they are less likely to blame an individual, and more likely to seek an understanding of the complex social drivers of the harms of addiction, such as poverty, deprivation, lack of social mobility and opportunity, childhood experiences, social policy and poor health. Gaining knowledge and experience means the mental short cut is interrupted by a more thoughtful consideration. However, as Tim Berners-Lee observed, the benevolent design of social media, which offers the promise of a collective considered judgement on the world around us, so often presents simple, quick and shallow mistaken thinking that reinforces prejudice instead.

The reward effect

With this in mind, we set out to analyse all public UK social media posts on the subject of drugs and alcohol over a two-month period (Dec 18 and Jan 19). Unsurprisingly we found more than 75,000 uses of stigmatising language, as well as evidence that stigmatising tweets/posts are highly likely to go viral. The vast majority of these stigmatising social media posts were focused on drug use, and not apparently intended to be directly malicious or abusive. There was a high percentage of people using stigmatising drug related terms to be humorous in order to reap the reward that social media offers; getting attention.

However, discussion of alcohol problems and homelessness was much more compassionate. Here we saw the more benevolent design of social media coming into effect, with more discussions of an empathetic nature involving broader social context and social policy implications. This suggests that the more familiar issues of alcohol problems and homelessness reduce the tendency to blame the individual, and increase the likelihood of consideration of the context of the issue. We also saw these more considerate messages gaining the reward of online attention in the form of likes, shares and retweets.

What can we do to encourage the benevolent design of social media to reduce stigma?

Our sector has a longstanding, strong tradition of sharing life stories as a means of reducing blame and shame. One strategy that has potential is to tap into this tradition of story sharing through social media. First person stories told by people with first-hand experience convey the reality of addiction with nuance and context. Internal thought processes are explained and the reader has the opportunity to connect with the issue on a deeper level than purely observed second-hand behaviour. Through stories, the reader/viewer can get under to know the storyteller and connect on an emotional level with their hopes and fears, vicariously experiencing the way the storyteller sees the world in which they live. Story telling breaks down the shallow polarisation of ‘us and them’, and brings people together as a shared ‘us’.

What we have seen, then, is that stories can combat stigma by activating social media’s benevolent design potential to create a compassionate community of support. We encourage others to explore this potential in a manner that is creative, engaging and respectful to the story teller.

Phoenix Futures is a registered charity in England and Wales (No 284880) and in Scotland (No SCO39008); Company Limited by Guarantee Number 1626869; Registered Provider of Social Housing with Homes England (H3795).