The Asia Foundation recently funded a study that found human right groups needing to improve communication strategies to win the “information warfare”. In that way, they can “take back the political narrative”. One of the study’s co-writers, scholar Jonathan Ong, found that rights groups “have left this battle… or [have] not coped with it enough.”
Titled “Human Rights in Survival Mode”, the report was done by US-based Filipino scholars; aside from Ong, co-authors include Rossine Fallorina and Jeremy Tintiangko. The study also found that many groups are lacking when it comes to effective communication strategies. With that, they are far more vulnerable to targeted disinformation and attacks.
Published by Harvard Kennedy School, the study was based on data collected from December 2019 to March 2020. In that timeframe, the scholars interviewed workers from 41 human rights groups and sectoral allies on a local and Philippine-based international scale. It found that 16 out of their 30 organization interviewees had a full-time communications staff member.
Human rights organizations have been long caught in the crosshairs of pro-Duterte supporters’ “information warfare”. However, these organizations seem to have either abandoned the battle, not participated in the warfare at all, or just not coped enough. It is also why strong messaging tends to taper off, leaving the door open for disinformation agents to take over the narrative, mislabeling human rights work as a government destabilization plot.
A lot of the fight is online, thanks to disinformation networks and trolls launching smear campaigns. This has taken a huge toll on the mental health of human rights workers. Offline, a lot of the development and social workers interviewed for the report found themselves feeling unwelcome in schools and villages alike. According to them, there had been a warning from the military to the residents against interacting with “activists”.
It’s also necessary for human rights organizations to face the genuine feelings of the public about disenfranchisement.