Creating Technology for Social Change

Stories and Fables: Liveblog From the MIT-Knight Civic media Conference

Note: This was written with the significant help of Amy Johnson


Ethan introduced the panel (the final one between us and cocktails!) by offering that they have saved the best for last: stories and fables. It has been pointed out that it’s a bit of an edge topic, so the goal was to get people to think about the question of what happens when we engage in storytelling to raise tension. What are the ethical implications and ways in which this operates? With a diverse group of people at the table—four people united by the fact that they are all storytellers, albeit in very different ways, the overarching theme was: why are stories so powerful? How do we end up using stories to talk about the issues about which we care?

Keith Oatley (University of Toronto)

Keith opened with a disclaimer: he’s a psychologist, not a journalist. He did work as a science journalist for a year, but he felt more like a correspondent whose assignment was the other way around. Rather than reporting back home, he had to report to us. He was reporting from the laboratory of psychology.

The idea that he offered is that—although stories can be powerful, they can enable us to think and feel in the way that is our own—not that someone else wants. This is exciting. As a species, we seem to be good at telling other people what they should do, think, feel: this is called persuasion.

If you’re a psychologist and you want to work on narrative or fiction or stories, you’ve got to first consider characterization. The trouble is, if you say ‘fiction,’ that means it’s been made up. If you want a really good description, you need a scientist. What we should really understand about stories, narrative, and fiction is not how they were made, but what their subject matter is: what goes on in the human social world. Stories are about human intentions. In the stories we heard last night during an event presented by The Moth, we heard about human experiences with machines.

This is a thought that was promoted by Jerry Bruner in his book Actual minds, possible worlds: narrative is a mode of human thought. In order to really understand what stories are, Keith said, we need to think of them as something like simulations. For instance, every time you watch the weather, you are watching the output of simulation: because understanding a complex of many processes, you have to work harder. That’s what human life is about: putting together simulations. You may know you love someone, but what will happen when you are angry at this person that you love?

We’re not just concerned with correspondence between what’s in the story and the outside world, however. We are also concerned about the coherence of the simulation, they need to resonate with something within the receiver.

On the heels of the Out of Eden project announcement, it’s apt that Keith noted the emergence of art in prehistory—a relatively recent phenomenon, having first appeared approximately 100,000 years ago. Although our ancestors were knowledgeable, the likelihood was that the knowledge was in separate domains. “My being able to do algebra, for instance, isn’t much help if I’m trying to cook lasagna,” said Keith. What happened is that around 50,000 years ago, these domains of knowledge began to interpenetrate and metaphor was born. Think of cave paintings: these are metaphors—marks on a cave wall but also rhinos. But stories are even better than that because they enable you to enter into this simulated story world and you can be both yourself and someone else.

Persuasion is important. There is a huge social psychology factor involved (see Melanie Green). The narrative form is good at being persuasive. Some forms of persuasion are important and useful: here is evidence, from evidence we draw a conclusion. I may make an appeal to you with said evidence, but I’ve got an idea of what I’d like you to conclude.

Satterfield, et al. ran an experiment [PDF link] in which a group of people were trying to develop a new hydro-electric scheme on the west coast. One group of participants had information in point form, while the other group had information in narrative. People were able to think better about the issue if they had it in narrative form—quite unusual in psychology, noted Keith.

Even though his research group in Toronto is only made up of three researchers, they found two independent effects of fictional stories:

Raymond Mar led a study that show that people who read fiction have better theory of mind (based on a better understanding of videos they were shown which displayed various social interactions). People who read non-fiction are not so good at it. It isn’t that if you spend time reading non-fiction, you’re wasting your time. If you read Richard Dawkins, you learn about genetics. If you read fiction, you are better at understanding the social world.

The other finding (independent of Mar’s work—via Maja Djikic) was based on an experiment where subjects were given Chekhov’s The Lady with the Little Dog and a non-fiction version (one that was “not as artistic”). Keith’s team measured personality and emotions pre- and post-reading. They were able to measure a small amount of personality change in those who had read the fiction version. Importantly, each fiction-reading subject changed in a different way—their own way.

(At this point, Keith made sure to show some images from fMRI scans performed during Mar’s study—noting McCabe and Castel’s study which proved that in order to be more convincing, one should probably show images of brains in his findings. And so he did.)

Keith has put out a new book called The Passionate Muse. The book is part fiction, part non-fiction—he describes it as hybrid. According to Keith, it used to be okay to write something like this. Now you can’t—it’s either news or fiction or so on. Keith’s book presents a “long short story” which he has written in seven parts. Each part is accompanied by non-fiction discussion of emotions you may or may not be feeling as part of the story.

Ethan followed up by noting that this gets us to wrestle with important question of empathy: a set of ideas we tend not to talk about when talking about the news. Michael Schudson’s essay on “Six or seven things we can do for democracy,” which urges us to focus on empathy. Ethan thinks about Laura Amico’s work—a former journalist, co-founder of Homicide Watch.

Laura Amico (Homicide Watch)
Laura, after joking about forming her story for Keith in the vein of Law & Order SVU, then went on to give her tale of getting into better crime reporting by moving away from a traditional beat format. After a move to Washington, DC from California, she and her husband was trying to follow murders occurring in their neighborhood—one even on her own block. But the information that they were looking for in the traditional media sources to learn about her new hometown just wasn’t there.

So she asked about what crime coverage would look like without editorial decisions: every homicide is worth reporting. As someone who lived in the neighborhood, she wanted to know, “What happens next?” To the suspect? The victim’s family? Josh Benton at the Nieman Lab saw the idea and wrote it up—which was a big moment for her.

Her husband, Chris, and she brainstormed for about a year and finally settled on WordPress as the platform for launch. Their first month saw about 500 page views. Today they get 330,000 views per month. Users view 6-7 pages over 5+ minutes. She’s proud to share this journey: going from a newsroom crime reporter (carrying a scanner, notebook, and keys all around town) to someone who doesn’t do that.

What she does do is report via Homicide Watch DC. They recently relaunched into something that is rather different from the original October 2010 version. The site creates narrative around the people. Every victim has a page on the site where news and data about the case is gathered—and where family, friends, neighbors, lawyers, detectives, nurses, and more gather to share stories and news surrounding these crimes.

Laura then told the story about Lucki Pannell, which begins with Lucki leaving a message on her Facebook wall:

“Sitting on my porch with best friend chilling.”

Lucki, who was 18 at the time she left the message, lived a mile from Laura’s home. Two hours after the message was posted, a gunman shot and killed Lucki. After her death, there were connections made on Lucki’s Facebook wall—planning vigils and leaving memories.

“Lucki, I heard the shots but never thought they was for you. We shared endless laughs…”

From the initial event through to sentencing, Homicide Watch DC gathers all of the stories and data. Being bootstrapped, Laura and Chris are always working. She found Lucki’s shooting via Tweetdeck. If you run searches today in nearly any city in the US, you’d find many messages like these. Memorial messages go up even as police action is occurring related to the event.

Laura gathers and curates these messages into narratives, posting them to Homicide Watch. Soon, Lucki’s family and friends came to the site—not just for news, but for the messages, the story. They had created a space, a community where Lucki Pannell and what happened to her mattered. Laura thinks of Lucki when she considers why Homicide Watch works. There, they don’t have to decide what is newsworthy. There is always a place for family, friends, neighbors, and others to go.

Laura can put together small pieces of a story without having to have every detail. But she can put together pages that collect the information on a timeline that she can’t imagine or anticipate or predict in any way. What happens with a traditional news story—and how most media deal with events like Lucki’s in DC—is that they write a brief, combined with a press release. These are items that get buried deep in newspaper archives. But Homicide Watch pages stay at the top of Google results.

At Homicide Watch they try to get a photo for every victim and combine them with data details, stories, and maps and link to other victims who died under similar circumstances. They also hear from detectives who value the site for tips. There was another woman who was killed towards the beginning of Homicide Watch’s launch—a case that was solved partially because of data posted to the site.

On the suspect pages, you see data points alongside a newsfeed—they start when the arrest is made, they don’t include photos or mugshots or any stories from before the arrest. They make that editorial decision because suspects can still be acquitted or the charges dropped.

Homicide Watch lets Laura tell more of a story than she ever could as a crime reporter—rather than parachute into the crime scene, get the quotes, get the drama, write that up—there wasn’t any sense of how that story mattered to people the next day or in that neighborhood. There was no context. You would parachute out very quickly, as well. The story is handed off to the court’s reporter as soon as an arrest is made. Laura felt she was losing relationships built during the reporting process.

As children we learn that stories can transform you, can transport you to somewhere else. Stories give us the ability to pull ourselves out of the world in which we live—the opportunity to strengthen our understanding of love, lives, and losses.

Laura used to think that she owned the story as the reporter. That she was out there, on the street—the quotes were hers. Homicide Watch has taught her to step back from that. But she’s learned that her role is secondary to the sources.

Homicide Watch tries to bring in as many voices as possible. They have a great community of commenters—a fact that continues to surprise Laura, given the subject matter. All comments are moderated in order to help deal with racism issues, etc. But the community is made up of thoughtful people willing to engage with the stories, for they are already involved with them. They come from neighborhoods impacted by crime.

Laura argues that the great conversation threads—she pulls out comments of the day—are just as much the story as the time spent in a courtroom waiting for an arraignment or sentencing. They are coming from people experiencing and wanting to share those experiences. People thinking deeply about these issues. She showed an example of a stabbing where the suspect was said to have been on PCP—the story inspired a thread related to PCP use in DC. This discussion represents a type of storytelling she couldn’t get by going to the market where PCP was sold or talking to an ex-addict: these were spontaneous, heartfelt comments.

She showed a photo of friends of Lucki’s who were having a vigil in the rain. At the vigil, Lucki’s sister stood on the porch where the shooting happened and sang Amazing Grace. It brought everyone there to tears. But Homicide Watch not only offers you the ability to capture this part of the story, but also to show that the story continues. Nine months after the vigil would have been Lucki’s 19th birthday. Her family left a birthday message on the site.

Homicides don’t end when the case ends. They are never forgotten. Homicide Watch is a place where the stories stay alive, helping the community through that ending.

Ethan thanked Laura for her talk by noting that we will all remember Lucki’s story. Homicide Watch embodies how reporting can serve as a form of memorial, and a way to recognize community issues—certainly a focus of advocacy groups as well. This provided a good segue into Michael Poffenberger (of

In introducing Michael, Ethan noted that he is grateful for Michael’s founding of—an advocacy organization focused on educating people about the atrocities committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and beyond. In the wake of the Kony 2012 campaign people are paying attention to much of the organization’s research. Indeed, Michael was due to testify on Tuesday on Capitol Hill about the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Ethan also mentioned that he happened to pick a fight with Michael, albeit unintentionally. The Kony story is a complicated one and Ethan was one of the louder voices of complaint about this. Michael came back with what Ethan considered to be one of the most well-thought-out, well-considered responses to objections about Kony.

Michael began with the caveat that he is a campaigner and policy person. His task is to take complex issues and break them down into terms that will motivate an appropriate response. His role in policy causes him to have a perspective which may be different than those whose goal is storytelling alone. was an official policy partner in Kony 2012. The work started seven years ago when Michael was a student in Uganda. While he was there, the LRA killed 250 people in a displacement camp. His proximity to the event shocked him: how could this be happening? And how could so few people back in the US know about it?

When he first encountered Invisible Children, he shared much of the skepticism that was expressed by many following the Kony 2012 video launch. Who were these guys? “Coming out here, blowing up anthills in their first documentary, covering a story much of the world didn’t know about.” In the years following their initial partnership, he has realized the power of using stories to affect political change: stories hold a power that is both awesome and daunting. But this power comes with a whole host of risks and weighty decisions.

Michael pointed out that the Kony 2012 film is neither a documentary nor news media: it is a narrative constructed to achieve a very specific set of concrete goals. Assessing it from the standpoint of documentary or news media is like blaming politicians for using tiny soundbites to promote their own agendas. Not everyone can be an expert. Communicating in these ways is important for conveying how change occurs. Complexity is the enemy in a campaign—it de-motivates. Campaigns take a complex issue and distill it to its essential core.


So, what were the characteristics of the story that made it so successful? The story itself offers a shocking reality: for more than two decades, Kony terrorized communities in and around Uganda. But in trying to tell this story, activists faced obstacles. It was a tough topic to mobilize people around. So Kony 2012 told a black and white story: an emotional story, one more powerful than rational argument.

Huge parts of the story were left out. Because American youth and the US government were the target of the campaign, the film didn’t delve into local efforts in Uganda. It didn’t go into the story of what allowed the LRA to rise to begin with. It didn’t highlight the individuals protecting communities from the violence. “We can at least agree that without doing the video, it would not have the stickiness that [the campaign] did—and would not have had the political impact that it did.”

Michael presented two notes on how, as advocates, we can mitigate the risks:

First, be grounded in profound comprehensive knowledge of the problem and the tools needed to solve it. With Kony 2012, the goals were in line with what Human Rights Watch and others have been advocating for already. The LRA crisis tracker helps us evaluate what is actually happening on the ground.

And yet, it was in this regard that the campaign failed. The problem wasn’t the simplification per se. The film spread at a rate that was well beyond what had been anticipated. As a result, there was a breakdown in trust between storyteller and audience. And as the film spread, it saturated the audience who already trusted Invisible Children, but also spread beyond into audiences that reacted in different ways. Just as anyone with an Internet connection could spread the film, anyone could also critique the film. Some of the initial critiques that went viral were just as questionable as the film itself—e.g., a 19 year-old’s Tumblr that was shared 1,000,000 times and quoted in the mainstream media. People were treated as experts without expertise.

But the biggest backlash happened because the designers let viewers assume that the way the story was told—by explaining the events to Jason Russell’s 5-year-old son—meant that they themselves did not understand the complexity of the issue itself.

Second on the list of ways to mitigate future risk is connecting campaigns to clear strategies that extend beyond the simple terms used in the campaign. Attention generated by Kony 2012 was connected to a strategy that included hundreds of offline lobby meetings, including Michael’s work inside the Beltway advancing a whole host of responses to the problem. The simplicity of the film strengthened the ability of activists to drive policy responses that went well beyond the film’s coverage. But to do that, they needed a filter to translate the attention.

Results of the Kony 2012 effort

On the media side
Invisible Children’s initial goal was to garner 500,000 unique views for the film over the course of one year. Of these, 300,000 were slated to happen through in-person screenings. They hit that initial goal overnight. In fact, they hit 100 million views in only six days, beating out Lady Gaga and Susan Boyle.

At the peak of Kony 2012 fever, there were 2,500 tweets about Kony per minute. For comparison, SXSW achieved only 90 tweets/minute. A Pew survey found that two weeks after the campaign spread, 48% Americans were aware of Kony and the Kony 2012 campaign. This translated into considerable traditional media coverage, multiplying many times over the number of media stories written about the subject. There were 17 in the Washington Post alone, 15 in the New York Times.

On the policy side
The film advocated for the extension of the deployment of US military advisors. Nearly six weeks after the campaign launched, President Obama announced that the United States would remain committed to protecting people from violence by LRA. The campaign had never received attention like this. Seven pieces of legislation were introduced in Congress. There were over 100 bipartisan cosponsors of resolutions that the Resolve helped draft. The budget that is before Congress now—”if it moves and we have a budget”—would lead to a doubling of efforts to detect and help protect against violence, as well as a doubling of funds for civilian early warning systems via FM radio.

Was the film worth it? Michael leaves that to the audience to discuss. From a strategic standpoint, it was the most valuable, most high-profile action that has ever occurred with regard to the LRA issue.

Sam Gregory (

Finally, we heard from Sam Gregory, program director for, an organization that helps people use video to document human rights violations.

Sam started by explaining that he comes from both a human rights position and an advocacy position. With the avowed goal of talking about the ethical side of storytelling, he proposes using Kony 2012 as a lightning rod—an atypical lightning rod, sure, but nonetheless a useful way to talk about these issues.

If you look at the huge amount of human rights video online, Kony is way on the end of the spectrum. Online we find, in Sam’s words, “a tapestry of human rights stories”: Kony, life stories from Syria, long-term community activists in Mexico, police abuse in Oakland. Even perpetrators document. And all of these people think they are telling a story.

When it comes to Kony, Sam agrees with Michael. On the terms that Kony presents itself, it is a clear success for advocacy storytelling. It is important, however, to separate Kony as a film from our discussion of what we want to learn from the campaign if we want to model it for particular situations.

There are a number of responsibilities to consider when producing work like this: responsibilities to the people, the story, and the action. First, with regard to responsibility to people, it is important to consider consent with human rights, but it’s also important to consider intent: Why was the story told? Most people tell a story because they’re seeking justice or accountability.

The second set of responsibilities revolves around story: How do you handle misstatement of fact?

And thirdly, there is the responsibility of action. Sam considered this the biggest question for Kony 2012. We move people in two ways. The traditional way is, “here is an option to do something: go ahead and do it.” The second is: you have a choice to explore and learn (drillability on top of spreadability). Learn and go deep. Sam wanted to be fair to Kony 2012: in the context of Invisible Children, they wanted to have more information around video, and the website went down because of how successful the video was. How do we more forcefully create a space where further (or alternative) views can be read?

Sam then transitioned to talk about a couple of things they are working on at Witness. How do we move from 30,000,000 views of Kony in a day to the 72 hours of other videos with 100 views of the video from Syria or 50 views of the video from Cambodia. How do we translate attention into that space as well?

The first Witness project that considers this is Informercam. Sam noted that, “absolutely at the heart” of the storytelling are questions of “who, what, where, why, and who agreed to be in the footage.” Among the dilemmas faced are how do we verify, prevent, and contextualize stories that only get 100 views? Without a large budget or long timeline like Kony 2012 (5-6 months), how do we support people in a way that reinforces ethical questions?

Informercam is a way, when filming social media, to gather metadata: census data, information, consent—all built into the tool’s interface.


Michael thanked Sam and everybody on the panel. He noted that the questions raised are good ones. A lot of the critiques raised from Kony 2012 were based on complaints that “this is the video that should have gone viral because this is underreported”. But how do you have both? Certainly, there are ways that the campaign fell short, including drillability. He reiterated that they weren’t prepared for response.

Kony 2012 resonated with Laura—and she was surprised by this. She didn’t know anything about it—she is, after all, a local beat reporter. But Sam asked about evening out playing field between stories getting lots of attention and stories that should get lots of attention. In DC last summer, Viola Draft, an elderly white woman, was killed in Georgetown. The story appeared on CNN, NBC, New York Times. That same weekend, a gentleman was killed in DC (Vance Harris). On Homicide Watch, there was five times the engagement on Vance Harris story than Viola Draft. People cared about Vance as well. What made it work on Homicide Watch was that they recognized the structure of stories. For each story, there are things we know and will know eventually—we know how they will fit into narrative. And Laura believes this principle applies to human rights coverage as well.

Keith found it fascinating listening to everyone. As a psychologist, the theme of what role empathy plays in all of this is a question that resonated with him. People have said stories aren’t important because they don’t have political effects. Lynn Hunt showed that reading novels in the 18th century that enabled people to see themselves in situations other than the ones they are in. Her novel, Pamela, from 1740, was instrumental in starting the emancipation movement in Britain. Then it spread. The point about empathy that is important is: here’s a day-to-day psychological mechanism. If I’m talking to you, I’m feeling what I imagine you’re feeling. We can have cooperative interaction. In order to understand stories, we take day to day psychological mechanism and perhaps we project them into Uganda. What we’re doing is engaging some aspect of ourselves and projecting it into some aspect of the situations. In terms of the spread of media, that’s probably been as important as anything for changing the general sense about a world in which people can and do care about each other.

Significantly More Formal Bios

Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, is co-founder of the citizen media community of Global Voices.

Laura Amico is founder and editor of Homicide Watch D.C. She started her journalism career as a student in South Africa and was a daily beat reporter before launching Homicide Watch. She is a 2011 MJ Bear Fellow with the Online News Association, a fellow at the 6th Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, a Knight News Entrepreneur Boot Camp alum, and a New York Times Chairman’s award winner.

As the founding Executive Director of, Michael Poffenberger leads the organization’s programs, develops its strategic vision, and works to enhance collaboration with key partners. His work has been featured in a number of media outlets, including the Washington Post, National Journal, and U.S. News & World Report. Michael serves on the Board of Directors for the Grassroots Reconciliation Group and the Advisory Board of Athletes for Africa.

Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus at University of Toronto, focuses his research on emotions, including the experience of emotions in everyday settings, using emotion diaries. He also does research on the psychiatric epidemiology of depression and other emotional disorders, and the relation of these disorders to life events and social support. In addition, he works on the psychology of fiction, including readers’ emotional and other responses to short stories, as well as on cognitive theories of writing and reading literary texts.

Sam Gregory is an internationally recognized human rights advocate, trainer and video producer who helps people use the power of the moving image and participatory technologies to create human rights change. He directs WITNESS’ programmatic work, and leads its Cameras Everywhere initiative—focused on empowering millions of people to use video effectively, safely and ethically. In 2010, he was a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Resident on the future of video-based advocacy, and in 2012 he was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He teaches on human rights and participatory media as an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School.