Seven Recommendations for Net Neutrality Campaigns

The following recommendations offer a basic communications strategy for creating narrative campaigns that successfully reach both core and persuadable audiences. Entertainment creators and communicators have successfully used many of these ideas for decades, although we have tailored them to inform U.S. audiences about the crises facing Internet users today. Some are intuitive, and some run counter to innate beliefs about what moves and motivates people. We concisely explain the applied social theory in each recommendation and include an example or suggestion for implementing it within narrative.

These recommendations can be applied to new projects, as well as to existing campaigns. They can serve communications efforts directly related to net neutrality or to the large number of issues that are influenced by having an open discourse and accessible information available online. Communicators should consider the broad range of media platforms for telling the story of net neutrality, from film and television to mobile phones and comic books.

1. Don't Allow ISPs to Scare with Scarcity

ISPs currently argue that net neutrality slows down connection speeds and limits access through network congestion. Combat these arguments by reframing them. Narrate the scarcity of content, information, and services that would occur without net neutrality. Arguments for the open Internet should highlight the threat ISP monopolies have on affordability, economic opportunity, and privacy for individual Internet users and businesses.


Creating a system that allows ISPs to control the flow of content over the Internet will not make it more affordable for consumers. ISPs already make billions of dollars in profit each year, providing enough capital to expand their networks to many rural and underrepresented communities, and yet they do not. ISPs see no benefit for them in creating affordable access and helping close the digital divide. In fact, the nation’s largest telecommunications companies brought in over $21 billion in revenue for 2009, while the U.S. fell to 22nd place worldwide in terms of average broadband penetration, just barely ahead of the isolated island countries of Barbados and the Faroe Islands. Today the U.S. ranks 14th in average download speed, 10 times slower than Japan, the international leader. And the monthly cost of broadband in the U.S. is only slightly less expensive than the Internet in Hungary and Poland.

What is in their interest? Moving small online businesses to the “slow-lane” of Internet traffic, while charging businesses that can afford ISPs fees to connect consumers to their sites at premium speeds. Eventually smaller businesses, as well as news organizations and other nonprofit content creators, will find themselves priced out of the Internet market altogether, much like the current state of radio and television. If Google had been conceived under this system, it is unlikely that the mighty search engine that was once a little start-up would have grown to employ the more than 20,000 people that work there today.

When ISPs enjoy free reign to control the content flowing through their pipelines, Internet users will also see an increased threat to their online privacy. AT&T has already met with record and studio executives to discuss developing mechanisms that allow them to monitor users for what they argue is illegal activity. ISPs have developed tools like deep packet inspection, which logs all content, sites, and services Internet users access, to help them discriminate between Web sites, filtering to users what they deem appropriate.

2. Defend Against Disaster

In most situations, persuasive messages are presented in one of two ways. People either look to prevent some future consequence or seek to promote an ideal situation. Currently the public likes the way the Internet works. Internet users and businesses generally have a positive relationship with their ISP and believe they can access what they want, when they want it.

Thus, "prevention" focused words should be at the core of a communications campaign. Messaging should target supporters by asking them to act vigilantly to “prevent” or “minimize” the potential for a centrally controlled Internet. Given that survey respondents did not respond well to government intervention and policymaking, framing legislative activity as a "public responsibility" may persuade more people to contact their legislators.


Communicators should carefully choose the wording they use in a narrative. Matching the words to the inclination of your audience toward either a promotion or prevention focus will increase their responsiveness. Below we list the words that will resonate with either an audience inclined to promote the success of the open Internet or one that would simply like to maintain (prevent changes to) the current system.

Promotion versus Prevention
ideal   careful
attain(ment)   maintenance
maximize gains   minimize losses
hope   cautious
wish   responsibility
advance(ment)   protect(ion)
eager(ness)   vigilant/vigilance
avoid missed
  avoiding mistakes
promote   prevent
aspire/aspiration   obligation
support   defend
nurture   secure
add   must
open   stop

3. Challenge How People View the Internet

Most people think of the Internet in terms of private ownership. The ultimate goal of a narrative campaign should be to update the image of the Internet from a privilege like property ownership, to a public resource like telephone networks. Today, if you subscribe to long distance telephone service through AT&T, the telecommunications giant cannot tell you whom you can or cannot call. Neither should they be allowed to tell you which Web sites you can or cannot access. Reframing how people view the Internet will help preserve this resource under the same laws as those that govern common carriers.


Narrative media has helped update our current cultural understanding on many issues, including hot button topics like race and gender equality. In the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show greatly influenced the public’s perception of single women. Only a few years prior to the launch of one of television’s most successful sitcoms, it was considered distasteful for a woman to live alone in the city or to compete with men in the workplace. Mary Tyler Moore encouraged a broader understanding of a woman’s role in society, between genders and across multiple generations, simply by exposing the public to a respectable character living a then-alternative lifestyle. Everyday interactions between the characters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show included discussing gender equality issues, as opposed to communicating them like a public service announcement to viewers.

Illustrating the challenges that a world without net neutrality would pose does not require discussing the topic in direct dialog. Embedding storylines that show the barriers people face without access to the Internet leaves a more lasting impression. For instance, many rural populations lack access and thus find themselves left out of Internet discussions on policy issues ranging from health care to immigration, digital conversations that greatly influence public debate. Another storyline might show how the un-and-under employed cannot find jobs because they lack Internet access and/or skills. Just as today it would be absurd to argue that roads and other utilities are a private privilege of the elite, narrative entertainment can reframe the Internet as a service that has become integral to basic functioning in our society. The conclusion of such storylines attests to how it is in society’s best interest to protect open access to all Websites and services.

4. Make It Personal

The most inspiring stories keep narratives local. Discussing the dominate ISP in an area by name, talking about how lives will be affected by the loss of an open Internet instead of "regulation" and "the government," and having characters that we already know and trust talk about the issue, are excellent ways to ground the fight for the open Internet in the audience’s daily life.


Documentaries often succeed at personalizing narrative because they follow the lives of real people and chronicle public struggles with modern institutions and social problems. Unlike most mainstream Hollywood films and television shows, documentaries rely on depicting the nuances of an issue from multiple perspectives. Still, the most effective documentaries of our day have relied heavily on the tradition of storytelling to create lasting impact. The 2004 documentary Super Size Me, which captured filmmaker Morgan Spurlock’s personal journey into the fast-food industry, greatly influenced public perception of the American diet because it adhered to the principles outlined above.

The film’s narrative worked on multiple levels; it opened up the conversation about illness and obesity by naming a recognizable culprit (McDonald’s), featured balanced arguments from cultural personalities to medical experts, and recorded Spurlock, along with his family and friends, as they struggled to stay healthy and sane through the experience. The narrative was so successful that it influenced a radical change to McDonalds’ menu and corporate practices (including increased transparency of meat sources and worker’s rights).

Creating narratives supporting open Internet policies does not tie a storyteller to the fictional world. Highlighting the real-world supporters of net neutrality can amplify a narrative message and lead to personal relevance for a broad audience. Net neutrality supporters comprise a broad group, including online businesses like Google, Amazon, and Yahoo; politicians and thought-leaders like President Obama, Harvard Law Professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, and Columbia Law Professor and Slate Magazine contributor Tim Wu; public interest organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Gun Owners of America, and the Parents Television Council; and celebrities like The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, the musician Moby, and actor Tim Reid (That 70s Show). By showing that net neutrality serves all Americans, regardless of ideology, communicators amplify the message that there is far-reaching support among characters regularly regarded as role models and public leaders.

5. Magnify Your Message in Groups

Expanding conversations about net neutrality to a group or discussion with a wide range of knowledge, skill, and personal experience enables people to process difficult or confusing information in a way that exceeds their individual capacity. Bringing people together to discuss the narrative of a communications campaign can help a group develop social cohesion and take concrete steps for advocacy that fit in with immediate needs.


The impact of the 2005 drama North Country went far beyond the box office, eventually reaching Capitol Hill. At the time of its release, Congress was debating renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, legislation passed in 1994 and labeled by one women's rights group as "the greatest breakthrough in civil rights for women in nearly two decades."

Based on the real-life story of one woman's battle against harassment in a Minnesota mine, the film was credited with impacting the renewal of the Act by spurring a coordinated outreach program. Jeff Skoll, founder of Participant Media, explained, "It was a film that starred Charlize Theron, and it was about women's rights, women's empowerment, domestic violence, and so on. We released the film at the same time that Congress was debating the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, and with screenings on the Hill, and discussions with our social sector partners like the National Organization of Women, the film was widely credited with influencing the successful renewal of the Act. That to me spoke volumes."

North Country’s release was effectively timed with a major policy debate in Washington and, in turn, lived up to Participant Media’s mission of positively impacting social issues. Today the FCC, along with many of the nation’s leading political figures, is debating the merits of legislative efforts that will influence the Internet for years to come. Entertainment projects that illuminate the concerns of today’s Internet users and of businesses advocating for net neutrality have the greatest potential to shape the debate if released in the coming year.

6. Ask For a Commitment More Than Once

Entertainment campaigns are effective at changing behavior when they have associated action strategies for their audience. Below is a list of actions the public can take today to preserve the open Internet:

• Join a coalition of supporters, such as
• Call or write state and congressional leaders and explain why they should endorse net neutrality
• Sign petitions directed to Congressional leaders in support of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act
• Spread the word by e-mail/Twitter/Facebook
• Donate money to organizations lobbying for the open Internet
• Support new FCC rules that will ensure net neutrality for all Internet users and businesses at

7. Tell the Story

The story of the open Internet is a story about civil liberties and economic justice. Net neutrality is not solely a tech or policy issue, but also encompasses maintaining basic needs and rights. Just as every entertainment writer's target audience will differ, so too must the characters’ experiences with access to the open Internet if these narratives are to resonate. Creating narratives about how the Internet impacts people's lives in positive and profound ways will be more effective in building awareness and instigating action than discussing this critical issue from a cognitive or policy viewpoint.

Although the entertainment examples outlined in this guide constitute mainly television and film, there are countless platforms for storytelling. When considering your target audience for messaging, it is important to think critically about the most effective media platform to reach them. Remember, the most obvious is not always the most effective.


• Tell stories of the many children who fall behind in school because they lack access to the Internet in their homes or are unable to use it effectively.
• Narrate the lives of the elderly or underemployed, who find themselves at a disadvantage when the only way to fill out a job application or efficiently request public and private services is by going online.
• Talk about small business owners who risk financial ruin if they cannot reach customers because their Web site is blocked or slowed down.
• Seek out the stories of grassroots campaigners who, if censored online by ISPs, would not be able connect with their constituencies, threatening their political or social struggles.

We encourage communicators and the concerned public to invest in this conversation by creating entertainment that promotes the open Internet. Generating broad public support for this issue is the only way policy makers will take notice, counteracting the pressure from another powerful constituency—ISPs. At a time when Americans grapple with an unstable economy, violent conflict abroad, and divisive issues such as health care, education, and immigration reform at home, it would be easy to allow concern over net neutrality to take a back seat. But once one understands how the open Internet fundamentally influences every facet of our lives, it is clear net neutrality should become a national priority. We hope that communicators will help voice this opinion through one of the greatest, most prevalent tools at their disposal—narrative entertainment.

Part II of FTW! focuses on the Harmony Institute methodology for creating persuasive entertainment-education campaigns, as outlined in Chapter Five. Chapter Six explains the behavioral science theories that inform the above recommendations, and Chapter Seven describes how to measure the impact of a narrative campaign.