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“Defund” Or “Reimagine”? DBT/Swayable Launch New Messaging Research on Police Reform

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Although the conversation on defunding the police is not new, it is gaining traction in the wake of new energy in the movement for criminal justice reform and racial justice. According to data published by The Center for Popular Democracy, cities regularly allocate as much as 45% of their general revenue funds toward policing, even while budgets for community services and education are cut. 

Many anti-racist and criminal justice organizations, including recent DBT clients such as Advancement Project, The Movement for Black Lives, Center for Community Change, Color of Change, Supermajority, Demos and the NAACP, are calling these priorities into question, and leading the way towards more equitable and anti-racist systems. 

With public opinion shifting so rapidly, and with Trump and oppositional forces counter-mobilizing with equal or greater force, it’s critical to equip racial justice organizations with meaningful data to guide their messaging and their work now in this moment. 

That’s why DBT and Swayable partnered in community with Advancement Project, a member of the Movement for Black Lives to conduct a pro-bono message test of language associated with the call for police reform online, including phrases such as “Defund the Police”. Our goal is to help front-line grassroots racial justice organizations benefit from the latest technology and research to help strengthen these movements as much as possible. 

We started by analyzing the social media conversations surrounding the term “Defund The Police”. Informed by linguistic analysis provided pro bono by IV/AI, a leading AI and natural language processing company, we identified several major themes in the social media conversation around defunding the police.  

We then tested content representative of those leading themes using Swayable’s leading technology and randomized control testing (RCT) methodology to uncover which messages were most persuasive, and learn the varying impact those messages have for different audiences. 

We’re pleased to share our findings with you here with appreciation from The Advancement Project. Here is a summary of the results to help ensure the findings reach those who can use them most. 

Check out the deck below for the full report, but a few key highlights include: 

  • WHAT WORKS: Overall, “Reform” and “Reimagine” messages were more effective at increasing support than “Defund” or “Abolish” messages in terms of broad appeal across wide audiences at this time. However, this landscape is rapidly evolving and we know it sometimes takes time for messaging to gain mainstream traction, including the long journey for “Black Lives Matter” to gain wider acceptance. 
  • WHAT HURTS: The oppositional “Anti” message (from those who oppose the idea of defunding the police) was highly effective at reducing support for police reform. However, this was the only :30 sec TV spot tested, and the creative was strongly fear-driven—a compelling reminder that appeals to emotion are often highly persuasive (often, more so than appeals to logic or reason.)  
  • SIGNS OF PROGRESS: Younger voters (18-35) are more receptive to “Abolish” and “Defund” messages, with none of the messages tested producing significant backlash. Older voters are less receptive overall. We believe this points to the future of the movement and what’s possible in shifting public opinion over time towards acceptance of concepts like “Defund”.

We’d love to talk more about how we can all use this data as a progressive and anti-racist movement to advance social justice together. Please reach out and let’s see how we can collaborate for positive change. 

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