THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

2022 Narrative Predictions

Research, analysis, and writing
by Miguel Andrade, Shaira Chaer, Hermelinda Cortes, Liz Hynes, Bia Jackson, and Ivie Osaghae

America at a Crossroads
Prediction 1
Democracy in the Balance
Prediction 2
A Fractured Economy
Prediction 3
The Culture Wars (Again)
Prediction 4
Safety or Law & Order
Prediction 5
Escapism and the Future
Prediction 6

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In the last two years, we have faced uncertainty, chaos, fear, mourning and trauma. This has been a generation’s looking glass moment. COVID-19 turned the way we live upside down and shook loose the ideas, beliefs, and values we have about how society should be organized. Digging deep into these life-defining events of our time — surviving rising violence against Black, Indigenous and AAPI communities, ongoing climate disasters, and authoritarian threats to democratic institutions —we’re interrogating ideas like what the government is or isn’t for and who deserves what. As in all crises moments, narratives underpinning these ideas are up for grabs. And like Alice, as a society, we choose which direction we go.

Since the pandemic began, a multitude of opportunities presented themselves to shape our collective future. During this time, right wing opposition forces strategically utilized chaos and uncertainty to distract from pressing issues like COVID relief, the climate crisis and growing inequality at the global scale. Many of these efforts were successful, shattering some of our expectations of what change is possible. Still, there are opportunities before us.

There have been tremendous changes across the narrative terrain that give us hope. Despite the uncertainty, communities fighting for liberation and justice are also shaping the narrative arena and contending to capture the opportunities before us. We’ve fought to protect the vision of a transformative multiracial democracy and an economy for all. We beat back the threat of authoritarianism through deep and sustained organizing by leaders and communities of color. Our hard-fought victories are the culmination of decades of dedicated work to build power. Though it might sometimes feel like we’re playing catch up, these tangible shifts point to the real possibility of changing common sense.

The very clear struggle to define narratives about America’s identity, the fate of democracy, or the coal-hot Culture Wars presents an opportunity to push against the idea that chaos is inevitable without the constraints of conservative and authoritarian culture and policy. We can offer liberatory narratives and stories that are grounded in people and care to advance a coherent vision of the future where all of us are free.

Through the Looking Glass, our 2022 Narrative Predictions, reflects the transitional moment we are in. Nearly all of our predictions — rooted in rigorous research — demonstrate economy and governance narratives struggling in a contest for dominance. Supporting this contest are narratives rooted in the battle between individualism and scarcity and the collective good.

If you have questions, feedback, or thoughts we’d love to hear from you. Email us at hello@thisissignals.com. Interested in getting updates on our work? Sign up here.

The Predictions

Halftone image of a telescope
America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Prediction 1
America at a Crossroads

Our first narrative prediction for 2022 is: America at a Crossroads. America herself will be a primary character this year as people argue over the country's founding, its promise, who and what she is now, and what she will become. The fight for America’s identity will be leveraged across different audiences to think through and make sense of the world around them and will activate people at an emotional level. We can expect the America at a Crossroads narrative to cut across many issue areas. It will be a driving force in conversations around the midterm elections, the local and global economy, immigration and climate, to name just a few.

Narratives at Play

TThere are several key and competing narratives that will play a major role in the year ahead:

  • America is in decline —  The U.S. is no longer a global power; the U.S. is no longer exceptional.
  • America is in competition —  The U.S. is competing for dominance on the global stage.
  • America is transforming —  The U.S. can work cooperatively on the global stage; the U.S. can reach its full potential.
  • The American way of life is at risk; we need a return to bipartisanship,  civility and unity.
  • The American way of life is at risk; polarization is destroying the fabric of our country.

Story Trends

Total Mentions | COVID-19 from Jan 2020-December 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
Total Mentions | COVID-19 from Jan 2020-December 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Prediction 2
Democracy in the Balance

The second narrative prediction for 2022: Democracy in the Balance. The notion that democracy lies in the balance will be critical this coming year. After the chaos of the Trump years, false claims of voter fraud and stolen elections, the assault on the Capitol on January 6th, and the passage of anti-democratic laws in statehouses across the country, democracy is on shaky ground. We are witnessing ongoing assaults on democracy; as Jay Rosen says, “there are two parties in America and one of them is anti-democratic.” But those promoting anti-democratic policies make the same claims and advance the same narratives about the threat to democracy, albeit with a slightly different flavor. They suggest that Democrats and progressives are threatening U.S. democracy, rigging elections, silencing dissent, and using Marxism and socialism to erode democratic governance. (Many scholars rightly identify this tactic as dangerous speech and a hallmark of authoritarian tendencies.)


This trend is not just a U.S. problem, it is a global problem. Worrisome shifts towards authoritarianism have been on the rise for some time — from Orbán and Bolsonaro to Zemmour and Duterte; many of these leaders and their networks are connected, share narratives, and echo each other in messaging. We can expect an increase in volume around Democracy in the Balance narratives across the board in 2022, partially driven by the midterm elections, congressional redistricting in the United States, and international events of note.

Narratives at Play

  • Republicans are destroying democracy
  • Democrats are destroying democracy
  • Fascism and white supremacy are an existential threat to democracy at a global scale
  • People of color, “the rainbow coalition” are an existential threat to America
  • Socialism is an existential threat to democracy at a global scale
  • America is too large and fractured we should break it up
  • America has never been and can never be a democracy

Story Trends

Total Mentions | COVID-19 from Jan 2020-December 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
Volume Comparison | Total mentions of Big Tech within Big Tech Accountability, Elections, Democracy, Trump, and Policing conversations | November 2020-November 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Prediction 3
A Fractured Economy

We’ve clocked the shifts in how people talk about the economy before, including the idea that the economy is broken. The pandemic helped people diagnose a problem that all is not well with the economy, but we haven't yet seen this analysis coalesce into a coherent narrative that offers a compelling alternative to free-market capitalism. We are still contending with the dominant narrative that a healthy economy hinges on growth and private business and that the primary role of government is to facilitate productivity and growth no matter the consequences. Likewise, narratives about the economy will continue to manifest as fractured, chaotic, and confused. We expect trends next year will run the gamut, with stories about business, the stock market, or inflation operating alongside conversations about the impacts of COVID-19 on women and people of color, debt cancellation, or economic experiments like crypto and NFTs.

Narratives at Play

  • Our economy is recovering; we’re on the way back to normal
  • Private industry and the free market are the engine of the economy
  • Workers are the engine of the economy
  • There are two economies; one for the rich and one for everyone else
  • We must transform the economy
  • It’s time to experiment with the economy

Story Trends

Image description
Crypto filter on total mentions inside the economy profile
America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Prediction 4
The Culture Wars (Again)

Our fourth narrative prediction is the ongoing impact of the Culture Wars. Everything old is new again, and the Culture Wars are no exception. We’ll see an increase in Culture War stories that started to reassert themselves again in 2021. In many ways, Culture War narratives are a retread of GOP strategies from the 1980s and 90s that leverage ideas about race, family, children, women, gender, and sexuality as a way to animate their base, move anti-government narratives, and define who belongs and who does not. A new 21st-century dimension to this strategy is that mis-and-disinformation now move at the speed of the internet and purveyors of Culture War narratives leverage cancel culture to center individual experience over any calls for collective care. As distrust in government and institutions increases, we will see a growing movement calling for freedom from the “nanny state,” claiming the government cannot supersede the values of the home. Conservatives will continue to expand who is an ambassador of this message beyond white men and women of faith as the GOP reasserts their identity as the pro-family, pro-worker, pro-capital party. We expect their messengers will leverage children as a commonality across issues from education to health care using white supremacist narratives rooted in biological essentialism, security, and protectionism to lay claim to what constitutes public space and the role of government in relation to human rights and liberties.

Narratives at Play

  • The individual family is at the heart of America 
  • Community and family are at the heart of  America
  • Everyone should be able to live their life free from harm
  • Accountability, truth, and repair will save our country 
  • Cancel Culture is destroying our country

Story Trends

Total Mentions of CRT or Critical Race Theory within Democracy, Elections, Trump, Biden, Disinformation conversations  | Nov 2020-Nov 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
Total Mentions of CRT or Critical Race Theory within Democracy, Elections, Trump, Biden, Disinformation conversations | Nov 2020-Nov 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
Total Mentions of abortion, reproductive rights, reproductive justice, prolife and prochoice within Democracy, Elections, Trump, Biden, Disinformation conversations | Nov 2020-Nov 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Prediction 5
Safety or Law & order

Narrative prediction five is the ongoing debate between safety and security or law and order. The historic organizing for racial justice during the 2020 uprisings caused significant narrative shifts that challenged the status quo around law and order and advanced progressive narratives around public safety and racial justice. The call to defund and abolish the police opened up a larger space for conversations about harms caused by militarized law enforcement in communities of color and advanced narratives rooted in repair, reinvestment, safety, and security.

The shift away from law and order occurred in relation to competing safety narratives expressed during the pandemic, which reflected the many different ways people interpret personal freedom, collective care, and the role of government. Emerging safety narratives cut across conversations about vaccines, policing, and broader conversations on school safety that touch on health, anti-Asian racism, and gun violence. Narratives about safety and security are held across ideologies, geographies, and lived experiences —  everyone wants to feel safe and secure —  but the stories and messages within are varied. While some view safety and security through a lens of empathy and mutuality, others link safety with law and order, criminalizing and punishing Black and Brown people to achieve personal safety.

The competition between law and order and safety narratives hasn’t been as prominent in 2021, but there are strong indications it will play a major role next year. As the Right moves to blame the state of society on progressive advances utilizing stories of rising crime, border security, and skepticism about changes in police practices they’ll come into conflict with stories around community and school safety and mental health.

Image description
Total Mentions | Policing Conversations | May 2020-Nov 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs

Narratives at Play

  • We need law and order, not chaos 
  • Everyone deserves safety and security
  • None of us are safe until all of us are safe 
  • Security is not guaranteed; everyone needs to do their part to stay safe
Protest for Defunding the Police

Story Trends

Total Mentions of CRT or Critical Race Theory within Democracy, Elections, Trump, Biden, Disinformation conversations  | Nov 2020-Nov 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
Total Mentions of Policing and Immigration & Migration Conversations | Nov 2020-Nov 2021 | Source: Zignal Labs
America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Prediction 6
Escapism and the Future

Prediction six is Escapism and the Future. While we saw a burst of optimism about the way we could shape the future at the start of the pandemic, the terrain has gotten a bit more complicated. After a hard two years, conversations about the future will be accompanied by the desire to escape. Futurist trends will continue with stories musing on what shape society will take post-pandemic, and conversations about possible dystopias brought on by the ultra-rich building “cities of the future,” an inhospitable climate, or the expansion of fascism. Conversations about utopias and the apocalypse are deeply connected to the other narrative trends we’ve explored in this report. Progressive visions of utopia invoke a world in balance  - where past harms are repaired, our overlapping crises are addressed and our future is filled with abundance while the right-wing imagines a utopia free of government where everyone can do as they please.  Each of these visions has its twin. Progressives fear an authoritarian world where climate change and resource scarcity cause racial division and war while the right-wing envisions a socialist dystopia robbed of individual freedom.


We’ll also see conversations about escape. Some trends will lean heavily into nostalgia. The most common trend here is MAGA stories that dream of returning to an ahistorical perfect American way of life, but we’ll also see stories longing for bipartisanship and civility, and the desire to get back to life “before COVID.” Other stories and conversations will be driven by pandemic exhaustion, rejecting the uncertainty of today in favor of pleasure, luxury, and joy, consequences, and criticism be damned.

Narratives at Play

  • The future can be a utopia
  • The future will only get worse
  • Nothing is improving so let’s escape
  • Let’s go back to simpler times

Story Trends

America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Recommendations

The long-standing dominance of narratives around productivity, white racial anxiety, government distrust, and populism will advance the opposition's goals if we are not prepared. While we make strategic interventions, there are also opportunities to develop offensive strategies. The following Dos and Don’ts are not meant to serve as specific message guidance but as broad narrative guideposts that can inform content, audience, and platform development as you assess your narrative strategy.

America at a CrossroadsDemocracy in the BalanceA Fractured EconomyThe Culture Wars (Again)Safety or Law & OrderEscapism & the FutureRecommendationsGlossary

Glossary

Narrative* A collection or system of related stories that are articulated and refined over time to represent a central idea of belief.

Story* Discrete and contained; stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Stories recount a particular series of events that occur in a particular place and time and often contain structural archetypes such as a protagonist, a problem, a path, and a payoff. Stories do not have to be text-based. *Definitions provided by Narrative Initiative

Dog Whistle An expression or statement that has a secondary meaning intended to be understood only by a particular group of people.

Small Listening A method that relies on person to person relationships, informational interviews, surveys, traditional media scanning, and social media scanning to inform keyword development applied in big listening technology.

Big Listening** The art and practice of tracking topical online conversations over time — listening to what “the internet,” writ large, is talking about at any given moment. Track millions of pieces of data on online conversations that impact the meaning people make offline. Big listening is distinguished from traditional social media monitoring by its scale, fluidity, focus on topics, and expanded access to historical data. Big listening provides a methodology by which to deeper understand how meaning is made across time and space. **Adapted from Upwell.

Volume The quantity of keyword mentions within a conversation over a designated period of time.

Conversations are categories of keywords related to a particular topic that are monitored in real time and historically using big listening technology. We track conversations to analyze the exchange of content including messages, stories, information, ideas, and opinions.

Influencer We define influencers as individuals in the narrative space that wield clout. They have some public name recognition, a large number of followers (though this number is relative, not fixed), or are seen as a representative of their community with a robust network offline to match their online presence. Regardless of size, they have the ability to affect the volume of particular conversations across networks and audiences.

Misinformation is information that is false, but not created or distributed with the intention of causing harm.

Disinformation describes information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization, or country.

For more information and tools on combatting disinformation, check the Disinfo Defense Toolkit curated by ReFrame and PEN America for the Disinfo Defense League. Also check out ReFrame’s START Tool, a campaign- based tool that can help sharpen your strategy, and help you decide whether or not to use strategic communications to intervene in disinfo as one of the barriers to winning your campaign.

This Is Signals is a visionary project fueled by wit, imagination, fortitude, and caffeine. We ingest, digest, and dissect social, cultural, and political conversations of the moment and across time and space. We use the hard skills of grassroots organizing and strategic communications, the thinking of designers and futurists, the technology of big listening, and the wisdom of our ancestors.

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