Equivalency and Emphasis Frames

Chong and Druckman, in the context of media and communications, claim that framing takes two principal formats – equivalency and emphasis frames. Equivalency frames refer to statements which are logically equivalent but phrased differently. Thus, the phrasing causes individuals to alter their preferences.

With emphasis frames, people make different judgements depending on which aspect of a statement was intentionally emphasised by the researchers.

In psychology – and extended to economics – the impact of different phrasing of statements of identical semantics has been studied by Kahneman and Tversky (1981). They illustrate how decision problems can be framed in multiple ways that give rise to different preferences, contrary to the invariance criterion of rational choice. This means that preferences can be altered, and decision-makers can be led to a solution which may be considered more desirable by the person manipulating the frame.

The experiment carried out by Kahneman and Tversky consisted of two groups of people. Both groups were presented with the following situation:

Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs is as follows:

  • The first group was given a choice between two programs, A and B.

Based on their choice, this means that in a group of 600 people:
– Program A: “200 people will be saved”
– Program B: “there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved”

Participants preferred program A (72%) to program B (28%).

  • The second group was given a choice between two programs, C and D.

Based on their choice, this means that in a group of 600 people:
– Program C: “400 people will die”
– Program D: “there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die”

Participants preferred program D (78%) to program C (22%).

Note that:

  • Programs A and B are logically and mathematically identical. Programs C and D are also logically and mathematically identical. Hence the choice is only illusory.
  • Programs A and C are similarly framed as secure outcomes (saved vs. dead), and programs B and D are also similarly framed as ambiguous/insecure outcomes (probability).

Clearly, there is a preference reversal when the decision is presented in terms of saving lives (Group 1) as opposed to when the decision is presented in terms of expected deaths (Group 2).


How it relates to disinformation?

Using the framing effect to spread disinformation is an effective tactic to manipulate public perception. Here are some examples:

Economic Policies
Positive Framing: "Our new trade deal will boost domestic industries, securing 500,000 jobs."
Negative Framing: "Without our new trade deal, expect to see a loss of 500,000 jobs."

An actor trying to destabilise a region could use the negative framing to create economic panic, even if the situation isn't as dire as presented.

Food and Health
Positive Framing: "Organic foods promote better health and have 50% fewer pesticides."
Negative Framing: "Conventional foods contain double the pesticides and can be harmful."

By emphasizing the negative consequences, malevolent actors can influence consumer behaviour, potentially benefiting certain stakeholders at the expense of others.

Security and Immigration
Positive Framing: "Our new policy will ensure that 80% of immigrants undergo rigorous vetting."
Negative Framing: "20% of immigrants can slip through without proper checks under the current system."

Spreading fear about immigration can be a tactic to stir xenophobia or to push restrictive policies under the guise of security.

In all examples, framing - emphasizing either the positive or negative aspect - can significantly alter public perception, making framing a powerful tool in the hands of those wishing to spread disinformation.

Suggested use in training

Frame Analysis of Current News Stories

  • Description: Provide students with two articles on the same topic but from different news sources. Each article should represent different frames, one emphasizing positive outcomes (equivalency frame) and the other emphasizing negative outcomes (emphasis frame).
  • Activity: Have students identify the framing techniques used in each article. They should then discuss the potential effects on readers' perceptions, feelings, and potential behaviours resulting from each framing method.
  • Reflection: Conclude with a class discussion about how different frames can shape public opinion, even when the underlying information is the same. This exercise promotes critical thinking and helps students discern framing in real-world media.

Create Your Own News Story

  • Description: Present students with a neutral fact set about a recent event or situation.
  • Activity: Divide the class into groups and assign each group to write two brief news stories using the data: one using an equivalency frame and the other using an emphasis frame. The groups should then present their stories to the class.
  • Reflection: Engage the class in a discussion comparing and contrasting the different stories, focusing on how the framing techniques impacted their understanding and feelings about the event. This activity fosters an understanding of framing by having students actively practice it.