Are radical protests distracting the public from a case? Here’s the proof

Members of the protest group Just Stop Oil recently threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. The action again sparked debate over which types of protest are most effective.

After a quick cleaning of the glass, the painting could be seen again. But critics argued that the real damage was done by alienating the public from the matter itself (demanding that the UK government undo its support for opening new oil and gas fields in the North Sea).

Proponents of more militant forms of protest often point to historical examples such as the suffragettes. Unlike Just Stop Oil’s action, when the suffragette Mary Richardson went to the National Gallery to attack a painting called The Rokeby Venus, she cut the canvas, causing extensive damage.

painting of the back of the woman, with slashes
The Rokeby Venus: Diego Velázquez’s 17th-century painting was cut by a suffragette, but later restored.
National Gallery / wiki

However, many historians argue that the suffragettes’ contribution to gaining the vote for women was negligible or even counterproductive. Such discussions often seem to be based on people’s gut feeling about the impact of protest. But as a professor of cognitive psychology, I know that we don’t have to rely on intuition – these are hypotheses that can be tested.

The activist’s dilemma

In one set of experiments, researchers showed people descriptions of protests and then measured their support for the protesters and the cause. Some participants read articles about moderate protests, such as peaceful marches. Others read articles about more extreme and sometimes violent protests, for example a fictional action in which animal rights activists drug a guard into breaking into a laboratory and removing animals.

Protesters who took extreme actions were seen as immoral, and participants reported lower emotional attachment and social identification with these “extreme” protesters. The effects of these types of actions on support for the case have been somewhat mixed (and negative effects may be specific to actions involving the threat of violence).

Taken together, these results paint a picture of the so-called activist’s dilemma: activists must choose between moderate actions that are largely ignored and more extreme actions that manage to attract attention, but which can be counterproductive to their goals by encouraging people to follow less. thinking. of the protesters.

Activists themselves tend to offer a different perspective: They say that accepting personal unpopularity is simply the price to be paid for the media coverage they rely on”start the conversationand gain public support for the issue. But is this the right approach? Can activists harm their own cause?

Hating protesters doesn’t affect support

I have conducted several experiments to answer such questions, often in collaboration with students from the University of Bristol. To influence participants’ perceptions of protesters, we used a well-known framing effect where differences (even subtle) in how protests are reported have a pronounced impact, often serving to delegitimize the protest.

For example, the Daily Mail article about Van Gogh’s protest called it a “stunt” that is part of a “campaign of chaos” by “rebellious eco-fanatics”. The article does not mention the protesters’ claim.

Our experiments took advantage of this framing effect to test the relationship between attitudes toward the protesters themselves and their cause. If public support for a cause depends on how they feel about the protesters, then negative framing — leading to less positive attitudes toward protesters — should lead to lower support for the demands.

Just put an oil banner on a suspension bridge
Just Stop Oil protesters also recently blocked a bridge to disrupt the oil supply in South East England.
Gareth Fuller / Alamy

But that’s not what we found. In fact, experimental manipulations that reduced support for the protesters did not affect support for those protesters’ demands.

We replicated this finding in a range of different types of nonviolent protest, including protests about racial justice, abortion rights and climate change, and among UK, US and Polish participants (this work is being prepared for publication). When members of the public say, “I agree with your case, I just don’t like your methods,” we have to take them at their word.

Reducing the extent to which the public identifies with you may not be helpful for building a mass movement. But highly publicized campaigns can be a very effective way to increase recruitment, as relatively few people ever become activists. The existence of a radical flank also seems to increase support for more moderate factions of a social movement, by making these factions appear less radical.

Protest can set the agenda

Another concern may be that most of the attention garnered by radical actions is not about the issue, but instead about what the protesters were doing. But even if this is true, the public conversation opens up the space for some discussion of the issue itself.

Protest plays a role in agenda seeding. It doesn’t necessarily tell people what to think, but influences what they think about. Last year’s Insulate Britain protests are a good example of this. In the months after the protests began on September 13, 2021, the number of mentions of the word ‘isolation’ (not ‘isolate’) in British print media doubled.

Chart showing 'isolation' mentions in UK news media over time with a sharp rise between August and September 2021
See where Insulate Britain’s protests began. (Author’s own research, using the Factiva database to search UK broadsheet and tabloid newspapers)
Colin Davis, Author provided

Some people don’t investigate the details of an issue, yet media attention can advance the issue in their minds. A YouGov survey published in early June 2019 showed for the first time that ‘the environment’ was in the top three most important issues of the public.

Pollsters concluded that the “sudden surge in concern is undoubtedly amplified by the environmental publicity Extinction Rebellion has generated” (which had recently occupied prominent sites in central London for two weeks). There is also evidence that home insulation is increasingly on the policy agenda since the Insulate Britain protests.

Dramatic protest is not going away. Protagonists will continue to be the subject of (mostly) negative media attention, leading to widespread public disapproval. But looking at public support for the protesters’ demands, there is no convincing evidence that nonviolent protest is counterproductive. People can “shoot the messenger”, but they – at least sometimes – hear the message.

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