Extreme protests drive the public away. So what should activists do?

To gain media and public attention, activists often feel the need to carry out disruptive protests. However, research finds that these actions can actually hinder the achievement of change.

By Macan Wigit
March 01, 2024
communication strategy, communication consultant, CSO communication, non-profit communication, communication training, NGO communication, communication for change
Credit: Photo by Rafli Firmansyah on Unsplash
Bringing social change that touches various aspects of people's lives is one of the main goals of activists and non-governmental organizations, or what are now called civil society organizations. Social change is encouraged through various means, including demonstrations in public areas, whether intentional or not, ultimately becomes disruptive.

Choosing to carry out a demonstration is very human, because activists are often driven by emotions of anger at seeing violations of the principles or moral intuitions they hold. Another thing that might make activists choose to protest is because it is considered something normal in the "struggle", seasoned with heroic images attached to the figure of demonstrators who fight against the authorities.

More strategically, the decision to take protest - especially creating an extreme protest - are often taken because there is a lot of evidence, including scientifically collected, which shows that this action has the potential to attract media attention and make the public and authorities aware of the existence of a problem.

However, research shows that the public does not even support the issues raised by activists through protests, if they consider their actions to be hampering the public interest or endangering many people. This means that activists are faced with a dilemma: extreme protests that attract public attention, but at the same time it will also reduce public support.

There are many ways to convey ideas
In carrying out campaigns in the public sphere, activists or civil society organizations have various goals. However, all of them can be classified based on their ultimate goal: policy changes or changes in the behavior of some groups of society. In this paper, we discuss the first, public campaigns to encourage policy change.

To encourage policy change, activists often carry out advocacy (which is actually more appropriately called persuasion) to policy makers. This persuasion can occur in closed spaces through presentations or private meetings, or in open spaces through conveying messages in public discussion spaces. The term "balcony faction" (or "fraksi balkon" in Indonesian) in the Parliament session discussing the bill is proof that input from civil society organizations has become a norm in policy making. Examples of successful advocacy can be found at various levels in Indonesia, both local and national. The closest thing is perhaps how advocacy efforts seek to ratify the Sexual Violence Crime Bill (RUU-TPKS).

Apart from policy advocacy, activists also often carry out campaigns in the public sphere to express their anger in the form of protests against parties who are considered responsible for causing problems to arise or persist. Campaigns with this aim are referred to as expression campaigns. An expression campaign can also be chosen when activists feel that the advocacy route has or will reach a dead end or is futile.

One of the popular sayings today is “all news is good news”. And there is quite a lot of empirical evidence that the more extreme an action, whatever the consequences, the more it will attract media attention. Naturally, activists often believe that more dramatic protests—which are then equated with disruptive—are more likely to receive media coverage, are more likely to be known and attract public sympathy, and ultimately influence policymakers.

It was read in the previous paragraph that activists who campaign often combine or even equate the goal of expression with the goal of persuasion. A persuasion campaign aims to persuade the public to support the demands put forward by activists or organizations campaigning.

If the aim of the protest is purely to gain attention, this step may be effective, but is this action appropriate for gaining support from citizens?
Activist dilemma in running a campaign
If we look only at this research, one might get the impression that social movements should never use violent protests. However, a 2015 study of protests in the U.S. era of segregation. and protests demanding women's suffrage in England in the early 20th century, show that the impact of disruptive protests remains. Apart from that, disruptive protest actions have proven to be useful in increasing the awareness of the general public regarding the existence of a movement.

Activists then face a dilemma: should they apply disruptive pressure to attract attention and media coverage, at the risk of reducing public support? What about vice versa?
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2020, three researchers from Stanford University and the University of Toronto found that the public tends to be reluctant to support the issue being promoted or the activist who is carrying it if they perceive the protest to be carried out in a disruptive or dangerous manner.

These findings are the result of six experiments that explored reactions to various disruptive protests in various social movements, both on the progressive agenda (for example: opposition to Donald Trump's presidential candidacy) and conservative (for example: the anti-abortion movement). Some respondents (in the experimental group) read articles that described disturbing protestsharm the public interest or endanger other people (for example taking police hostage). Others (in the control group) read articles that described more neutral protest actions (for example boycotting a company's products). All respondents were asked to what extent they supported the issues raised and the activists who took action. In fact, the six experiments showed consistent results: respondents who read extreme protest actions had less support for the issues and activists involved in the demonstration, compared to respondents who read neutral protest actions. These results are consistent and not influenced by the respondent's ideology (liberal or conservative). For example, even hardline liberals showed less support for the anti-Trump movement after reading about the extreme protests against Trump.

How could this happen? The mechanism can be illustrated through the diagram below. If someone thinks that a protest action disturbs the public interest or endangers other people, then that person will judge that this action is immoral. This perception of immorality reduces emotional connection to the issue being promoted, and identification with the activist. As a result, the person will reduce their willingness to support or join the social movement behind the protest.
It is necessary to divide the task to surround it from all directions
So how to solve this dilemma? In our opinion, there is a middle path that can be taken. Expressive protests still need to be carried out, because media coverage can make more citizens finally understand that there is a situation that must be changed. However, expressive protests must always be accompanied by persuasion campaigns to gather public support as well as policy advocacy - if this is possible.

This does not mean that these three things must be done simultaneously by one organization. On the other hand, dividing tasks is very important because those who "get" the role of being protestors will most likely never be invited for their input by the authorities. Apart from that, organizations whose role is to invite citizens to support the change agenda cannot take extreme action if they want to be effective. Dividing tasks will "surround" the issue from all sides and make the opportunity for a greater change.

When we talk about persuasion, the main target is ordinary people who do not (or we hope, do not yet) care as much as activists about issues. This indifference may exist because they don't understand, don't feel the need to understand, or there is no reason to force them to understand. Another approach that we can take is a campaign that is persuasive and not patronizing. This will be very effective in avoiding resistance from parts of society who tend to be apathetic towards change.

For these people, we can use an “interrupt” mode of communication when we reach out to them for the first time. The “interruption” mode of communication functions like commercial product advertising, where the public who have never received exposure to the issue are “exposed” in the public space.

However, don't expect that those who previously didn't care will immediately become fully involved. There is no instant solution to increase understanding and awareness. The key to all of this is consistent and ongoing communication.

In line with this, when initially concerned citizens appear willing to become more involved, activists in civil society organizations must be ready to accommodate and channel their energy by providing various forms of involvement, starting from the "light class" such as distributing content or signing petitions, “Welterweight” is like donating money or time, to “heavyweight” is like joining a demonstration. Don't let the momentum you have worked so hard to build disappear.

Ultimately, the key to resolving this dilemma is the coordination of change drivers carrying out protest, persuasion and advocacy on their respective fronts.
  1. Feinberg, M., Willer, R., & Kovacheff, C. (2020). The activist’s dilemma: Extreme protest actions reduce popular support for social movements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1086–1111. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000230
  2. Biggs, M., & Andrews, K. (2015). Protest Campaigns and Movement Success. American Sociological Review, 80(2), 416-443.

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