Extreme And Effective Aren’t The Same
Why are you reading this article? It’s probably because you want to help animals. Social movements exist to effect change. They seek to empower and enfranchise the disempowered and disenfranchised. Their tactics vary but their objectives generally fall into two categories: (1) gain media attention to expand societal awareness of their cause, and (2) to recruit as much public support as possible. But these two objectives aren’t always compatible. While more extreme tactics may succeed in garnering publicity, they may also have a negative effect on the public’s perception of the cause.
Social movements gain adherents in three ways: they illuminate an injustice, convince people that a social action will succeed, and forge a group identity to mobilize collective activities. But when movements employ extreme tactics such as inflammatory rhetoric, blocking traffic, disrupting citizens’ everyday activities and damaging property, they risk losing supporters. While extreme tactics grab attention, they fall outside accepted social norms. Rather than gaining converts to a cause, they may have the opposite effect. Yet committed activists may not be aware of the potential backlash from such tactics, or they may consider it the price of being heard.
To assess this tradeoff, researchers conducted five experiments in two phases using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The first three experiments examined the impact of extreme behaviors on bystander attitudes. In each experiment, participants read an article or watched a video about either a moderate or extreme protest. After reading the article, subjects indicated how extreme they thought the behavior was and how much they identified with and supported the movement. The final two experiments looked at why activists might engage in extreme tactics and how they viewed the tradeoff between media attention and movement support.
The results confirm that extreme tactics backfire in gaining popular support for a cause. At the same time, it appears that many activists are unaware of their potential negative effects. They believe that extreme tactics will both raise awareness and gain movement support. Yet, a detailed parsing of the data also revealed that activists who believed most strongly that extreme tactics would raise awareness did not believe that those tactics would help them win converts. This group may represent the more experienced activists who do understand the balancing act.
The researchers note that these results may not hold true in the real world. The highly controlled experimental conditions remove the contextual elements that could lead to different outcomes. For instance, if a state actor violently represses a protest, even one where participants are using extreme tactics, public opinion may still shift in the protestors’ favor. And, while extreme behaviors may reduce support in the short term, they may serve a longer-term goal of raising awareness among politicians and society. The influence of social media is also hard to gauge since, while the reach is worldwide, the clamor of voices competing for attention is ever louder.
This study illustrates a classic dilemma that advocates face. Outrageous behaviors may capture attention, but at the cost of a public black eye. Animal advocates should consider these results carefully. Headline-grabbing tactics, such as damaging laboratory facilities or freeing animals from a slaughterhouse will probably not play well with the public — though they may have longer-term effects that are much harder to gauge. More restrained activities, such as starting Meatless Monday campaigns or lobbying for more plant-based options in schools may not be as emotionally satisfying but will likely serve the longer-term objectives of the animal welfare movement.