Protest Movements: Are They Actually Impactful?
Animal advocates share a common goal in wanting to achieve social change for animals, but it’s not always clear how to get there. Protests are one common tactic applied by many advocacy organizations, although it remains unclear how effective they are in reaching their goals. For example, while a recent Faunalytics study found that protests had a negative impact on pro-animal behaviors, our follow-up blog points out that protests can be challenging to study and, in practice, have been effective for other movements.
Indeed, in the case of large social movement organizations (SMOs) such as Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, or Fridays for Future, protesting seems to work out well — experts generally agree that each of these groups has had noteworthy impacts around their respective issues. But movements of this size are the exception rather than the rule. The average SMO is significantly smaller, and this is especially true for animal advocacy movements. Should we recommend protests to them, too, or would they be better suited by focusing on other tactics?
In this report, Social Change Lab examined the outcomes of past and present protest movements across different cause areas, hoping to understand why some SMOs are more effective than others. Specifically, they investigated the impacts of protests on three areas:
- Public Opinion
- Public Discourse and Media
They used a literature review, public opinion polling, expert interviews, policymaker interviews, and case studies to make their assessments. The results of each area were scored on a scale from 1-5 to indicate how strongly a certain area can be influenced by protests (the higher the number, the stronger the impact). Likewise, the researchers provided their confidence level for each result on a scale 1-5.
When it comes to the effectiveness of protests, public opinion matters. This is for two reasons: First, public opinion plays a key role in shaping individual behavior — for example, if all your neighbors give up meat, you’re likely to reduce your consumption as well. Second, widespread views can impact other changes, such as policy change. In fact, one study found that public opinion influences as many as 75% of policy change cases. According to experts and policymakers themselves, legislators often refer to large protests (and especially media coverage of large protests) to gauge public opinions on a given issue.
Generally, the most compelling evidence was provided by the literature review: several existing studies observed shifts in public opinion of 2-10% after large protest events. The authors use the Black Lives Matter protests from 2020 as an example. Researchers found that if the number of people attending a protest increased by 1% of the population of a given county, the Democratic vote share in that county increased by nearly 6%.
Besides indicating that protests can — at least slightly — influence public opinion, these results also imply that an increase inthe number of people protesting is likely to increase a protest’s impact. Interestingly, some public opinion polling suggests that disruptive protests may not always be a threat to public support of a given cause area, mainly when a cause is already popular in society. One poll found that Extinction Rebellion’s disruptive protests in 2019 did not harm climate policy support; in fact, they may have encouraged a small percentage of people to engage more in environmental activism. This suggests that building concern for an issue is important before protests occur.
Beyond influencing public opinion, there are several other ways protests can steer policy. This includes influencing the media agenda and directly influencing policymakers.
Research has found that environmental laws are significantly correlated with the number of environmental protests when controlling for other influential factors. However, the legislators interviewed for this report expressed that pressure is more likely to be applied indirectly via other mediums, such as public opinion or the media. Nevertheless, they noted that Extinction Rebellion and live export protests have had a significant impact on U.K. policy. One civil servant even noted that Extinction Rebellion may have sped up an important declaration related to the climate crisis by several months.
Overall, the researchers stated that it’s likely that protests can, and sometimes have, led to policy changes. While the evidence base is weak, experts recommend ensuring protests are well-attended, gain media exposure, and that the costs to relevant politicians are high. It’s also helpful when protests feature “unusual” participants (e.g., schoolchildren and others who don’t normally protest).
Public Discourse And Media
In addition to shaping public opinion and the policy agenda, influential protests can also sway what’s discussed in public spaces such as social media and the news. In turn, they can shape how an issue is framed in the future. Unlike the other two areas, the authors are strongly confident that effective protests can bring about moderate to large changes in public salience.
Research on The U.S. Civil Rights movement in the 1960s revealed that nonviolent protests significantly predicted Congressional speeches and front-page media headlines in the days afterward. But even if an issue becomes salient, does public attention remain over time? According to studies on the Black Lives Matter movement, the answer is yes. Google searches, news articles, and Wikipedia page visits about BLM remained higher than the previous year up to six months after the protests took place.
According to social movement experts, one of the most effective ways that protests can change public discourse is by influencing how certain issues are discussed and thought about moving forward. An example they give is Extinction Rebellion in the U.K., whose climate protests introduced the narratives of “climate emergency” and “net-zero by 2025.”
Other Takeaways To Consider
Protests can influence other outcomes, too, including corporate decisions and divestments away from harmful industries. However, advocates must bear in mind that not all protests are equal. In fact, the report claims that protest movements have a high risk of failing to accomplish positive outcomes for their cause.
However, this doesn’t mean that all social movements should give up on protests. On the contrary, some protest movements can, and obviously have, achieved large outcomes. Therefore, advocates should approach protests cautiously and strategically. While there are many factors to consider, it’s generally accepted in the research that violent and extreme protests often work against a social movement. Likewise, smaller protests, and those that are neglected by the media, tend to be less effective.
Advocates should also bear in mind that social movement research is still very neglected, so more data is needed to inform advocates and their campaigns. In the meantime, advocates can use the findings of this study to decide which protest movements they should support, and how to increase the odds of their success.