What Makes A Successful Protest Movement?
Social movements dominated by protests, like the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter, can have a profound effect on the public, media, and even policymakers. They can change people’s opinions and influence the decisions of those in power. Despite protests being a common way for people to achieve social change, no two protests are exactly the same. Because of this, it’s not always clear how to make protests as effective as possible.
This report aims to understand which factors make some protests more successful than others in achieving their goals. The authors concentrate on social movements that emphasize protest as a central strategy and highlight different types of end goals including changing public opinion, influencing policymakers, and affecting public discourse.
Focusing primarily on North America and Western Europe, the researchers used literature reviews, expert opinions, policymaker interviews, and case studies to evaluate different protest success elements. They then rated each factor for its importance in achieving a protest movement’s desired results as well as the strength of the evidence supporting the researchers’ conclusions.
They identified the following success factors as most important:
Violence / Nonviolence
There is a debate on whether violent or nonviolent protests are more likely to be successful. Most of the literature and experts suggested that nonviolent protests are more likely to succeed, while violence decreases the chances of success. For example, research has found that nonviolent protests during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement increased the Democratic vote share more than violent protests.
However, it is important to note that there is disagreement on what constitutes violence and nonviolence, which makes this factor difficult to study and evaluate in the real world. One case study found that violent actions by activists, which received negative media coverage, reduced public support for their cause. However, the study also found that nonviolent activism received less media attention, so the evidence isn’t necessarily clear-cut.
According to the authors, research suggests that the size or number of people involved in a protest or protest movement is likely to have a big impact on its success, including influencing policymaker action and the salience of a given issue. For example, one policymaker said a protest’s size was the number one most important factor for influencing policy changes. This is perhaps because many policymakers interpret large turnout as a sign of public opinion, thus making them more likely to pay attention to the protesters’ demands.
Unlike protest size and tactics, there are many external factors that protest movements can’t control but still play a role in their success. These include having important allies (such as government officials) and luck.
For example, research suggests that having a high-profile ally may lead to more media coverage of an issue. Some policymakers shared that having legislators on board as allies can also lead to policy changes. Regarding luck, sometimes a movement has all the pieces in place for a successful protest but is overshadowed by circumstances beyond their control — natural disasters, high-profile political announcements, or even inclement weather.
In this context, diversity refers to the makeup of a protest movement and can include demographic variables such as age, gender, and ethnicity, as well as specific societal groups. Based on the literature review, expert, and policymaker interviews, the authors believe that greater diversity in a protest movement increases its chances of success. This is because greater diversity appeals to the public and makes the issue more compelling to policymakers, demonstrating widespread concern. However, the evidence for this is limited and there is some uncertainty about its importance in comparison to other factors.
The authors identified other factors that may play a role in the success of a protest movement. However, there is limited evidence about their effects:
- Unity: Having a clear, consistent message or showing a unified front
- Commitment: Protesters who are more visibly engaged with their activism
- Radical Flank Effect: When a protest has a faction of activists who engage in radical tactics
- Trigger Events: Highly publicized events that signal why a protest is needed (e.g., the George Floyd murder)
- Protest Frequency And Length
Protests can be challenging to study, which means there is still more research needed on the different success factors. However, the authors suggest focusing on the use of nonviolent tactics, increasing protest size, and trying to create favorable external conditions (where possible). In addition to helping activists achieve positive social change, the results from this report can also aid philanthropists in supporting effective social movements.