Culture & Society

The Activist’s Dilemma

Extreme actions draw attention to a cause but erode public support — and many protestors fail to see the link.

February 19, 2021

| by Nadra Nittle
A megaphone pointed at a brick wall. Credit: Alvaro Dominguez

“How social movements succeed or fail in pushing their agenda in society is an extremely complex dynamic,” says Stanford professor Rob Willer. | Alvaro Dominguez

Shutting down traffic. Vandalizing property. Threatening or engaging in violence.

While these forms of extreme protest might undercut public support for a movement, they’re remarkably effective at raising awareness about social causes and placing pressure on the institutions that can act on them.

So, what should activists do — refrain from highly disruptive protest to keep the public on their side or risk losing popular support by protesting in the extreme fashion likely to grab the attention of those in power?

In a nutshell, that’s the “activist’s dilemma,” the subject of a new paper by Robb Willer, a professor of organizational behavior (by courtesy) at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Willer and two coauthors (professor Matthew Feinberg and doctoral student Chloe Kovacheff of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management) investigated the widespread claim that extreme protest actions — those viewed as “harmful to others, highly disruptive, or both” — erode public support for movements. Across six experiments focused on such movements as animal rights, anti-abortion, and anti-Donald Trump to test this hypothesis, they found that extreme forms of protest lead to a drop in social identification with the various causes. This is of concern to activists, because movements that lack popular support are unlikely to grow and could even face public opposition.

“The takeaway is not a simple one for activists,” Willer says. “There’s a reason we titled it ‘The Activist’s Dilemma.’ Activists want to be relevant and noticed and adopt tactics toward that end, but at the same time, they want to build support in the general public — and it’s just very hard to do both of those things at once.”

Why Extreme Activism Alienates

How the public perceives protest behaviors largely stems from a common sense of right and wrong, and extreme actions such as threats of violence, major disruptions, or inflammatory rhetoric tend to be viewed as immoral. Once observers of a movement form this perception, they’re unlikely to feel the compassion needed to identify with a cause, and activists who behave in ways thought to violate the rights of others run the risk of permanently alienating the public.

When protest actions are deemed immoral, they have the potential to prompt observers to reject a movement’s entire platform. For example, the researchers contend that activists who block highway traffic to raise awareness about the environment might lose public support for the movement — and provoke the public to care less about conservation efforts generally. That said, if the cause has long been the subject of moral debate, an extreme protest action is unlikely to change public opinion.

The legalization of abortion is an issue that the nation has debated for decades, and one that political conservatives generally oppose. Yet, when conservative participants in Willer’s study read about anti-abortion activists engaging in behaviors they perceived to be extreme, such as blocking the entrance of an abortion clinic, their support for the movement waned.

A similar pattern played out in an experiment involving anti-Trump protesters, with politically liberal study participants reporting a drop in support for demonstrators who caused a traffic jam by blocking carloads of Trump supporters from reaching one of his campaign events.

How social movements succeed or fail in pushing their agenda in society is an extremely complex dynamic that we don’t fully understand.
Robb Willer

“We were very surprised by how consistent these effects were across different groups of Americans,” Willer says. “You would think that people would show a great deal of deference to activist groups that are representing their political or demographic group and not be negatively influenced by their extreme tactics, but that’s not what we found. People still prefer those groups not to use extreme tactics.”

In some circumstances, extreme protest behaviors, such as activists using force to topple a totalitarian regime, might foster public support. The research findings also suggest that activists engaging in extreme protest should make efforts to explain the rationale behind that decision. For instance, holding up signs that communicate the urgency of their cause could offset the idea that they’re blocking traffic because they’re “immoral.”

But protesters, Willer and his coauthors found, aren’t necessarily familiar with the activist’s dilemma.

Awareness of the Dilemma

Do activists recognize that extreme protest behaviors might garner headlines about their cause but diminish public support for it? Willer, Feinberg, and Kovacheff set out to answer that question using an exploratory pilot study for which they recruited 121 activists from a pool of 2,000 applicants.

All but seven of the participants indicated on a survey that they were at least “somewhat willing” to engage in extreme protest actions. Further questioning revealed that these activists believed that extreme actions would increase popular support for their causes rather than decrease such support, suggesting they knew little about the activist’s dilemma.

On Jan. 6, protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol, seemingly convinced that their decision to trespass on federal property and rifle through the belongings of government officials presented them as brave patriots fighting against a corrupt political system. But, as Willer points out, the public perceived them very differently.

“I think this research captures well the storming of the Capitol,” he says. “This was an act of violent and disruptive protest that certainly grabbed headlines but was met with overwhelming condemnation. While the riot may be effective for emboldening the base of activists already involved or drawing some very fringe individuals to join the cause, it was utterly ineffective in persuading the mass public to embrace the rioters’ grievances.”

Afterward, some Republicans made a concerted effort to distance themselves from these protesters, who claimed that the 2020 presidential race had been stolen from Trump. To distinguish themselves from the rioters, a group of Republican lawmakers changed their position on the integrity of the presidential election and voted to certify the results.

So, why didn’t the Capitol protesters predict what the response to their siege would be? Highly invested in their movements, activists are prone to assuming that the general public feels nearly as strongly about a particular cause as they do — or they have difficulty considering the viewpoint of people who don’t know or care about the issue. But the researchers assert that their findings strongly suggest that resolving the activist’s dilemma could be the key to movement success.

To avoid alienating the public, activists might rely on moderate protest tactics. Alternatively, if a movement has just started to take off, activists could initially use extreme behaviors to draw attention to their cause and then revert back to modest methods to maintain public support. Still, the researchers acknowledge that there certainly may be exceptions to the rule. They point out that the American, Cuban, Russian, and French revolutions all won broad popular support, despite the fact that the individuals who spearheaded these movements used extreme actions to resist.

“The truth is that this space of how social movements succeed or fail in pushing their agenda in society is an extremely complex dynamic that we don’t fully understand,” Willer says. “To give a complete theory of this, you’d need to account for these kinds of exceptions.”

In a contemporary democracy such as the United States, where the civil rights movement remains influential, nonviolent methods of protest are arguably received the best. But nonviolent doesn’t mean non-extreme. The civil rights activists of the 1960s marched on roads and bridges and disobeyed Jim Crow laws until the police arrived to arrest them. In their day, they were highly disruptive but still managed to win popular support. A modern movement could do the same.

“You really need to think about what activists are protesting against,” Willer says. “If they’re protesting against a repressive dictatorship, for example, they might not really lose that moral standing because they’re seen as striking back against a very immoral agent.”

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