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Members of the Just Stop Oil protest group recently threw soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London. The action reignited a debate about which types of protests are most effective.
After a quick cleaning of the glass, the painting was exposed again. But critics argued that the real damage had been done, alienating the public from the cause itself (the demand that the UK government reverse its support for the opening of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea). .
Supporters of more militant forms of protest often point to historical examples such as the suffragettes. In contrast to the action of Just Stop Oil, when the suffragist Mary Richardson went to the National Gallery to attack a painting called The Rokeby Venus, she cut the canvas, causing significant damage.
However, many historians argue that the suffragettes’ contribution to women gaining the vote was negligible or even counterproductive. These discussions often seem to depend on people’s gut feelings about the impact of the protest. But as a professor of cognitive psychology, I know that we shouldn’t rely on intuition: these are testable hypotheses.
The activist’s dilemma
In one set of experiments, researchers showed people descriptions of protests and then measured their support for the protesters and the cause. Some participants read articles describing moderate protests such as peaceful marches. Others read articles describing more extreme and sometimes violent protests, such as a fictitious action in which animal rights activists drugged a security guard in order to enter a laboratory and remove animals.
Just Stop Oil activists spray-painted the wall below a student’s copy of Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” and taped to the frame. Credit: Kristian Buus/In Pictures/Getty Images
Protesters who took extreme actions were perceived as more immoral, and participants reported lower levels of emotional connection and social identification with these “extreme” protesters. The effects of these types of actions on support for the cause were somewhat varied (and the negative effects may be specific to actions that incorporate the threat of violence).
READ MORE: Three arguments why Just Stop Oil was right to target Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”.“
Overall, these results paint a picture of the so-called activist’s dilemma: activists must choose between moderate actions that are largely ignored and more extreme actions that gain attention but may backfire on to their goals, as they tend to make people think less. of the demonstrators
Activists themselves tend to offer a different perspective: they say that accepting personal unpopularity is simply the price to pay for the media attention they depend on.”get the conversation going
” and win public support for the issue. But is this the right approach? Could activists be harming their own cause?
Hating protesters does not affect support
I have conducted several experiments to answer these questions, often in collaboration with students at the University of Bristol. To influence participants’ views of the protesters, we made use of a well-known framing effect whereby (even subtle) differences in how protests are reported have a pronounced impact, often serving to delegitimize the protest.
For example, the Daily Mail article reporting on Van Gogh’s protest referred to it as a “stunt” part of a “campaign of mayhem” by “rebellious environmentalists”. The article does not mention the protestors’ demand.
Climate protesters of the latest generation after throwing mashed potatoes at Claude Monet’s painting “Les Meules”. Credit: Latest generation/AP
Our experiments took advantage of this framing effect to test the relationship between attitudes toward the protesters themselves and toward their cause. If the public’s support for a cause depends on how they feel about the protestors, then a negative framing, which leads to less positive attitudes toward the protestors, should result in lower levels of support for the demands.
But that’s not what we found. Indeed, experimental manipulations that reduced support for protestors had no impact on support for those protestors’ demands.
We replicated this finding across different types of nonviolent protests, including protests about racial justice, abortion rights, and climate change, and among British, American, and Polish participants (this work is in preparation for its publication). When members of the public say, “I agree with your cause, I just don’t like your methods,” we should take them at their word.
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Decreasing the extent to which the public identifies with you may not be helpful in building a mass movement. But highly publicized actions can actually be a very effective way to increase recruitment, given that relatively few people ever become activists. The existence of a radical flank also appears to increase support for the more moderate factions of a social movement, making those factions appear less radical.
The protest can set the agenda
Another concern may be that most of the attention garnered by radical actions is not about the issue, but rather about what the protesters did. However, even when this is true, the public conversation opens up the space for some discussion about the issue itself.
Protest plays an important role in seeding the agenda. It doesn’t necessarily tell people what to think, but influences what they think. Last year’s Insulate Britain protests are a good example. In the months following the start of the protests on 13 September 2021, the number of mentions of the word “isolation” (not “isolate”) in UK print media doubled.
Just Stop Oil activists glued their hands to the frame of John Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’ and superimposed an edited image over the artwork. Credit: Carlos Jasso/AFP/Getty Images
Some people do not investigate the details of a problem, but media attention can nevertheless promote the problem in their minds. A YouGov poll published in early June 2019 showed that “the environment” ranked among the public’s top three issues for the first time.
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The pollsters concluded that “the sudden rise in concern is no doubt driven by publicity for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion” (which had recently occupied prominent places in central London for two weeks). There is also evidence that home isolation has risen up the political agenda since the Insulate Britain protests.
The dramatic protest does not disappear. The protagonists will continue to be the subject of (mostly) negative media attention, which will lead to widespread public disapproval. But when we look at public support for the protesters’ demands, there is no compelling evidence that nonviolent protest is counterproductive. People may “shoot the messenger”, but at least sometimes they hear the message.