Exploring changes in a quarter-century of American activism
The United States is a nation built around protests. From the Revolutionary War to the Civil Rights Movement, U.S. freedom and government policy have been created through mass social movements. Over the past quarter-century, the introduction of new technologies, social media forums and mass mediums have changed societal perception of what a social movement is and how supporters can participate. As social and technological trends shift, the conception of what actions qualify as protests and how active members connect and relate begins to change along with new advancements.
Heidi Reynolds-Stenson is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, advised by sociologist Jennifer Earl. Her area of interest is in how social movement communities and organizations work to sustain participation in the face of repression. She has instructed a Social Issues in America course at the University of Arizona and has been published in Mobilization, an international, peer-reviewed journal that reviews research of social and political movements.
Reynolds-Stenson said she believes one of the most important protests in modern history was the World Trade Organization protest in 1999.
“The WTO protests in Seattle was a watershed moment for both protesters and for government and police force,” Reynolds-Stenson said. “Before this, there was a sort of truce between protesters and police that had developed coming off of the peak of the protests in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Before the “Battle in Seattle,” as the protest came to be known, protests had gradually become more institutionalized, adhering to the rules and regulations of police forces and government entities, Reynolds-Stenson said. Since the mid-1970s, protesting permits had been required. Protesters were starting to work with police to decide when, where and what protest groups were going to do. This is known as the “negotiated manner approach,” coined by two scholars of sociology, John McCarthy and Clark McPhail. These practices began in major cities, like Washington, D.C., and New York City, later diffusing across the country.
“There was this unofficial treaty that said that protest groups would follow certain ‘rules’ and the police would allow them to protest a little bit more, rather than trying to just outright stop all protests,” Reynolds-Stenson said.
This policing strategy was based around the idea that police would tolerate protests, as long as protesting styles remained predictable, contained, and non-disruptive. Reynolds-Stenson said most protesters had begun to realize that abiding by the “negotiated manner approach” wasn’t as effective as unregulated protest.
“Some protesters believe that disruption or unpredictability are sometimes necessary to create change, put pressure on targets and get attention from the media,” said Reynolds-Stenson, “and a lot of research by social movement scholars would suggest they are right.”
Ultimately, Reynolds-Stenson said she thinks the WTO protests were successful. The protesters stopped the WTO from meeting and brought national attention and media coverage to their issue. Since then, the act of protesting has been significantly less institutionalized, though some protest groups still choose to work with police forces, according to Reynold-Stenson.
Rima Wilkes is an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Wilkes writes for Mobilizing Ideas, an online publication hosted by the Center for the Study of Social Movements at Notre Dame. The publication is devoted to interdisciplinary perspectives on social movements and social change.
“I think right now we are at a point where protesting is important but has lost its novelty. Demonstrations are important, but not for the reasons they once were,” Wilkes said. “It used to be that a demonstration might lead to change, or at least we tended to imagine that.”
According to Reynolds-Stenson, we live in a “social movement society.” This term was coined by scholars David Meyer and Sidney Tarrow to describe how protest has been integrated into our culture in a way that makes it routine and taken for granted in a way it was not previously. This integration may have been made more prominent through the media’s coverage of big protests and social movements.
This emphasis on the importance of mass media and the coverage of a social movement through the media has contributed to a process of redefining protesting. According to Wilkes, protesting is not only being deinstitutionalized by the police and government but also by mainstream media.
“Mainstream media focuses on the nature of the event itself rather than the actual issue; they are looking for drama and any kind of argument,” Wilkes said. “I think a lot of activists are getting around this by generating their own media. Social media provides new ways for activists to get their message out while previously they would have had to rely solely on what the mainstream media said about them.”
Now, individual protesters and bystanders are able to share information online, allowing different perspectives to be heard. This generates discussions rather than having an issue reduced down to a sound byte, Reynolds-Stenson said.
J. Craig Jenkins is the director of Mershon Center for International Security Studies, a facility for research on national security in a global context at Ohio State University, as well as a professor of sociology who studies the impact of social movements on policy and social change. Jenkins said social media is important to the activist community because it is significantly controllable from the bottom up.
“That’s one reason why it’s being used a lot by movements as a vehicle for generating conversation, discourse and discussions about the need for certain types of social change, as well as a recognition of certain types of issues and identities that need to be taken into account,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins said conventional media is both a great opportunity and a problem. Although technology and social media have been beneficial to organizers and protests by allowing groups to organize events and by creating space for dialogue, they have also created problems that were nonexistent twenty years ago.
Wilkes said that she thinks social media protests are often reduced to people mic-ing the voices of others rather than forming their own voice. She said this changes the effect of social media protesting, making it, ultimately, less powerful. However, Wilkes said that she believes multiple other problems have stemmed from the use of social media.
“Social media allows for more continuous dialogue,” said Wilkes. “However, the attention span of viewers is so short.”
This short attention span is one of several problems that have come with improved accessibility to technology and social media, according to scholars like Wilkes. These improvements are changing the way social movements develop and the way protesters connect. However, Professor Jenkins said that, despite this increasing digital world, traditional protest tactics and person-to-person interaction are still important, in fact vital, to creating social and political change.
Jenkins said activists and organizers should be using social media to communicate with their base of people that already believe or identify with their cause. However, he said he doesn’t believe social media is a good way to convert people to join a cause and that physical interaction is vital to recruiting people to become active parts of any social movement.
Jenkins also said he believes that social media protest is important but needs to be part of a multi-faceted approach, including online and physical protest, on behalf of social movements.
“There are social media campaigns where ‘nobody shows up.’ There are social media campaigns where a lot of people are involved, but nothing comes from it immediately,” Jenkins said. “Social media alone is not enough. You can’t just do an online petition campaign and expect that alone to matter.”
He said that though social media is important for social movement campaigns in today’s society, it often may not lead to legislative reform and social change without protesters also having a physical presence.
“Social media can sometimes influence politicians, but sometimes marching and voting matters more,” Jenkins said. “People need to be aware of that trade off.”
Social media and other technology are not only being used by the activist community. Utilization of new technology is also giving an upper hand to police and government forces, according to Reynolds-Stenson.
Reynolds-Stenson is currently working on an ethnographic study for the activist community in Phoenix, Arizona, where local police have recently come under public criticism of monitoring and infiltrating activist groups in the name of “fighting terrorism.”
“Political Facebook groups will sometimes be monitored by police. The same thing goes for well-known activists Facebook pages and certain protest events,” Reynolds-Stenson said. “This can be used to potentially stop protest gatherings.”
In places like Arizona, Reynolds-Stenson said there have also been circumstances where police have used facial recognition technology at protests. This allows law enforcement to match protesters faces with their Facebook pages, giving them a list of many of the protesters who attended and information protesters have shared through Facebook, she said.
As human invention continues to change and expand, it is hard to imagine what the world of protest will look like 25 years from now. Technology and, specifically, social media have created a new space for activists to engage, communicate and plan with one another, while simultaneously allows law enforcement to improve regulation strategies. As online spaces develop and technology advances, we must ask how the power of protest will be redefined by American society.
Charlotte Robertson is a freshman Integrated Marketing Communications major who puts the active in activism. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.