By Matthew Kwong
“No taxation without representation!” cried the American colonists in protest for American independence for decades until they succeeded in 1776. Throughout its continued independence, the United States has reigned as an independent sovereign because of the effectiveness of the mass continuous protests, which ultimately led to political revolution. The success of the American colonists’ protests against the British erupted in an international movement of political protests, known as the Atlantic Revolutions, in which many other colonized territories inspired by the American Revolution protested for their own independence. Ever since, protests have acted as a catalyst for social change and have been crucial in preserving human beliefs and the differing values within the diversity of our world. They have historically acted as demonstrations for political and social change, and continue to act as a powerful method to guide change within societies with emerging views. Though modern protests may seem far different from protests in past centuries, with differing objectives and means of protest, they have affected human society for many centuries.
However, recent protests have been less effective as they have increasingly failed to produce long-term change. For instance, protests against racial discrimination, one of the most prevalent issues today, have had little success in dismantling long-held beliefs of racial superiority and inferiority. According to sociologists, this lack of success is due to the ease of assembling protests quickly: unlike centuries ago, when protests took months and often years of planning and coordination, protests today can be coordinated as easily as a click on social media, allowing users to skip the steps normally taken to join a protest. This easy accessibility also takes away credibility since anyone can join or host a protest, even those who are not truly passionate about the cause of the protest and are merely doing it for attention. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement on social media was quickly turned from a form of digital racial justice awareness to a form of gaining popularity, as hashtags such as BLM were taken advantage of.
The difficulty in forming an effective protest is that grassroots movements tend to prioritize large events over strategy, especially when participants are deeply passionate about their cause. Messages and passion for the cause also tend to get diluted as protest movements grow, which is mostly why racial justice protests are largely ineffective despite the large-scale protests and awareness against racial discrimination, showing how widespread awareness on social media might not be as helpful as one might think. When it can take as little as a few days to go from a Facebook page to millions in the street, such as what we saw with the Women’s March in 2017, a protest with such ease of assembly does not make the powerful statement it did in the past. In comparison, the historic March on Washington in 1963 took more than 10 years to go from being an idea to being on the streets, with many months dedicated just to the logistics. When it takes that extensive effort to organize a protest, it sends a much more powerful statement than joining a protest because a friend is or because social media allows you to. According to the theory advanced by Zeynep Tufekci, a Columbia University sociologist, “social media enables protests to organize and gather in once-unthinkable numbers, often with little or no formal leadership, may also paradoxically undermine those movements.” Unsurprisingly, low-effort protests do not communicate credible threats recognized by those in political power. Legislators discern the lack of incentive and ease of assembly for protests, which is the main reason why there is little success and visible change in law and policies. Messages also tend to get diluted as protest movements grow, showing how widespread awareness on social media might not be as helpful as one might think.
Additionally, the recent exponential increase in protests have essentially undermined one another. The sheer number of global protests that occur daily takes away the importance and meaning of each protest, especially on an international scale. Centuries ago, the large-scale protests we see daily today rarely occurred, and only happened when there was truly a strong incentive behind such mass gatherings. However, it is not only the frequency or ease of assembly that is responsible for the decline of the effectiveness of protests. The extremity and negligence of recent protests have widely reduced the respect and credibility of protests in general. Just recently, extinction activists vandalized Ferraris at the Paris Motor Show as a way to promote their cause. The activists justified their cause by saying that Ferrari was a polluting industry that contradicts itself by claiming to be more environmentally friendly while continuing to promote individual cars as transport. They also stated that motors and batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles are made from materials that exploitation leads to a high cost of human lives, energy, and pollution. Their aim was to stop these car companies from advertising individual vehicles and to reduce their environmental impact. However, their protest failed spectacularly, leading only to their arrests and the destruction of hundreds of thousands of dollars in vehicles. The incident spread on social media, where people simply saw the protest as vacuous and irrationally radical. However, this is merely one example out of many—in another instance, climate activists poured tomato soup across one of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings and glued their hands to the wall. In 2019, a group of animal protestors removed the ducks on a processing line conveyor belt and used bike locks to attach themselves to the conveyor belt, which led to nowhere but arrest and injury as the belt continued to turn with the activists locked onto it. These radical protests have led to nothing but the decline of respect for protests overall, and they are much to blame for the decline in the effectiveness protests once had. According to Stanford sociologist Robb Willer, when a protest group with strong public support turns violent or radical, people may perceive them as less reasonable, which in turn leads them to identify with them less and ultimately become less supportive.
The issue extends further than even racial discrimination or climate change. This is not to say that these issues are not relevant and need social awareness, but there is a far more threatening issue the lack of effectiveness protests have on people: the issue of human rights in general. Though political protests worked centuries ago, as shown by the successes of the American and French revolutions despite their drawbacks and extent failures, other nations are not as fortunate to have their protests turn into successful revolutions. Most notable are the Iranian protests that seek change in their government, in which the protestors have failed to establish any success over recent decades, leaving human rights in the hands of the corrupt government. Throughout most of the 20th century, mass human rights protests grew both more common and more likely to succeed. By the early 2000s, two in three protest movements demanding systemic change ultimately succeeded, according to Harvard data. However, just a few years later, this trend began to reverse. By the end of the 2010s, though protests continued to grow more common, their success rate had halved to one in three; by 2020, data suggest that the success rate in respect to the number of protests had already halved again to one in six. According to political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who oversees protest tracking, “Nonviolent campaigns are seeing their lowest success rates in more than a century.” Along with the frequency of protests being a major reason for its decline in effectiveness, social media also has played a major role in hindering the human rights movement in Iran. Without traditional activist infrastructure, social media protests are less equipped to endure government repression, thus leading to easier dismissal of the protests. Without a leader, social media protests more easily dismantle and struggle to strategically coordinate. Protests were traditionally simply one-way activists would pressure governments, alongside political negotiations with leaders to build strong and impactful alliances. However, by channeling popular energy away from such organizing, the use of social media has made mass protest often the only, typically ineffective, tool.
However, it is not only the methods of protests that are becoming a problem. The declining effectiveness of protests leaves a major problem and begs an important question: How will people be able to communicate views and act for social and political change without effective protests? Though there is no concrete answer, a major step towards resolving such issues is to stop the radical vandalism for causes of protest. There is no way to truly stop social media organizations, and in our age of digital technology, the click of a single button has the power to spread a message across the world. However, if each person understands that protests continue to seem meaningless due to their frequency and ease of assembly, it is possible to regain the credibility of mass protests.
Laws and policies on protests can also be amended both ways to suit the needs of the people more properly. For example, the National Labor Relations Act directly states that “work protesters retain their status as employees and cannot be discharged, but they can be replaced by their employer.” The legally protected ability for labor protestors to simply be fired and replaced takes away social power from the people and essentially silences their voices. However, it can also be argued that these protest restrictions are good for the future of the people, in that if there are more strict laws and policies against protests, people are less inclined and eager to join a protest unless they are truly passionate about the cause. Logically speaking, to resolve the issue of protest frequency, the best solution would be to enact similar policies to the National Labor Relations Act against protests. This way, protests would be more credible in that people would be far more passionate and truly incentivized about the cause to risk the federal consequences. Until then, besides what each individual can do, not much can regain the credibility and respect of protests besides spreading awareness, especially for the human rights crisis in Iran, until the global population recognizes the decreasing effectiveness of protests.