With the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the political changes in Thailand, and the protests in Venezuela all top of mind, I’ve been thinking about the ways social movements have changed over the past quarter-century. These changes impact how the public interacts with businesses, governments, and with each other.

First, modern social movements rely less on internal organization and centralized leadership.

In 2011, Time named “The Protestor” its Person of the Year. Interestingly, the magazine noted, “almost all the protests this year began as independent affairs, without much encouragement from or endorsement by existing political parties or opposition bigwigs.” This is a new phenomenon. Many 20th century social movements had organizational structures or leaders that helped advance their causes: the US Civil Rights movement benefited from the direction of Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall; Britain coordinated a massive international effort to end South African apartheid; the World Socialist Movement was forged by a collection of political parties. Organizational structures help movements articulate goals, define processes, identify leaders and members, and plan events. According to social movement history expert Jennifer Earl, however, that centralized power is waning because members can coordinate themselves digitally.

Past social movements earned respect and media coverage in large part by attracting notable leaders and aligning with major institutions. Today, social movements often engage “a massive, horizontally networked society of media participants.” According to consultant Clay Shirky, a movement’s sheer number of participants enables it to “demand legitimacy and greater authority across the media landscape.” The 2010 Iranian election protests, for example, prompted the Iranian Green Movement. Mass dissent drew global attention, which helped the movement establish its legitimacy.

According to digital blogger Ethan Rocke, social media compensates for disorganization. “Larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations,” Rocke claims. Beginning in 2010, protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain united in what came to be called the Arab Spring. Each regional group had specific grievances, but used social media to identify similar struggles, empathize, coalesce, and report events.

Second, modern social movements consider raising awareness a goal in and of itself.

Many 20th century social movements advocated for distinct courses of action. America’s Women’s Suffrage movement and Europe’s Labour Movement, for example, arose to address specific injustices, and dissipated when their demands were met.

Modern social movements, in contrast, are equally concerned with “consciousness-raising.” Social movement expert Deana Rohlinger reports, “rather than promoting specialized causes or detailed platforms, technologically savvy political activists focus on selling big ideas that promise to change the world, stressing themes that unify rather than divide citizens from many different backgrounds.”

Occupy Wall Street and the Battle of Seattle used this approach, and were met with some skepticism for having statements of purpose. According to Time, such movements “are criticized by old-schoolers for lacking prefab ideological consistency, which the protesters in turn see as a feature rather than a bug.” Yet, the strategy is a modern favorite for movements that want to start conversations.

What does this mean for business, politics, and public relations? Google’s GDELT project reports there have been 250 million protests since 1979. The only way to anticipate the next one is by listening. It’s imperative to identify trends in the public’s conversation. Their day-to-day thoughts are just as important and powerful as any official manifesto, and perhaps have replaced such grand gestures. Today, any event or cause can generate media coverage when the public finds it worthwhile. More than ever before, businesses and governments are aware of public concerns. Attitudes can quickly become behaviors, and leaders are at the mercy of public action. Social movements have brought about some of the best and worst moments in our world’s history, and the public has been at the center of them all. It’s worth hearing what they have to say.

- Jack

Being the Global Chairman of Hill+Knowlton Strategies gives me a wonderful opportunity to view events around the world. It’s my job to recognize trends taking shape from country to country. One trend came to mind in light of last week’s elections in India, Europe, and Ukraine. Each of these elections in some way represented a struggle between establishment and anti-establishment factions, between entrenchment and populism, between status quo and change. And in each of these elections, voters overwhelmingly favored change. My suspicion is that this trend indicates the early beginnings of a global transformation in the way we think about wealth, prosperity, and income inequality.

Let’s survey the landscape of last week’s election results.

In India, Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defeated the long-time incumbent Congress party with 31% of the vote. India’s young, urban, and educated population made up a good proportion of the 554 million voters. The Indian electorate was "turned off" by the current system's "drift and venality, and its preference for welfare handouts over fostering opportunity," according to The Economist. Villagers in Amenthi, for example said they wanted “economic development, not feudal charity.” Ten years ago, India’s growth was reaching nearly 10% and seemed destined to rival China. Now, India’s growth has stalled around 4%. The UN's 2013 World Investment report noted, "the Indian economy experienced its slowest growth in a decade, and a high inflation rate increased risk for both domestic and foreign investors. As a result, investor confidence has been affected and FDI inflows to India declined significantly." The Economist and The Economic Times report that multinational corporations face other challenges in investing in Indian jobs: these include corruption and uncertain laws, and bureaucratic red tape. The Economist also indicated that India's 9% inflation rate has prompted Indian households to favor gold purchases in lieu of putting money in banks. In light of these challenges, Modi’s campaign promised to streamline government, create jobs, and make India attractive to foreign investors. His candidacy was a departure from the traditional Congress party, a self-made populist with new ideas.

In Europe, The Financial TimesCNN, and The New York Times documented surprise at the number of outsiders voted in to European Parliament. From Britain to Denmark, France to Greece, the election results from 28 countries echoed a frustration with the European Union—an institution analysts say “contributed to voters’ disenchantment with the political mainstream.” Over the last few years, the EU has centralized a great deal of governing power, and limited some measures of national sovereignty. One example of this centralization is the EU’s ability to censure and fine national governments for missing fiscal budgets, and require nations to submit their budget proposals to Brussels before presenting them to their own legislatures. Exit polling indicates that the recent euro crisis exacerbated these concerns about economic centrality. Moreover, voters questioned the EU’s democratic legitimacy, citing wariness about the EP’s high costs and lack of oversight on expenditures; The Economist reported, for example, that under EP protocol, “no receipts need to be produced, there is little auditing and employment of family members is common.” To be sure, the reigning majorities of the Socialists and People’s Party are still in place,  having garnered well over 50% of the votes. Yet, populist, anti-establishment candidates were attractive to voters who wanted new ways of thinking about how the EU might operate, what critics called a more “reliable route to democratic legitimacy.”

In Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko represented a respite from the anxiety and upheaval following the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych. Poroshenko, who won the election with a 55% majority, ran his campaign under the slogan “A new way of living.” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last Friday during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum he would be willing to work with the new President. Poroshenko has had a unique history in Ukranian politics, and exit polling indicated his moderate pragmatic views struck a cord with voters that cut across political ideologies. Because of his wide populist appeal, his election to office was almost inevitable.

In each of these countries, economic problems were a common denominator of the election results: India needed more jobs and Modi offered a fresh plan; Europe’s euro crisis heightened concerns about the EU’s legitimacy and financial stability; and Ukraine’s economic troubles forced the country to choose between alignment with Russia or the EU. 

This trend of populist candidates is an interesting one, and worth some attention and consideration. One concern of note is the relationship between economic strength and income inequality. Once thought to be a "side effect" of a weak economy, income inequality is now considered by leading economists to be both a cause and effect of lagging economic success. The International Monetary Fund and The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently warned about the negative consequences of high pay inequality, the IMP writing that with uneven distribution, "growth becomes more fragile." Economists of all stripes have urged governments to start envisioning wealth in new ways—ways that consider the different rates of return on investments versus salaries or wages—and how these assets divide the have from the have not’s. Even in America terms like “the 1%” or “Occupy Wall Street” remind us that standards of living in one of the world’s most prosperous nations can be vastly different. The results of these international elections give us a rare opportunity for pause, to think about and discuss the relationship between economic issues, and future trends in analyzing businesses, governments, and actions around the world.

- Jack