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.