By Ned Garvey
In November 2019, Erica Chenoweth, Sirianne Dahlum, Sooyeon Kang, Zoe Marks, Christopher Wiley Shay, and Tore Wig co-authored an article in the Washington Post to understand the wave of protests sweeping the globe at the time. Mass protest movements have been on the rise since the end of World War II, yet, despite there being more protest movements than ever, these protests have become notably less effective. Chenoweth, a Harvard political scientist, was able to document that precipitous drop, finding that as recently as 20 years ago, mass protest movements were able to catalyze change 70 percent of the time. Now, that number has fallen to just 30 percent. Chenoweth, Dahlum, Kang, Marks, Shay, and Wig make the case that there are four major causes of this decline: disciplined nonviolent movements having to contend with the more extreme and potentially violent members of the movement, the utilization of social media on both sides, dictators mobilizing countermovements, and leaderless movements being unable to effectively negotiate with those in power.
Social media in protest movements provides us with a great contradiction: it lets movements grow exponentially faster than they used to, but that’s exactly what leads them to fail. Whereas activists used to have to spend years doing boots-on-the-ground, grassroots movement-building, social media lets them immediately reach substantially more people than they once could. And while that makes it much easier to get thousands of people out to a protest quickly, it means that movements without an organizational structure have a harder time sustaining that popular interest. Governments don’t need to quash protesters by force; they just have to subvert and outlast them. So what can be done, and how can we ensure that protest movements last?
While there may be a number of solutions, one that thus far hasn’t received proper attention is maximizing the power of hope. You might ask: was hope missing previously? Surely not, but it’s a disorganized, fragmented kind of hope. It’s the kind of natural, organic hope that each member of the movement brings for themselves. Oftentimes, it’s not the kind of hope that’s driven and articulated by a movement’s leaders which all members can unite behind. Sharpening how activists use hope might be the difference between a movement that succeeds and a movement that doesn’t.
A growing body of research suggests that hope plays a critical role in sustaining mass movements. A study by Anna Wlodarczyk, Nekane Basabe, Darío Páez, and Larraitz Zumeta examines the role various emotions play in collective action, with an emphasis on hope. While they acknowledge the role of anger and other more visceral emotions in mobilizing people into mass protest, they argue that those emotions by themselves are not enough to keep them there. According to the researchers, “hope triggers participation by framing the social issue as a solvable problem…hope is what allows us to feel that what angers us is not inevitable, even if transformation can sometimes feel impossible.” Hope is the key emotion that allows us to mediate between anger, pessimism, optimism, and apathy. In addition, Michelle Commercio identifies the utility in articulating exactly what protests are seeking to achieve, and channeling the resulting emotion into constructive action, which is vital to mass mobilization. Undirected anger without the hope for change is simply not enough.
That brings us to the intersection of hope and technology. Through the globalization of civil society, communication, and mass media, activists and human rights advocates across the world can learn useful protest strategies from each other. They can see what does and doesn’t work, and they can communicate, organize, inspire, and build off of one another. They can bring new insights to their own movements, as well as take part in social movements that are increasingly transnational in nature. The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes have all inspired protests around the world; they have drawn millions of people globally to demonstrate together. Similarly, protesters in Belarus and Siberia have extended mutual support for one another in marching against their respective regimes.
These demonstrations of transnational solidarity are vital, and they allow activists to learn how to build better protest movements together. At the same time, the Information Age requires protest leaders to build social movements in new and different ways. Social media is fantastic at provoking visceral reactions, especially to injustice. It drives people into the streets, but we still need to figure out how to better sustain these protests. Movements need to learn to harness hope in a constructive way that translates into results. Wlodarczyk, Basabe, Páez, and Zumeta argue that “the group members [of a protest] can perceive that the group is capable of changing the current situation through organized action; in consequence, this objective evaluation may foster the expectancy of success and positive feelings, which characterizes hope, which in turn fosters a stronger commitment to norms for action.”
If we want social movements to prosper in the twenty-first century, they will have to figure out how to utilize technology in a way that makes potential members believe that, through collective hope, change is possible. Activists must learn to turn social media clicks and views into deeper commitments. That starts with ensuring that they use social media in a way that isn’t solely grievance-driven. It’s not enough to argue against something, but they have to offer concrete solutions, goals, and hope for real change. That could be one of the reasons why protesters in Belarus continue to turn out week after week, while the Black Lives Matter protests failed to sustain their early momentum; in this case, the Belarusians have successfully harnessed the power of collective hope.
Title Image Credit: Natalia Fedosenko/TASS