AMSTERDAM — Next time you witness protests on TV or in person — observe whether there is a unified bloc rallied around a unified message. That might determine a protest’s efficacy in persuading politicians, a new study finds.
Researchers at the University of Amsterdam examined 269 Belgian elected officials, showing each politician 32 video clips of protesters criticizing Belgium’s procedures for refugee asylum.
It should be noted that the experiment was conducted in spring 2015, many months before a large influx of Syrian refugees moved to Europe.
The 32 videos, which could be lumped into two diametrically opposite groups, depicted protests differing on four dimensions: their level of civility, the unity and solidarity of participants, the number of participants, and the commitment of participants to subsequent action.
Following their viewing of the clips, the Belgian politicians were asked to evaluate how they personally felt about the cause for which the protesters were championing, its saliency (importance), and how what they had seen would influence policy.
The study made efforts to control for biases stemming from ideology or the order in which the videos were watched.
Ultimately, it was found that a large number of protestors and a unified message were most effective— not only in changing a politician’s belief and perception of saliency on an issue, but in their likelihood to take action.
“We found that features of a protest can alter the calculations of politicians and how they view an issue,” says Ruud Wouters, an assistant professor of political communication and journalism at the University of Amsterdam and the lead author of the study, in an American Sociological Association news release. “More specifically, the number of participants and unity are the characteristics of a protest that have the greatest ability to change politicians’ opinions.”
While a protest’s peacefulness and commitment to further action were found to influence a politician’s view on saliency and political position, these factors generally did not influence policy.
These findings held across the spectrum of political ideology.
The researchers argue that their findings could hold significance in the current American political climate, as there should be a specific formula behind anti-Trump protests. For example, can protesters remain unified, engaged, and committed?
“I think the immediacy and massiveness of recent U.S. protests, such as the women’s march in Washington, DC, impressed many observers,” says Wouters. “The question is how long lived will they be. Are they just outbursts, or will they be something more persistent? This plays into the commitment of the protestors. Will the attention span of the protestors be long enough to continue? And, in relation to unity, what will be the main message? Will it occur under an anti-Trump banner? Or, will it be more dispersed, less coherent, with many different claims?”
Wouters noted that if protests in the US grow violent, their effect on politicians is less palpable.
“Our study suggests that violence will further polarize the situation and burn bridges,” he says. “The anti-Trump protests should feed dissent in the Republican party. If the anti-Trump protestors misbehave, it becomes difficult for potential supporters, especially within the Republican party, to back them up and criticize Trump and his policies.”
The study was published this month in the journal American Sociological Review.