Social Movements: Success through bad reputation?

Why non-violent activists use negative content and aggression to increase popularity and believe it works

Term Paper, 2016

17 Pages, Grade: 1,25



1 Introduction

2 Disambiguation: Why rebel? Definition of a Social Movement
2.1 Why join? Participation with trust

3 Role of emotions
3.1 Connection through emotions
3.1 Emotions of protest

4 Strategy is king
4.1 Tactics of Social Movements: Not an independent thing
4.2 You either laugh or cry: Violent vs non-violent tactics

5 The danger of losing control
5.1 Adapting terrorist tactics
5.2 What moves people to join

6 Role of media
6.1 Contributing to a movement’s success
6.2 “Bad coverage is better than no coverage”
6.3 Example animal activism: Two points of view
6.4 FEMEN: How feminists work against stereotypes

7 When do social movements succeed?

8 Where is the outcome?

9 Conclusion: Approach to outline advantages of provocation

10 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Activists stand up for a positive mind-set change in society and radical social, political and environmental shifts that have to be done for a better, more peaceful world. On the contrary to that they very often use the opposite of their own values to raise attention.

What I was questioning myself was if they shouldn’t “fight" their competitors with enthusiasm and fun instead of aggression and blaming? Indeed, there do already exist groups like The Yes Men that are provoking their opponents with humour and laughter, what makes it really hard for police to violently restrain them and raises attention among public for their often hilarious tactics. As the movement’s leader Mike Bonanno states in the independent documentary Everyday Rebellion, “Clowns have brought down governments more than once in history.”

Despite this fact, many social movements that describe themselves as non-violent sooner or later adapt aggressive behaviour. Why are hence non-authentic activists not only more successful in their intention but also more popular among the public even though they are often no role models of their own arguments? Or aren’t they and their arguments only appear to be more fruitful as the “scandals” are part of everyday media coverage?

Before research it had been my intension to answer these and many more questions at once, certainly I found that it is even difficult to answer one. Social actions are closely connected to emotions, what in a way makes them irrational. As every person thinks in different streams of consciousness, there can hardly be found on answer.

The focus of this work should be set on movements that rise up from society and stay there throughout activities, but rather stand up for animal protection, anti-violence, environment, feminism and so forth than have the goal to bring down political leaders.

The documentary “Everyday Rebellion" offers sources and a general overview of the topic, as well as serves with qualitative evidence abstracted of interviews with specialists and social movement leaders.

I will start with a definition of social movements in general, give insights in the significant topic of emotions, non-violent strategy and media coverage and give examples of activist groups’ tactics. To sum up a hypothesis is build up through a personal interpretation of why according to the given evidence social movements seem to think fire has to be slacked with fire sometimes, why this works or does not work and how raising attention can mean a proper goal for successful growth.

2 Disambiguation: Why rebel? Definition of a Social Movement

“Not to rebel while you’re in college when you have the flexibility to do that is just stupid. You shouldn’t be worried what the rebellion may mean for your future because your future is already pre-fucked. (…) If you don’t rebel, you’re accepting collapse.”

Igor Vamos alias Mike Bonanno, The Yes Men, in Everyday Rebellion.

A Social Movement is described as a “collective, organized, sustained, and no institutional challenge to authorities, powerholders, or cultural beliefs and practices” (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:3) whereas a revolutionary movement strives for governmental coup (ibid). Charles Tilly defines a social movement as a challenge in the name of population with same opinion towards certain power holders that is lead directly to those people through repeated public displays (Giugni, McAdam & Tilly 1999:260). When researching on reasons for rebellions to sum up in general it can be said that solution oriented people are driven of the purpose to confront authorities directly or indirectly with their ideas which ideally happens in front of a big public audience, so it may give attention to the ideas as they find similarities of their own attitudes in the message and therefore support the movement.

2.1 Why join? Participation with trust

“We had been sleeping – Now we are awake” (The Riahi Brothers 2015).

According to many activists, what is a main pillar for engaging in a movement is the strong, addictive feeling of interconnectedness within the internal society as well as the pleasant thought of taking ownership not only for themselves but for the rights and opinions of others. The idea is connected with an exciting journey every single member goes through. As long as this emotion is maintained, participation is easily guaranteed (cp. The Riahi Brothers 2015). I will discuss along the importance of emotions in chapter three.

Different theorists state different thoughts of why people participate in social movements. One is that they feel personally inadequate and therefore wish to become part of something bigger that raises their self-confidence. Another idea is that the willingness to protest is innate and simply waiting for an opportunity to express, a third would be the wish of participants to follow their strong beliefs (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:131sq.).

3 Role of emotions

Emotions transfuse all social life. Hence social movements are not excluded (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:153sq.) and used as a key to understanding political action (Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta 2001:2). Emotions are not only determining our reactions and responses to certain events, but also influence our goalsetting (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:153sq.). They are learned as well as controlled through social interactions, nevertheless we won’t always be able to control them. A scientific fact is, that without emotions there rarely would be any social actions at all as they define our behaviour in a significant way (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:153sq.)

3.1 Connection through emotions

Our affects help us to orientate in the world and tell us what we care about most, hence make up the reason why we are joining specific movements or groups and define the way we are identifying with them (Snow, Soule & Kriesi: 2004:418sq.).

In many cases the same emotions that lead into a movement also lead them out again. Shared emotions foster solidarity within a group and are crucial for identification with the movement (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:158sqq.). However, “cognitive agreement alone does not result in action” (Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta 2001:6) and of course the purpose is also dependent on the members own point of view, general likelihood to participate and so on.

On the other hand, negative feelings like anger especially contribute to membership: Social movements seem to make them ok to feel or even attach them with a useful excuse. They so can be made rational (cp. Goodwin & Jasper 2003:160). As we can experience in everyday life ourselves, sharing the same feelings with one another creates a wish to connect with that person more than it would if he or she experienced way different moods. Sharing the same emotions conveys understanding and results in trust.

3.1 Emotions of protest

When linked to protests, emotions play a crucial part in deciding for participation. Above all, injustice is most closely related to revolting action. Anger among others is one of the first and strongest feelings that arise in that context. Leaders are in need of emotions like that, as they are likely to exaggerate opinion driven actions, but also easily can cause violent or provocative actions, which sometimes is advantageous.

The so designed solidarity to members of the same group that also share same emotions is strengthening the bound to each other and causing antipathy towards non-members. Especially when experiencing negative feelings such as shame or guilt towards oneself joining social groups can have positive effects on one’s understanding of identity (cp. Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta 2001:8sq.), as it may help to generate stronger self-confidence and trust towards themselves as their maybe hidden or unconscious believes are confirmed.

When working out their tactics, protestors aim to create anger and moral outrage with giving a target of what needs to be changed to overcome these feelings again. When changing these emotional cultures new motivations can be created that advocates protests (Goodwin, Jasper & Polletta 2001:17). In standing up for one’s attitude feelings build an emotional warfare; unexpected moves generate surprise that is indeed a powerful way to stay in people’s minds (Snow, Soule & Kriesi 2004:416).

A successful leader is the embodiment of the group’s values and ideals. Members can identify with the rules and pillars when following the leader’s way of behaving and thus are connected with the majority of members of the group as well in sharing not only the same purposes but also emotions. A leader’s tactic is constantly trying to arouse participants’ optimism towards the movement’s goal, as one can imagine it is the dominant emotion within social resistance (Snow, Soule & Kriesi: 2004:421).

4 Strategy is king

Tactical decisions are crucial in social movements (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:221). As Srda Popović, a well-known Serbian political activist and nowadays consultant for social movements, explains, success is deeply related to strategy. Ghandi didn’t win because of his strong believe in Buddhist religion, but because he knew exactly which battles he could win and focused on those.

When Iranian activist started a public riot in 2009 they were shot down immediately, several people were killed and the whole campaign resulted disastrous. Their failure was tactical: Neither determined one leader nor worked out one strategy, the movement was too weak to resist.

Out of situations like this nowadays low risk tactics are especially popular in conflictual countries where government it used to shut down public opinion at a sudden. Activists operate in silence, never show up in larger groups or go to streets but try to move the public’s opinion from the underground (cp. The Riahi Brothers 2015).

However, especially for young movements there always appears the question whether working out a strategy is already worth considering or simply surviving should cover the main interests in the respective phase (Goodwin & Jasper 2003:221).

As Hannibal already realized, “We will either find a way or make one”. Having tactics means knowing what you can do with the resources you have and adapting them to daily life. According to that, power defines not only what there actually is but in particular what enemies think there is: By causing confusion and surprise among the threat, pressure can be kept on towards opponents. What kind of actions are happening mainly depends on what the overall purpose of the social movement is, rather they act in a non-violent or violent way, how many and what people should be reached and what should be the outcome. Tactics like sit-ins, boycotts, marches and so forth are only few examples of what is possible. Creativity nowadays plays a crucial part in decision making as it is likely to attract a wider audience and stay in mind. Moreover, the so arose excitement keeps movement members enjoyed what will make further steps easier (cp. Goodwin & Jasper 2003:225sqq.).

4.1 Tactics of Social Movements: Not an independent thing

„There’s never been a movement where people didn’t go to jail – But the question is: Will we go to their terms or to ours?”

Activist of „Occupy“, New York, in Everyday Rebellion

Although protests tend to happen on the human right of free opinion, tactical decisions are usually not made fully independent after all. They moreover create a course of interaction between social movement leaders and decision makers. For example negotiations about where a march will happen, what is the planned route, how many people are expected to participate and how many will get arrested during or after the march are made beforehand.

A second thought dues the question of how many and which people will be reached with one message. Therefore not seldom one action is designed for different audiences with different approaches at the same time. The bigger the main goal of a movement is, the more dependent they are of public opinion on their topics. Therefore goals are not only set for itself, but to please a wide audience. Tactics have to balance many goals at once to keep alive sympathy and support (cp. Goodwin & Jasper 2003:222sqq.) and must always be adapted to cultural and social contexts (cp. Snow, Soule & Kriesi 2004:223).

As a strategic protester it’s necessary to constantly look for opportunities that favour your intention. This may mean waiting for a crisis or accident, a sympathetic politician or events. Different general political and social situations in diverse countries eventually have to be considered as well (cp. Goodwin & Jasper 2003:222sqq.).

4.2 You either laugh or cry: Violent vs non-violent tactics

In a violent struggle people are used to push until they get what they want; on the other hand non-violent rebels try to convince others from their pillars. The goal is to get them shift sides and make them part of their own movement. Regarding that, it’s important to also give enemies a viewable place in their future that they can imagine to be part of.

Erica Chenoweth, who studied political resistance for many years, admits she wasn’t convinced that non-violent resistance could be more effective in any case. “I thought, because we see so much violence, it must be necessary” (The Riahi Brothers 2015). Nevertheless she started studying non-violent movements and found that, although most of these actions are not that well known in general public, they are twice as effective as violent revolts.

According to scholars, Chenoweth finds that one effective way to attract followers is generating a tense of moral outrage. This happens, for example, if police shuts down a riot and activists stay completely disciplined – subsequently it seems like the regime targets innocents. Outrage doesn’t necessarily occur with violent protestors. The more moral outrage a movement is able to gain, the more likely it will also succeed in support and international solidarity (cp. The Riahi Brothers 2015).

According to her groups nowadays are more likely to be non-violent; still there are several reasons why groups adapt aggressive content and even terroristic acts that will be discussed on the further reading.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Social Movements: Success through bad reputation?
Why non-violent activists use negative content and aggression to increase popularity and believe it works
LMU Munich  (Kommunikationswissenschaften)
Political Communication
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
531 KB
Social Movements, rebel, protest, tactic, non-violent movements, terrorist tactics, role of media, bad coverage, animal activism, feminism, provocation, politics, political communication
Quote paper
Sarah Kampitsch (Author), 2016, Social Movements: Success through bad reputation?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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