Home Quick Thoughts + Shares 2012 As The Morning After: Citizen Movements Lose Momentum

A world of mass protest in 2011: What happened?

[UPDATED] In India the once mighty anti-corruption movement of Anna Hazare has fizzled out. Following national elections, the energy of Mexico‘s #YoSoy132 student movement has also lost momentum. Many have written about the challenge of Egypt‘s people power movement in shifting from disrupting a dictatorial state to nudging a semi-democratic one. The Wikipedia timeline of the 15M protests of the indignados in Spain is thick with events throughout the summer of 2011, yet there is only one event in 2012: an attempt to revive the movement on its anniversary. In the US, Occupy in out of the spotlight and plans for a major protest at the Republican Conventionnext weekwill be litmus test of their continuing ability to mobilize.

All these movements experienced dramatic early moments of success demonstrated through unexpected mass street protests. All of these movements have so far been unable to continue that energy to achieve their (admittedly, extremely ambitious) goals of improving democracy and decreasing various form of corruption and elite misbehavior in their respective countries.

2011 was a tremendous year for global mass movements, but in 2012 these movements are abating. While the hard core of Occupy, Mexican student activists, and Egyptian democracy activists are still hard at work, the citizens that temporarily joined them appear to have returned to their daily lives.

Are new, digitally-enabled movements having greater difficulty maintaining momentum that past activist organizations? Or are we simply more aware of this problem because of improved coverage of these movements by citizen journalists and organizers themselves?

I tend to think it’s the latter, though I’d welcome alternative arguments. In the past, who would have reported on a citizen movement that wasn’t making news? Now citizen journalists fill the void and organizers can self-broadcast about their movements, even when not much is happening on the public stage.

The important point here is that thewax and wain of a movement’s ability to mobilize is normal. As Doug McAdam of Stanford University has explained in his theory of opportunity structures, factors outside the movement, like the political party in power, national economic stability, and even international relations, can affect the ability of a movement to make headway.

In the case of the American Civil Rights Movement, which even skeptics like Malcolm Gladwell hold up as a model of a successful movement, there were many periods of ebb and flow. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution abolished slavery and enshrined the rights of citizenship for former slaves after the Civil War. This historic progress was followed by many brutal decades of voter intimidation, economic marginalization, lynching, and legalsegregation. 1875 was the year of both the federalCivil Rights Act of 1875and theMississippi Planto intimidate blacks and suppress black voter registration and voting.

While elite activism continued (the NAACP was founded in 1909, a number of favorable Supreme Court decisions were made in the early 1950′s), it was not until the lynching of young Emmett Till in 1955 that the civil rights movement became a mass movement again. The brutal and racially-motivated murder of a black child inspired an outrage greater than the fear that had been carefully instilled in black Americans over the preceding decades. The Montgomery bus boycott, which most American schoolchildren are taught was the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, began a few months later.

So let me preempt suggestions that this loss of momentum proves that digital movements are weaker than their pre-digital brethren. They may be, but we don’t know yet. Let’s wait and watch without prejudice.

Note: The images of the US and Mexico above show the Tea Party and Javier Sicilia, respectively, not Occupy and #YoSoy132.

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4 replies to this post
  1. The ups and downs of a social movement, both of the type you are tracking and study and the internal within the organization that we orchestrate (www.virlchange.com) are a sign of health. Any scaled-up social movement needs to peak and come down. There is no such a thing as stable social movement. As movement it will trigger changes in the system (societal, organizational) which they themselves may spread and stabilize but the movement is the engine and an engine cannot run permanently over-heated. A good orchestration of the movement (very difficult to achieve in emergent societal) should cater for peaks and lows and adopt a campaign style where pulses are planned in a recurrent way. This is how we do it inside large organizations. A one off, top down tsunami approach (PUSH) as we call it will fade without the readiness of bottom-up (PULL) system. See http://www.homoimitans.com . What we are seeing is normal but orchestrators should be aware of the need for, dare I say, managing and crafting the movement. The role of the digital world is of course a modifying important one and you are experts in understanding this

    • Leandro, I think we are in agreement here: ups and downs are normal. However, there is a difference between normal fluctuation and a movement losing its ability to mobilize. I wonder what kind of research has been done on this kind of change within movements.

  2. With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement?
    My website has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either written myself or outsourced but it looks like a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my permission. Do you know any techniques to help stop content from being stolen? I’d really appreciate it.

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