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Social Movement Digest #6: The impact of different kinds of direct action

This is the last call to give Social Change Lab feedback via our annual impact survey! Most questions are multiple-choice and everything is optional. It should take around 10 minutes to complete, depending on how much detail you want to give in your feedback. We really appreciate any and all feedback on how we can improve.

Without further ado, here is some interesting social movement-related news and research from the past month.

Top Recommendations

  • In this great piece of visual journalism by Bloomberg, they track the pace of social change for various US issues. This is a great reminder of how some things may move at a glacial pace for decades, then suddenly experience a flurry of wins (e.g. same-sex marriage). Worth checking out the article for more great visuals!

Unsurprisingly, they find that the type and target of direct action matters a lot for the impact on public opinion! However, I think some of these results are quite affected by the video chosen by the author. For example, the XR 2019 protests feature fairly positive reporting and showcase large crowds having fun whilst the Insulate Britain protest is mostly about a woman who can’t get through a small roadblock to see her sick mum - so you can imagine these factors have something to do with the final results! So I think the lack of controlling for factors besides the method of direct action (which is fairly difficult in this kind of research) means we should take the results with a pinch of salt. Additionally, it’s important to remember that this is only measuring public opinion impact, which is just one metric that we might care about – and not necessarily the most important one! Nevertheless, I think it’s a very useful bit of research and somewhat similar to research we’ve got in the pipeline, so stay tuned.

  • Potential Energy Coalition, a US-based organisation, released some interesting insights from the climate messaging research and advocacy in 2022. Some key findings from them:

    • Human stories beat abstract concepts, every time.

    • Science — and scientists — still matter a lot (i.e. having credible messenger is very important!)

    • Increasing conservative support is best done through education, rather than urgency-based messages (see below)

    • Extreme weather events helped (temporarily) drive up the relative importance of climate change in the eyes of the UK public.


  • Supposedly (this sample of) Americans think Animal Rights is the 4th most moral movement! This was an interesting finding from this paper on the effect of violent tactics on movement support. They also find that when movements use violence, the public may perceive those activists as less likely to feel pain or fear (e.g. as less human), as well as perceiving the movement as less moral. As a result, people are less likely to join a movement or support their goals. Another piece of evidence in favour of nonviolent strategies if you’re optimising for a large movement!

  • A cool paper on quantifying the carbon impact of voting. It’s always great to see a paper address questions that may be hard to answer in a 100% foolproof way, but still have huge amounts of value. In this case, the authors demonstrate that the climate impact of your vote (in Canada) is very likely to outweigh the other personal choices you make re climate e.g. living car-free for a year or recycling.

  • A perennial question on my mind is to what degree survey experiments actually correlate to real-world behaviour. This is important as we conduct a bunch of public opinion surveys and I want to understand if this is a good predictor of true public support for various policy measures or the social movements in question! In this very interesting paper, the authors validate survey experiments against real world behaviour using a weird scenario where up until 2003, Swiss citizens were individually voting on whether people should be naturalised (e.g. immigrants are given Swiss citizenship). In a nutshell, they find that survey experiments are fairly good at understanding the relative preferences of people (e.g. does X or Y have more support) but less good at predicting absolute values (e.g. what percentage of the population support X). This was somewhat reassuring for our work although I would definitely love to see more research on this question!

News & Media

  • I’ve been listening to an amazing podcast, Burn Wild, on radical environmental protest involving property destruction in the US. It’s extremely interesting, interviews great people, and gets at the motivations and consequences of people taking fairly radical direct action. Highly recommend it!

  • The Global Grassroots Support Network is building a library of useful resources for grassroots group. I recommend checking it out (and the rest of The Commons website) for some useful reading!


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