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What are the short and long-term effects of disruptive animal rights protest?

We’re excited to announce important new research on disruptive animal rights protests that Social Change Lab has been working on over the last few months. We investigated the short and longer-term impacts of Animal Rising’s protests at the Grand National horse race in 2023, by conducting nationally representative polling just before, just after, and again six months after the protests, alongside a controlled experiment, media impact analyses, and mobilisation analyses. You can read the results of the data we gathered immediately after the protest in our previous report, but our new report includes interesting findings on the longer-term effects of that protest.


We tried to find out whether the protests affected people’s concern for animals by asking them a number of questions (tailored to the outcomes Animal Rising told us they wanted to achieve), including:


  • To what extent do you disagree or agree that society has a broken relationship with animals?

  • To what extent do you disagree or agree that society needs to change how we treat animals used for entertainment/for food?

  • To what extent do you find it morally unacceptable or acceptable to use animals for entertainment/ for food?

  • To what extent do you support a ban on: horse-racing, factory farming, or animal testing?


The central findings are: 1) the extent to which a person was aware of the Grand National protest was associated with negative changes in their attitudes towards animals immediately after the protest, but six months later such negative effects had dissipated. 2) Overall, regardless of how much somebody had heard of the protest, people’s attitudes towards animals improved before to six months after.


You can read the full report here, but we wanted to share a summary of the main findings here. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We’d also love to hear if this research is useful for you or your organisation!


We’re hosting a webinar to discuss these results at 4pm on Wednesday 6 March. You can sign up to the webinar here and please do share with anyone who might be interested – the more the merrier!


Our findings

Immediate backfire effects do not last


Our initial study looking only at the immediate effects of the protest revealed that the more people knew about Animal Rising (AR) because of the Grand National (GN) protest or about the protest itself, the worse their attitudes towards animals tended to become. This time, we assessed whether people who knew more about Animal Rising/the protest when it happened still showed these similar negative attitudes six months later. 


Our results suggest that the negative effects weakened and essentially disappeared. This is the case both when looking at the relationship between awareness of the Grand National protest and key variables measuring people’s attitudes towards animals (see Fig. 1), and when looking at the relationship between changes in awareness of Animal Rising before vs. after the protest and the same variables (see the Supplementary Materials page 18).



Figure 1. Association between awareness of the GN protest and changes in people's attitudes towards animals immediately after (gray) and six months after the GN (purple). The plot shows the posterior probability densities of the Bayesian regression models, the white dashed line reflects the most likely estimated mean effect. All variables were coded such that negative values indicate less favourable attitudes towards animals.


Six months after the protest, for all questions where there was a robust negative effect or a strong trend towards one, the effects do not differ statistically from zero. Thus six months after the protest the extent to which a person was aware of the protest is no longer linked to their attitudes towards animals. Thus, the initially negative link between the Grand National protest and people’s attitudes towards animals vanished. Therefore, it seems that the negative public opinion impacts directly related to exposure to the protest were fleeting and were no longer visible six months after it happened. 


Overall changes from before the Grand National to six months after


We also evaluated how attitudes towards animals have changed overall, regardless of whether or not people were directly aware of the protest. After all, many people might not have heard (much) about the protest itself but might still have been affected by the ensuing debate about animal welfare via the media, family or friends. We cannot be sure however if any changes are due to Animal Rising’s protests, or to what extent. 


To measure overall changes over time, we compared the responses of two separate representative groups, one of which completed the survey just before the Grand National protest and the other completed it six months after. Simple comparisons showed that people’s attitudes towards animals have become more positive (see Fig. 2): Six months after the Grand National, people agree more that society has a broken relationship with animals and that it needs to change how we treat animals used for entertainment and food. Attitudes towards vegans however have largely remained unchanged. 



Figure 2. Predicted average Likert scores from 1-7 (represented by dots) for each variable of main interest, estimated from the Bayesian models’ posteriors, along with 95% credible intervals and posterior densities (blue: before the GN, red: six months after).


In addition to people’s general attitudes towards animals, we also assessed their support for four different policy measures: a ban on horse racing, a ban on animal testing, a ban on factory farming and a ban on animal farming altogether (see Fig. 3). Interestingly, for the first three we observed a trend towards increasing support, which was however statistically robust for a ban on animal testing only. In combination with the finding shown above that people increasingly agree that society needs to change how we treat animals, this hints at an increasing readiness for policy changes that protect animals.


Figure 3. Predicted average Likert scores from 1-7 (represented by dots) reflecting people’s support for bans, estimated from the Bayesian models’ posteriors, along with 95% credible intervals and posterior densities (blue: before the GN, red: six months after).


Conclusions

In the immediate aftermath of the Grand National protest, people’s awareness of the protest was linked to worsened attitudes towards animals — the more somebody heard about the protest, the worse their attitudes became. Yet these negative effects were no longer seen six months later. This indicates that a high-profile disruptive protest, such as the Grand National disruption, triggers a strong emotional reaction that alters how people think about related issues for a short while. After some time has passed however, there is no longer any particular effect of having seen or heard about the protest. Encouragingly, comparing one nationally representative sample’s responses before the Grand National protest to another independent sample six months later shows overall positive shifts. A possible conclusion is that the effects of the protests in the short term were to make people feel angry with the protesters and their methods, whereas over the longer term, as the anger has waned, the percolation of the idea that we as a society have an unacceptable relationship with animals has remained. However, it has to be stressed that the overall positive shifts could also be due to factors unrelated to Animal Rising’s actions, so it would not be justified to claim (with certainty) that Animal Rising’s protests caused this positive development, even though it is intuitive that they at least contributed. 


Our findings highlight the need to measure the longer-term effects of protest and have important implications for activists, because they indicate that initially negative reactions to disruptive protests, which are often highlighted by media outlets, do not translate to lasting backfire effects which could hinder progress on the issue.



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