Who has a more positive impact on public opinion: The anti-whaling activists who spray Japanese ships with butyric acid, or the people who post on your Facebook profile asking you to sign a Change.org petition against fracking?
New research published in the February issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin seeks to help answer that very question.
The study, by Australian researchers Emma Thomas of the Murdoch University and Winnifred Louis of the University of Queensland, examined the dynamics of mobilizing supportive public opinion with collective action. It found non-violent social protest was more effective at communicating the illegitimacy of the status quo than violent action.
“Our starting point was the idea that protest is an attempt to influence and persuade a bystander public and we were curious about whether violence and non-violence would be equally persuasive in this regard,” Thomas told PsyPost via email.
“Generally speaking we found that violence is less persuasive than non-violence because non-violence more effectively communicates the illegitimacy of a situation and promotes a sense of agency (efficacy),” she explained. “However, when the political system or authority is known to be corrupt, this pattern changes. In this situation, non-violence actually (perhaps paradoxically) promotes support for more extreme methods.”
For their two-part study of 332 Australians, Thomas and Louis used fake news articles about violent and non-violent protests to gauge public opinion. In the first experiment, the news articles detailed protests against the controversial mining technique known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” In the second experiment, the news articles detailed protests against commercial whaling.
The researchers found in their first experiment that violent protesters were viewed with greater hostility than non-violent protesters. The violent protesters formed a blockade and threw projectiles, while the non-violent protesters raised awareness and gathered signatures for anti-fracking petitions.
Those who read about the non-violent protest were also more likely to perceive fracking as wrong, while the same could not be said of those who read about the violent protest. The violent protest condition “showed no differences relative to a baseline ‘no protest’ condition,” Thomas and Louis noted.
For their second experiment, the researchers examined whether perceived corruption influenced how violent and non-violent protests were viewed.
“Whaling is ostensibly regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC); allegations of corruption within the IWC provided a basis for the corruption manipulation in the current research,” they wrote in their study. “Specifically, it was alleged that in the lead up to a vote on whether to rescind the moratorium on whaling in 2010, some wealthy pro-whaling nations were bribing smaller, poorer nations with substantial sums of foreign aid in exchange for a pro-whaling vote.”
The violent protesters in this experiment disabled whaling ships with the use of projectiles and ramming boats, while the non-violent protesters gathered petitions, wrote letters, and held peaceful demonstrations.
When the alleged corruption was highlighted in the news article, Thomas and Louis found non-violent protest made the issue seem more illegitimate and lead to greater endorsement of more extreme, violent action. Reading about a violent protest, on the other hand, did not have this effect.
“Thus, allegations of corruption in this Experiment have paradoxical effects not only on people’s evaluation of a specific protest event but also on their perceptions of a broader social change movement,” they wrote in their study.
The study indicates that violent action is rarely supported by the public. However, it also provides a clue as to how violent social movements arise.
The researchers wrote that their findings suggest that “corruption may ultimately set up the conditions for the emergence of violence.” Previous research, Thomas and Louis added, has “shown that the indiscriminate and illegitimate use of force by an authority (the police) plays a crucial role in radicalizing crowd dynamics.”