We’re living in an age of mass mobilization. Protests and rallies that draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of people happen regularly. Events of that scale are highly visible, not just in the communities where they occur. That visibility—that impossible-to-ignore quality—gives those gatherings power. 

But the optics of protests matter a lot

Three sociologists—Brent Simpson at South Carolina, Robb Willer at Stanford, and Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto—recently published a new study that dug into a set of questions about the connection between public perception and protest impact. 

They polled 800 people, asking them to read one of four newspaper articles about demonstrations in Charlottesville and Berkeley from the summer of 2017. To measure the impact of perception, they altered elements of those news stories to highlight violence at the events: 

“In one scenario, participants read a news story about white nationalists who staged a protest of the removal of Confederate monuments. In the report, a group of anti-racists showed up to stage a counter-demonstration. It was made clear that neither group was violent. In the other three conditions, the article portrayed violence by one group or the other or both.”

Descriptions of violence led to increased perception of unreasonableness—and drops in public support for the protestors. And even more striking, the effect was asymmetrical. White supremacist groups weren’t punished by the use of violence—because the public already perceived them as unreasonable. 

Reading that analysis also made me wonder about the opposite effect. Does coverage that emphasizes the reasonableness of protestors help to build support for their causes? 

Last month, a woman traveling with her 15-month-old son found herself in the middle of an anti-government demonstration in Lebanon. The toddler had just woken up from his nap and was anxious about the commotion. 

Realizing what was happening, a group of protestors began singing “Baby Shark” and dancing around the family’s car. 

That moment of empathy and human connection was inevitably captured on video, watched by people across the world millions of times, and covered by news outlets ranging from the New York Times to the BBC to The View to Inside Edition. 

Now, I’m guessing we should be on the lookout for public polling regarding attitudes about the protests before and after that moment. 


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