Social Change Lab is an EA-aligned non-profit that conducts and disseminates social movement research. For the past six months, we’ve been researching the outcomes of protests and protest movements using a variety of methods, including literature reviews, polling (see our previous post on the EA Forum here, which goes into more detail), and interviewing experts and policymakers. Today, we’re releasing an in-depth report on the work we’ve done in the last six months that relates to protest outcomes. We’ll also be releasing another report soon on the factors that make social movements more or less likely to succeed. Specifically, we’re looking at just how much of a difference protest movements can make, and the areas in which they seem to be particularly effective.
We think this is relevant to Effective Altruists for a few reasons: firstly, protests and grassroots activities seem to be a tactic that social movements can use that has been fairly neglected by EAs. As Will MacAskill points out in What We Owe The Future, social movements such as Abolitionism have had a huge impact in the past, and we think that it’s likely that they will do so again in the future. It seems extremely valuable to look at this in more detail: how impactful are protests and grassroots pressure? What are the mechanisms by which they can make a difference? Is it mostly by influencing public opinion, the behaviour of legislators, corporations, or something else?
Secondly, Effective Altruism is itself a social movement. Some interesting work has been done before (for instance, this post on why social movements sometimes fail by Nuño Sempere), but we think it seems valuable to think in more detail about both the impact that social movements can have, and also what makes them likely to succeed or fail (which we’ll be talking about in a report that we intend to release soon). Research on how different social movements achieved outsized impacts seems like it would be useful in helping positively influence the future impact of Effective Altruism.
We hope that you enjoy reading the report, and would be hugely appreciative for any feedback that people have about what we’ve been doing so far (we’re a fairly new organisation and there are definitely things we still have to learn). The rest of this post includes the summary of the report, as well as the introduction and methodology. The full results examining protest movements outcomes on public opinion, policy change, public discourse, voting behaviour and corporative behaviour are best seen in the full report here. You can also read it in a Google Doc version here.
Social Change Lab has undertaken six months of research looking into the outcomes of protests and protest movements, focusing primarily on Western democracies, such as those in North America and Western Europe. In this report, we synthesise our research, which we conducted using various research methods. These methods include literature reviews, public opinion polling, expert interviews, policymaker interviews and a cost-effectiveness analysis. This report only examines the impacts and outcomes of protest movements. Specifically, we mostly focus on the outcomes of large protest movements with at least 1,000 participants in active involvement. This is because we want to understand the impact that protests can have, rather than the impact that most protests will have. Due to this, our research looks at unusually influential protest movements, rather than the median protest movement. We think this is a reasonable approach, as we generally believe protest movements are a hits-based strategy for doing good. In short, we think that most protest movements have little success in achieving their aims, or otherwise positive outcomes. However, it’s plausible that a small percentage of protest movements will achieve outcomes large enough to warrant funding a portfolio of social movement organisations. In future work, we plan on researching and estimating the likelihood for a given social movement organisation to achieve large impacts.
We believe this report could be useful for grantmakers and advocates who want to pursue the most effective ways to bring about change for a given issue, particularly those working on climate change and animal welfare. We specifically highlight these two causes, as we believe they are currently well-suited to grassroots social movement efforts. A subsequent report will examine the factors that make some protest movements more successful than others.
The report is structured so we only present the key evidence from our various research methods for the main outcomes of interest, such as public opinion, policy change, or public discourse. Full reports for each research method are also linked throughout for readers to gain additional insight.
1.1 Summary Tables
Below, we scored answers to our various research questions on a 1-5 scale, to highlight our current estimates. We also provide our confidence level on a 1-5 scale (which can also be interpreted as 0-100% confidence intervals). Additionally, we indicate which research methodologies have updated us towards a particular direction, and how much weight we put on that particular methodology given the research question. A single star (*) indicates low weight on that methodology, two stars (**) indicates moderate weight and three stars (***) indicates high weight on that methodology. We based our relative weights on the research methods based on empirical robustness, breadth of information covered (e.g. number of protest movements studied), relevance of that research method to the research question, and other limitations that might have been present. The evidence related to each outcome, and how we arrived at these values, are explained further in the full report.
1.2 Other select findings
Below are some of our notable findings, across various research methods:
- Our literature review on protest outcomes found:
- Voting behaviour across four protest movements was influenced by approximately 1-6 percentage points, observed via natural experiments.
- Shifts in public opinion of 2-10% were observed, across both experimental and natural experiment settings.
- Sustained interest in novel discourse put forward by Black Lives Matter a year after the majority of protests, and shown to be up to 10x larger than pre-protest activity.
- Our bespoke public opinion polling found that disruptive nonviolent climate protest in the UK did not cause any “backfire” effect i.e. there was no negative impact on public support for climate despite disruptive tactics. There’s also weak evidence that it raised the number of people willing to take part in climate activism by 2.6 percentage points, equivalent to an additional 1.7 million people.
- Our expert interviews with academics and movement experts revealed that large protests can be seen as credible signals of public opinion, and public opinion plays an important role in policymaking.
- Our policymaker interviews revealed that while some policymakers believe most protest movements have little impact, they also highlighted a small number of protest movements who have achieved significant impacts on UK policy – primarily across animal welfare and climate change.
- Our case study and cost-effectiveness estimate found that Extinction Rebellion may have abated 0.1-71 (median 8) tonnes of CO2e per £ spent on advocacy. We think this is our most uncertain finding, so readers should interpret this result with caution.
1.3 How to read this report
In this report, we summarise the key findings from various research methods (e.g. our literature review), rather than replicating them in full. For example, in the public opinion section, we reference the most relevant papers from our literature review that we think provide the most valuable evidence, rather than all the papers that tackle the question of protest impacts on public opinion. For those who want to read more into a particular outcome or methodology, we encourage you to read the full reports that are linked. All sections are intended to be standalone pieces, so you can read them independently of other sections. However, this does lead to some points being repeated in several sections.
1.4 Who we are
Social Change Lab is a new Effective Altruist-aligned organisation that is conducting research into whether grassroots social movement organisations (SMOs) could be a cost-effective way to achieve positive social change. We’re initially focusing on climate change and animal advocacy, as this is where we believe we can learn the most, due to existing active movements. We aim to understand whether protests and social movement activism should play a larger, or smaller, role in accelerating progress in these cause areas.
We’re also interested in how social movements have the greatest chances in achieving their goals, and why some fail. We hope these findings can be applied to other important issues, such as building the effective altruism movement, reducing existential risks, and more.
2.1 Why we think this work is valuable
There are many pressing problems in the world, and it’s unclear what is the most effective way to tackle these problems. There is some agreement that we need a variety of approaches to effectively bring about positive social change. However, it’s not obvious how we should allocate resources (e.g. time, money and people) to the various approaches if we want to maximise social good. We seek to understand whether social movement organisations could be more effective than current well-funded avenues to change, and how much resources we should allocate towards grassroots strategies relative to other alternatives.
Despite the potentially huge benefits of our work, we believe that social movement research is neglected. We believe we are the first to conduct a (preliminary and uncertain) cost-effectiveness analysis of a social movement organisation, and the second to commission bespoke public opinion polling to understand the impact of protest on public opinion. We see this as an opportunity to add value by providing research that addresses some unanswered questions about the role of social movements in improving the world.
We spent the first six months of our research focusing on two main questions, the outcomes of protest movements and the factors that make some protest movements more successful than others. We chose to initially focus on Social Movement Organisations (SMOs) that use protest as a main tactic, as we believed this to be an especially neglected area of research given that protests are an extremely commonly used tactic for achieving social change. We define a social movement organisation as a named formal organisation engaged in activities to advance a movement’s cause (e.g. environmentalism or anti-racism).
SMOs such as Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future, Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter have been said to have large impacts on public opinion and public discourse around their respective issues. As seen below in Figure 1, polling by YouGov suggests that Extinction Rebellion may have played a key role in the increase in UK public concern for climate change, leading to a potential rise of 10% in just a matter of months.
We think that if the claimed impacts of protests are accurate – that they can significantly alter public opinion and/or affect policymaker’s beliefs – then there is a strong case that philanthropists and social change advocates should be considering this type of advocacy alongside other methods. We also think that there are several other mechanisms by which protest can influence social change. Specifically, protests can affect voting behaviour, corporate behaviour and policy. We outline a simplified theory of change diagram below in Figure 2 which illustrates some (but not all) of the pathways where protests can lead to significant social change.
If further research uncovers evidence that suggests protest is not a particularly effective tool (or contingent on very specific criteria), this information value will still be useful in allocating resources going forward.
We seek first to look into the impact of protest-focused movements, whilst slowly expanding our scope to social movements more generally.
2.2 Research Questions & Objectives
Primary research questions we have been investigating for this report:
- What are the outcomes of protest movements, and how large are they? Specifically, what are the impacts on:
- Voting behaviour
- Public Opinion
- Corporate Behaviour
- Policymaker behaviour
- Are there crucial considerations that might hinder our ability to gather good evidence on our questions above?
Research questions that are tackled in our upcoming report on success factors:
- Which tactics, strategies and factors of protest movements (e.g. size, frequency, target, etc.) most affect chances of success?
- How important is movement agency relative to external societal conditions?
- What are the main bottlenecks faced by social movements, and to what extent are promising social movements funding constrained?
- Can we predict which movements will have large positive impacts? If so, how?
Other questions we are tackling or will tackle in the near future can be seen in our section on future promising work.
We think this work can be valuable to two audiences in particular:
- Philanthropists seeking to fund the most effective routes to positive change in their respective cause area - where grassroots organisations could be a contender. For example, if we discover that grassroots animal advocacy movements are more cost-effective in reducing animal suffering relative to existing funded work, it makes sense we also fund these opportunities (all else being equal) if we seek to maximise our impact. Additionally, grantmakers could possibly use our success factors research to identify promising organisations to fund.
- Existing social movements - who can employ and integrate best practices from social science literature to make their campaigns more effective. This includes Effective Altruist community-builders, who thus far seem to have made relatively little effort to learn from previous social movements and examine why and how they succeeded or failed.
As a preliminary step, we sought to understand the state of the academic literature pertaining to social movements. This was integral to measuring how promising research on social movements would be in terms of (i) how important social movements themselves are, and (ii) how useful any incremental knowledge contribution in this area would be. We thus conducted a comprehensive literature review to identify findings in this area of research, and analyse the robustness of these findings. If we had found here that there was a general and rigorously-derived consensus that social movements are ineffective at resulting in social and policy change, then any further research on social movements would not be meaningful. To the contrary, our literature review found that academic studies point to the effectiveness of nonviolent protests in inducing social change in some contexts. However, the evidence base we found was relatively small, so we believe additional research will be useful to inform social movement strategies and funding allocations.
We decided to tackle subsequent research by approaching our research questions from many different angles and using several different methods. We believe this is a more robust way of tackling our research questions, as no single methodology provides an empirically foolproof approach, due to the difficulty in making causal inferences in empirical social science. Instead, we hope to evaluate the evidence base for social movement impacts using a variety of different methods, to understand where this broad evidence base converges or diverges. We explain the methodologies in-depth in Appendix A and in the full reports, but in summary, the research methods we used are shown in the table below. The limitations of our overall methodology are addressed in more detail in the Limitations section.
You can read the rest of the report here on our website. Again - we hope that you enjoy reading the report - and we would be hugely appreciative for any feedback that people have about our work so far!
By “actively involved”, we mean people are attending in-person demonstrations, donating, going to meetings or otherwise participating in the movement.
It’s not clear that climate change and animal welfare are the most suited to grassroots social movement efforts, but the current existence of similar activities in these fields indicates that external conditions are already somewhat favourable.