The Speaker
Saturday, 25 May 2024 – 21:32

The Just Stop Oil protests: Do they work?

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

If anybody hadn’t heard of the Just Stop Oil movement, they definitely have now. Over the past few weeks, protests have swept across the country using a variety of tactics. From glueing themselves to roads, camping atop bridges, and throwing tomato soup at famous artworks, their tactics are divisive to say the least. Many, like the recently former Home Secretary Suella Braveman, are far from fans, colourfully describing them as “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati”; whatever that means. These protests however, are far from over; the financial backers of the movement have promised more stunts in the same vein as the Van Gough one.

So do these protests actually work? The internet and news swiftly gave their overwhelmingly damning opinion suggesting the methods of protest only distract from the goal and are unlikely to win any supporters: but is this right? As ever the answer isn’t a binary yes or no; it’s more of a collage of maybes and grey areas. 

Before I properly begin I want to clarify that when I am discussing protest tactics like the ones Just Stop Oil are using they can be and are being described by the media and others as radical, extreme or disruptive. However, none of the protests being described are violent. Violent protests are a whole different issue which I will not be discussing in this article.

The largest and most compelling piece of evidence that suggests protests such as these do work is a highly researched one: The Radical Flank effect. The Radical Flank effect is the idea that the more radical sub-groups in a movement, partaking in extreme forms of protest, help the overall movement by making moderate groups more acceptable in the eyes of the general public, increasing the support of said moderate groups.

A research paper by Simpson et al. (2022) looking into this found that “This perception led participants to identify more with and, in turn, express greater support for the more moderate faction. These results suggest that activist groups that employ unpopular tactics can increase support for other groups within the same movement”.

Another research paper by Shuman et al. (2022) looks at extreme tactics, or as they refer to non-normative tactics. “Taken together, we show that non-normative nonviolent action can be an effective tactic for generating support for concessions to the disadvantaged among those who are most resistant because it generates constructive disruption.”

Moving away from the Radical Flank effect, research looking at climate protests at the start of this year conducted by Yougov and commissioned by Social Change Lab found that “Despite disruptive protests, there was no loss of support for climate policies.” They also found that “There was a marginally statistically significant change (p = 0.09) in the self-reported likelihood of participants taking part in environmental activism.” Ozden et al. (2022)

There is plenty of evidence to strongly suggest that tactics used by Just Stop Oil might actually work and bring more people on side. However, this is not an absolute answer. Research conducted by the Social Change Lab, culminating various papers on the Radical Flank effect concluded that although there is strong evidence that the effect works and that they personally feel it is effective “more research is needed” Ozden et al. (2022)

There is not yet an absolute answer to whether disruptive and radical protests work, but we are close. The research is strong and in all likelihood as more is done it will become stronger, providing a concrete answer. Another telling sign is that I was unable to find compelling research pointing in the other direction, that disruptive protests don’t work and hinder the ultimate goal by putting people off. 

Whether these tactics do or don’t work in gaining public support is far from the full battle, they next have to convince the government, which right now may be slightly more difficult than usual in these unprecedented political times.

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