An arms race for public attention. Should social movements be concerned with alienating the general public ?

Social movements have a lot of competition in their bid for public attention, they have to compete with other but also with the global and national news cycles occurring at any point. Looking at the current news cycle, there are twowars[1][2], economic turmoil[3] and here in the Netherlands there are elections coming in about a month[4]. In a global news cycle such as this social movements must compete for attention in the public eye. This competition for attention however, has the potential risk of alienating the general public from social movement all together.  

Getting the public to notice a social movement in and of itself is not a competitive move per se. Social movements have a plethora of ways to engage in collective action, a tactical repertoire, and these can range from conventional tactics such as voting and lobbying to more confrontational tactics like boycotts and marches[5]. As Taylor and van Dyke discuss in their paper, tactical repertoires are the specific tactics chosen by social movements. And since social movements intend to pursue change in society they inherently oppose or contest with the powers that be that may have other interests such as the state, corporations or other institutions[6]. Social movements, being this contentious force as such needs to draw the attention of the public through mass media in dramatic fashion in hopes of getting the public’s awareness and sympathy. 

An example of intentionally pursuing public attention through dramatic, contentious action is Extinction Rebellion, a group striving to combat climate change.

On their website[7] they state “We take creative, peaceful and sometimes disruptive action, to compel our government to take necessary measures. Why? Because history has shown time and time again that civil disobedience is a very effective way to bring about fast-paced change.”

This statement on using civil disobedience in order to get the message across and inspire change is a sentiment that can be copied by other social movements as well and that is where the potential trouble for all social movements lie. 

Not only do I want you to think about social movements being in competition with each other and global and national events for attention in the news cycle, but I also want you to consider the general public only has a limited amount of sympathy for civil disobedience. When social movements use tactics that cause the public discomfort or inconvenience (such as blocking highways [8][9]) there can be understanding first, but if the inconvenience is too large or happens too often this sympathy towards the cause can turn into apathy or even worse annoyance with the social movement. The picture I am trying to paint is very similar to the tragedy of the commons, which is a concept used in economics where an individual consumes a resource at the expense of society where overconsumption can lead to the detriment of all as the resource has a limited supply [10]. For more information on the tragedy of commons, check out this video [11]

Imagine a scenario where a social movement here in the Netherlands stages a successful event, captures the public eye and gathers a lot of attention for their cause using a tactic both creative and confrontational. Other social movements looking to further their interests can copy those tactics or may escalate the degree of confrontation to dominate the news cycle and put the attention on their own movement. In this case social movements are the individual actors described in the tragedy of the commons, where they stage a confrontational event causing civil inconvenience or discomfort and the public good is sympathy from the general public. The public has no direct impact on the policies or cultural norms that social movements wish to change; but the public does have to bear the weight of the actions of social movements. 

So what to do? 

In my opinion, using the tragedy of the commons as a warning, social movements should be careful to survey the landscape before organizing any event. Consider the people affected by their actions and protests and investigate if those people have had to deal with other social movements recently as well. If so, perhaps change the location or consider a different form of protest if you risk alienating the general public. Because at the end of the day, if a social movement tactic turns the public away from the movement, it may be a bad tactic even if it is effective in a vacuum.  

Reference list: 

[1] Russia-Ukraine War (2023). Retrieved from 

[2] Israel-Palestine conflict (2023). Retrieved from 

[3] Reuters. (2023). Dutch economy enters recession as inflation bites. Retrieved from 

[4] Politico. (2023). Netherlands – 2023 general election. Retrieved from 

[5] Walker, E. T., Martin, A. W., & McCarthy, J. D. (2008). Confronting the state, the corporation, and the academy: The influence of institutional targets on social movement repertoires. American Journal of Sociology, 114(1), 35-76.

[6] Taylor, V., & Van Dyke, N. (2004). “Get up, stand up”: Tactical repertoires of social movements. The Blackwell companion to social movements, 262-293.

[7] Extinction Rebellion. (2023). Retrieved from

[8] Keultjes, H., Naber, C. (2022, June 22). Tractoren op snelweg rond protest: ‘Boeren moeten niet denken dat ze hiermee wegkomen’.  Retrieved from

[9] RTL Nieuws. (2023, September 16). Ruim 650 aanhoudingen bij klimaatprotesten op A12.  Retrieved from

[10] Kraak, S. B. (2011). Exploring the ‘public goods game’ model to overcome the tragedy of the commons in fisheries management. Fish and Fisheries, 12(1), 18-33.

[11] TED-Ed. (2018). What is the tragedy of the commons? – Nicholas Amendolare [Video file]. Retrieved from 

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