Every day seems to bring a new story about a protest — or several of them — from around the world to our screens.
It’s not just you. Experts say protests are rising around the world. We may not see all of them on our social media feeds or televisions, but there are more people marching on streets worldwide than in the past.
We asked two experts for their input on what’s happening with protests and why we’re seeing more of them.
What’s happening, and why
Protests have gone up for a few reasons, according to Michael Heaney, a research fellow at the University of Glasgow.
“There’s been more protests and there’s been more coverage of protests,” he said. “Which means that people are learning more about protests. The other is that people are sharing information through social media and communicating with one another about protests.”
He describes the 1960s as a classic period for protests, followed by the 1990s when anti-globalization protests became international in nature. The world has seen a “substantial increase” in protest coordination across borders.
“The first internationally coordinated protests on a large scale, you could say, really started in the late 1990s, with what was called the anti-globalization movement, or the global justice movement,” Heaney said.
As protests became normal, they have also come to be expected, to the point that infrastructure in cities around the world takes large gatherings of potential protesters into account.
“The norm of organizing the multi-city protests or worldwide protests has really increased,” Heaney said. “And people’s capacity for doing that has also increased.”
For instance, the Women’s March took place in at least 38 communities across Canada last year. And the climate movement most recently has seen coordinated protests take place around the world by the decentralized global movement called Extinction Rebellion, with local chapters in cities such as Toronto, London, Prague, and Vancouver.
Roberta Lexier from Mount Royal University drew similarities between the rise in present-day protest actions and the wave of protests from 2010-2011 and the Occupy movement.
“I think right now many of the protests are very much connected to a critique of austerity and neoliberalism,” she said. “It’s really hit a point where people are feeling the effects of it in massive numbers and in really significant ways. And it’s sparking off protests in different places.”
Protests in Chile and Lebanon are examples of countries where the focus of protests is “austerity and the effects it’s having on average regular people.”
So are protests linked with economic inequality?
It’s not always easy to draw that connection, although it’s “largely true,” Lexier said.
“I mean, it’s so hard to say with protests,” she said. “They’re complicated in the sense that people will join for different reasons.”
Using Chile as an example, she pointed out you could say that protests there are about transit fees. But “you’re not going to get that level of mass protest over something like transit fees.”
“You can’t write this story without noting that social media has changed the way that we live our lives,” Heaney says.
It’s not just that protests are increasing — there is also repeated exposure to images and visuals from protests.
“That then inspires people,” Heaney said. “People start coordinating what they’re doing on a more worldwide basis.”
Governments and decision-makers have also become normalized to protests, he added. In the 1960s, protests were considered “very threatening” by elites such as former U.S. presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, he said.
“They thought that they were much more a threat to safety and much more of a threat to the peace of a society,” Heaney said. “Whereas now, as protests become much more common, they become much more normalized.”
But that also means now that protests are more normalized, decision-makers may find them less of a threat.
“You could say the protests are doing at least three different things,” Heaney said.
“One is that as they become more normalized, people are more willing to participate in them. A second is that decision-makers may be more likely to take their demands seriously, and the third is that some decision-makers may not take the demands seriously because they see them as kind of routinized.”
Lexier notes that activism “doesn’t happen by accident.”
If we’re seeing coverage of a mass protest, chances are that it started its life in a much smaller form.
“Even if what we see in the media is a huge protest, it’s guaranteed that that actually started a long time ago with a smaller format that’s been building over time,” she said.
Off the radar
Not every protest gets the same coverage, for various reasons.
“I can guarantee that there’s protests going on that we don’t know about,” Lexier says. “Because they’re always going (on) in different contexts, at different locations, in different ways.”
Chile is an example of a place with protests that’s been “missed by the mainstream media.”
Iraq is another example, as protests there have not appeared to garner the same kind of coverage as other demonstrations, she said.
“One of them might be a technology issue but some of it’s about the focus of the Western media and what they’re interested in,” Lexier said.
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