Staying in the Spotlight: Strategically Adaptive Movements

by Julian Gottlieb

A cadre of academics have reignited their hope and optimism about the future of political activism amidst a renaissance of social movement activity from the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street; from Mexico’s Ayotzinapa protests, to the #BlackLivesMatter mobilizations. Let there be no equivocation; these movements have captured the public imagination and have inspired many of us to believe: another world is possible. Yet, at the same time, the window of opportunity for these movements to make another world possible seems to be a narrow one. In this post, I will suggest first, that movements improve their chances of success when they keep news and public attention focused on their cause. Second, I will argue that movement strategy and tactics can have unanticipated consequences on which features of social movements news organizations choose to highlight. Finally, I will make the case that the strategic adaptability of movements determines the extent to which social movement activists can control media and public narratives about their cause, which can make or break a movement’s success.

julianOccupy Santa Barbara 2011

A crucial task of social movements is to build a coalition of temporary and permanent networks mobilizing for change, strengthen organizational ties between like-minded community members within these networks. When these networks take shape, participants can put in place procedures to build an agenda, introduce policy reform proposals and monitor the progress of reform initiatives. Attracting attention is a key resource for social movements throughout this process. There are a number of ways to conceptualize attention, but in this post I will be looking at mass media attention in the form of traditional news coverage, which has been a common scholarly proxy for attention to social movements.

Movements need news attention to introduce their collective action frames to the public so they mobilize potential supporters supporters, and ultimately, to apply pressure to the targets of their grievances. Attracting news coverage is ephemeral even for robust, disruptive movements(1). For example, despite well-organized trans-national protests at major G20 summits in Pittsburgh, London and Toronto, most major newspaper coverage of these protests subsided two weeks after the protests. To attract elusive news attention, protesters are often faced with what I call the ‘protester’s dilemma’. Boyle, McLeod and Armstrong (2012) explain this in the following passage:

Ultimately, protesters face a difficult challenge. News coverage is important to achieving protest goals, yet such coverage may not be forthcoming unless protesters engage in dramatic and even violent action. However, those very actions that attract media attention are often central features of stories that delegitimize the protesters. (p. 130)

This begs the question: can protesters attract news attention that highlights their message and grievances without delegitimizing coverage (2) about acts of violence and disruption. In my latest research project analyzing the news framing of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, London and Toronto in several newspapers, I can offer a few initial insights about this question.

At least in the case of OWS, dramatic, bold, but importantly non-violent actions by protesters did propel news attention to the movement’s cause and grievances. A large, disruptive march on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York led to mass arrests and journalists who had previously ignored the movement began paying close attention to the occupiers. In my longitudinal content analysis of the news coverage of OWS, I found protests arrests were positively correlated with the number of news stories about the protest movement and its substantive claims. In general, when protesters engaged in activities that could elicit arrests, news attention followed. This attention became a catalyst for a much broader discussion in the United States and elsewhere about the long-term consequences of inequality and potential remedies for vast income disparities between the rich and the poor. This finding provides some novel evidence that disruptive and dramatic actions can attract news attention to the substantive claims protesters seek to amplify.

However, at the same time, I discovered the effect of disruptive protest actions later in the occupation had diminishing returns in terms of news attention. So while bold, confrontational tactics can serve protesters initially by drawing attention to their cause, these tactics can become less effective over time if they become routine or predictable. Moreover, I found that protest arrests were also positively correlated with conflict frames in the newspaper coverage of the protest, which affirms the danger of the protester’s dilemma. Confrontation and disruption can elicit attention, but not always the kind of attention activists want. Much of the coverage, particularly when evictions of OWS camps began taking place in November of 2011, focused on the conflict between police and protesters rather than the substantive concerns of the occupiers about inequality, financial deregulation and the corrupting influence of money in politics. The big lesson for movement activists is that what works for attracting attention initially may not always work in the future. A related point that is absolutely crucial is the need for activists to keep tactics and messaging fresh. I think of this as the strategic adaptability of a movement.

It is not enough for movements who are serious about realizing a political and economic reform agenda to simply show up and/or be disruptive. Attracting attention is a means to an end, not the end. The real task of a movement is planning actions for after the attention comes. Running with the OWS example, Occupy was very good at mobilizing potential supporters, producing its own activist media content and advancing a collective action frame that captured the essence of the movement succinctly in the 99% meme; but it proved less capable of organizing beyond the confines of a few urban parks, which contributed to the movement’s unraveling. In the navel gazing that ensued after the dissolution of OWS, activists do seem to be perceptive of the movement’s shortcomings and have made an effort to become more adaptive and responsive to the changing context in which activism is taking place. For example, a number of Occupy offshoots participated in the aid of communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. Similarly, many occupiers have been active participants in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. These efforts have rekindled interest in OWS and led to continued community building among overlapping networks of activists. This ability of social movements to evolve, pivot on issues and tinker with new tactics is critical for movements seeking to maintain ownership over their issue, keep participants engaged, and signal a sense of urgency to the public and policymakers about the need for fresh approaches to tackling the big issues of our time like inequality, police brutality and climate change.



(1) Some activists prefer to fly under the radar and shun attention altogether.

(2) Broadly discussed as the protest paradigm in the social movements literature.



Boyle, M.P., McLeod, D.M., & Armstrong, C.L. (2012). Adherence to the protest paradigm: The influence of protest goals and tactics on news coverage in U.S. and international newspapers. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 17(2), 127-144.

Castells, M. (2012). Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gottlieb, J. (2015). Protest news framing cycle: How The New York Times covered Occupy Wall Street. International Journal of Communication, 9, pp. 231-253.

Harlow, S., & Johnson, T.J. (2011). Overthrowing the protest paradigm? How The New York Times, Global Voices and Twitter Covered the Egyptian Revolution. International Journal of Communication, 5, 1359–1374.

Tufekci, Z. (2013). “Not this one”: Social movements, the attention economy, and microcelebrity networked activism. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(7): 848-870.


Julian Gottlieb recently completed his PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on the diffusion of collective action frames through mass media and public discourse, how the digital media environment enables more or less effective methods of political activism and participation, as well as the economics of non-proprietary culture production and crowdsourcing. This week, Julian draws on his doctoral research to discuss social movements, news attention, framing and strategic adaptability. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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