Myth No. 1
Social media has made popular movements more effective.
A dominant theory during the Arab uprisings in 2011 held that the rise of social media would help popular movements. “Through social networking sites, Arab Spring activists have not only gained the power to overthrow powerful dictatorship, but also helped Arab civilians become aware of the underground communities that exist,” said a 2012 article in Mic. A Wall Street Journal story about demonstrations in Sudan this year against Omar Hassan al-Bashir said, “Activists whose street protests precipitated the military overthrow of Sudan’s longtime leader relied on social media.” This year, Iran’s government shut down the Internet in response to mass protests — after slowing it significantly during similar events in 2009 and 2011 — and protesters said it damaged their ability to organize. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found 67 percent of Americans believed that social media was an important tool for “creating sustained movements for social change.”
But while Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made protesting easier and mobilization faster, social media has not necessarily helped activists build durable organizations or foster long-term planning. These structures were critical to helping the Polish Solidarity movement endure martial law in the early 1980s, and more recently, grass-roots organizing helped the Sudanese popular movement survive violent crackdowns by government forces and paramilitary groups. Movements that lack such attributes are vulnerable.
Myth No. 2
Nonviolent resistance is useless against certain foes.
The Economist argued in 2010 that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were wrong about their emphasis on nonviolence, because “violent protest is actually more effective.” In the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2013, Benjamin Ginsberg wrote, “Those willing to use violence to achieve their goals will generally overcome their less bellicose adversaries.” He noted that in Libya, it wasn’t peaceful protests that toppled Moammar Gaddafi but an armed insurgency backed by NATO airstrikes. The Atlantic even asked if a protest movement could be “too nonviolent.”
But when one of us co-conducted a study in 2011 examining about 330 major violent and nonviolent campaigns targeting incumbent regimes and foreign military occupations, we found that nonviolent efforts were twice as likely to achieve their goals. The majority succeeded against authoritarian governments, when even peaceful protests could have fatal consequences. The ousters of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Yahya Jammeh in Gambia, Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria are only a handful of cases in which mass nonviolent force stripped power from despots.
Scholars debate whether violence harms or helps otherwise nonviolent movements. While some argue that limited violence by unarmed civilians (like rioting or rock throwing) could be useful, others maintain that adding such tactics tends to lower participation rates and increase the risk of violent escalation by the regime, resulting in sometimes disastrous consequences for a movement.
Myth No. 3
Nonviolent movements require charismatic leaders.
Protest movements are often synonymous with inspiring leaders like King, Gandhi or Lech Walesa in Poland. Looking at the evolution of the Hong Kong protests, Financial Times Asia editor Jamil Anderlini recently argued, “This leaderless movement needs to find a leader” before the situation spirals toward further violence. And an essay in the Atlantic last month held that a “lack of leaders may exacerbate tensions and violence when protesters have no one to provide direction on how to confront the authorities.”
But today’s movements increasingly rely on leaderless resistance — or, perhaps more accurately, a diffuse structure with many leaders organizing in smaller pockets. Hong Kong activists’ decentralized approach to protests is a direct result of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, whose high-profile leaders were imprisoned. Social Unity, a broad-based coalition of labor, human rights, student, environmental and women’s groups, has driven the protests in Chile. Four days after those demonstrations broke out, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced a package of economic measures aimed at placating the movement, though protests continue. It would be hard to identify any charismatic leader in the Sudanese and Algerian popular uprisings.
Myth No. 4
Popular movements are all about street demonstrations.
A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half of Americans thought protests alone could increase government efforts to address climate change. Kai Thaler recently implied in Foreign Policy that street protests are the end-all, be-all of popular struggle. Indeed, despite the surge in nonviolent resistance this year, coverage of popular movements in 2019 has focused almost entirely on street protests, ignoring other methods that have spurred change.
But street protests are just one of a host of nonviolent tactics that can achieve political results. Other, equally valuable types of resistance include boycotts or strikes. A sex strike in 2003 by Liberian women demanding an end to the country’s second civil war succeeded. In Turkey in the 1990s, 30 million citizens turned the lights on and off at night to focus national attention on corruption, part of a campaign that culminated in judicial investigations, trials and guilty verdicts for politicians and members of organized-crime groups.
The Montgomery bus and South Africa boycotts paved the way for the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation and apartheid. And in Sudan, a nationwide labor strike and stay-at-home campaign preceded the ouster of Bashir.
Myth No. 5
Protesters are fighting for progressive goals.
People often picture demonstrators, against the odds, facing down dictatorships and security forces, such as in the Philippines, Tunisia and Egypt. Most popular accounts of nonviolent resistance, like Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall’s “A Force More Powerful,” cover only 20th-century movements with progressive or democratic goals. A Center for American Progress series on progressivism in American life argues that “social movements have invariably advanced moral and political causes surrounding gender, racial, and class equality.”
But social-justice activists are not the only ones who have discovered these tactics. Nativists, chauvinists, supremacists and others with exclusionary agendas are just as able to use civil disobedience to advance their aims. The annual Independence March in Poland, for instance, has recently gained a vibrant right-wing presence, with the protesters espousing anti-Islamic and anti-European Union sentiments. Many opponents of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement protested the expansion of their own rights by using the same nonviolent tactics as suffragists did. And it is common practice for autocrats to support pro-government rallies and demonstrations to strengthen their perceived legitimacy. The youth-led Nashi movement in Russia is a government-backed protest group; the Ortega government in Nicaragua has backed pro-government rallies and threatened civil servants who refused to join.