Are Just Stop Oil’s art museum protests hurting their cause?

in collaboration with

Written by the author Colin Davis

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. Content is produced solely by The Conversation.

Members of the Just Stop Oil protest group recently threw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London. The action once again sparked a debate about which forms of protest are the most effective.

After a quick cleaning of the glass, the painting was visible again. But critics argued that the real damage was done by distracting the public from the cause itself (the UK government’s demand to return aid to open new oil and gas fields in the North Sea).

Proponents of militant forms of protest often cite historical examples such as the suffragists. In contrast to the Just Stop Oil action, when suffragist Mary Richardson went to the National Gallery to attack a painting called The Rokeby Venus, she slashed the canvas, causing extensive damage.
However, many historians argue that the suffragettes’ contribution to women’s suffrage was negligible or even counterproductive. Such discussions seem to be based on people’s gut about the impact of the protest. But as a professor of cognitive psychology, I know that we shouldn’t rely on intuition: these are testable hypotheses.

The entrepreneur’s dilemma

In one set of experiments, researchers showed people descriptions of protests and then measured their support for the protesters and the cause. Some participants read articles describing moderate protests, such as peaceful marches. Others read articles describing extreme and sometimes violent protests, such as a fictional act in which animal rights activists drugged a security guard to break into a laboratory and remove the animals.
Just Stop Oil activists painted the wall below a student's copy of Leonardo "The Last Supper" and they stuck to the frame.

Just Stop Oil activists painted the wall below a Leonardo student’s copy of “The Last Supper” and taped it to the frame. Credit: Kristian Buus/In Pictures/Getty Images

Protesters who committed extreme acts were perceived as more immoral, and participants reported lower levels of emotional connection and social identification with these “extremist” protesters. The effects of these types of actions on support for the cause have been mixed (and the negative effects may be specific to actions involving the threat of violence).

READ MORE: Just Stop Oil had three reasons for playing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

Overall, these results paint a picture of the so-called activist’s dilemma: activists have to choose between moderate actions that are largely ignored and moderate actions that gain attention but can be counterproductive to their goals because they tend to make people think less. of the demonstrators

Activists themselves tend to offer a different perspective: accepting personal unpopularity, they say, is simply the price to be paid for the attention of the media they rely on.start the conversation” and win public support for the issue. But is this the right approach? Can activists harm their cause?

Hating protesters does not affect support

I have conducted several experiments to answer such questions, often in collaboration with students at the University of Bristol. To influence participants’ views of protesters, we used a well-known framing effect, where differences (even subtle) in how protests are reported have a significant impact, often serving to delegitimize the protest.
For example, the Daily Mail article reporting on Van Gogh’s protest referred to it as a “sham”, part of a “campaign of chaos” by “rebellious environmentalists”. The article does not mention the protestors’ request.
After the climatic demonstrations of the Last Generation threw mashed potatoes on the Claude Monet painting "The mills"

Last Generation climate protests after mashed potatoes were thrown at Claude Monet’s painting “Les Meules”. Credit: Last generation/AP

Our experiments took advantage of this framing effect to test the relationship between attitudes toward protesters and their cause. If citizens’ support for a cause depends on how they feel about the protesters, a negative framing — which leads to less positive attitudes toward the protesters — should lead to lower levels of support for the demands.

But that’s not what we found. Indeed, experimental manipulations that reduced support for protestors had no effect on supporting the demands of those protestors.

We replicated this finding in different types of nonviolent protest, including racial justice, abortion rights, and climate change protests, and among British, American, and Polish participants (this work is in preparation for publication). When members of the public say, “I agree with your cause, I just don’t like your methods,” we should take them at their word.

READ MORE: An ethicist explains why philanthropy is not a license to do bad things
Reducing the extent to which the public identifies with you may not be helpful in building a mass movement. But highly publicized actions can be a very effective way to increase recruitment, as few people become activists. The existence of a radical side also seems to increase support for moderate factions of a social movement, making those factions appear less radical.

Protest can set the agenda

Another concern may be that most of the attention received by radical actions is not about the issue, but about what the protesters did. However, even where this is true, public dialogue opens up the space for debate on the issue.

Protest plays a role in agenda setting. It doesn’t necessarily tell people what to think, but rather influences what they think. Last year’s Insulate Britain protests are a good example. In the months following the start of the protests on 13 September 2021, the number of mentions of the word “isolation” in UK media doubled.
Just Stop Oil activists glued their hands to John Constable's frame "Hey Wain" and superimposed an edited image on top of the artwork.

Just Stop Oil activists taped their hands to a frame of John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” and superimposed an edited image over the artwork. Credit: Carlos Jasso/AFP/Getty Images

Some people don’t research the details of a problem, but even so, media attention can promote the problem in their minds. A YouGov poll released in early June 2019 ranked “the environment” among the public’s top three issues for the first time.

READ MORE: Sackler Donations: Why Museums and Galleries Can Be Left With Donations — Even If They Don’t Want To
The pollsters concluded that the “sudden rise in concern was undoubtedly fueled by environmental publicity from Extinction Rebellion” (which recently occupied prominent central London sites for two weeks). There is also evidence that home isolation has moved up the policy agenda since the Insulate Britain protests.

Dramatic protest will not go away. Protagonists will continue to receive (mostly) negative media attention, leading to widespread public disapproval. But when we look at public support for the protesters’ demands, there is no compelling evidence that nonviolent protest is counterproductive. People may “shoot the messenger,” but they hear the message, at least sometimes.