Think Politicians Aren't Swayed by Protest Rallies? Think Again

Protesters walk up Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women's March on Washington with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on Jan. 21, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Saturday April 22, 2017, thousands of people plan to gather in dozens of cities across the planet to rally on behalf of science. Participants in the April March for Science are hoping to spur political leaders and policy makers to make decisions based on sound, scientific reasoning, and to get more funding for scientific research. But do these kinds of protests really affect public policy? According to a new study by Belgian and Dutch researchers, they do.

The study "Demonstrating Power: How Protests Persuades Political Representation" concluded that people can influence public policy if they agree among themselves and rally under a single, unified message. The findings by researchers at the University of Antwerp and the University of Amsterdam appear in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

The study first surveyed elected officials in Belgium to gauge their attitudes toward refugees. The officials then watched fictional news reports of demonstrators in Belgium rallying for more humane treatment of asylum seekers.

Researchers created 32 fictional news clips containing some form of protest and grouped them in sets of two, with each official watching two clips with opposite messages. The researchers manipulated things like whether the protest was peaceful, whether protesters had a single message, whether the crowd was large, and whether more protests were planned.

After the politicians watched both clips, researchers asked them their opinions about the importance of the issues and what public actions they would take. The researchers found that protesters who were unified and voiced a single message were most likely to influence the policy makers. The study also concluded that protesters had a better chance of persuading both the political left and right if they came out in great numbers, were peaceful, planned more protests and spoke with one voice.

Although the research was centered in Belgium, the authors say the study has meaning in the United States where protesters have been marching on the streets over the policies of President Donald Trump.

"I think the immediacy and massiveness of recent U.S. protests, such as the Women's March in Washington, D.C., impressed many observers," Ruud Wouters, lead study author and assistant professor of political communication at the University of Amsterdam said in a statement. "Because political survival through public support in elections is the main motive of representatives, it makes sense for them to let their own opinion be affected by their perception of what the public, or a relevant segment of the public, wants."