Illustration: Amy Yan

Illustration: Amy Yan

Have you ever dreamed of changing the world? Of finding a band of like-minded people and leading a revolution? Of being an environmental advocate?

What if you accidentally ended up being the reason for potential environmental disaster?

In October 2016, a protest group called Climate Direct Action shut down several pipelines that transported millions of barrels of crude oil from Canada to America on a daily basis. This unscheduled shutting-off of pipelines greatly increased the chances for the buildup of pressure and the eventual rupturing of the pipes, which would have posed many problems for the local environment. [1] Thankfully, police were quick to act and there was no permanent damage to the pipes. Although Climate Direct Action’s cause is justifiable, their methods of protesting are problematic. As a result, their message is being tarnished in the news and social media, compelling the public to be less sympathetic to their cause. Clearly, it is crucial that movements carefully consider how they spread their messages.

The convenient saying “No publicity is bad publicity” unfortunately does not apply to revolutionary movements. Sure, if you were the Kardashians, you could always make media attention work out in your favour. But for movements that lie on one side of a very controversial issue, bad publicity may be the tipping point that prevents people on the fence from taking their side.

Consider the Black Lives Matter movement: it is adamantly against police brutality and unjustified deaths. However, during a protest in Dallas last July, five policemen were shot and killed in the name of “demonstration” by a lone man who believed that his ideals were in line with those of Black Lives Matter.  Evidently, they were not. He hypocritically committed the same crime that he had condemned. Black Lives Matter did not condone the violence that disrupted their peaceful protest, but the action of one person who believed he was effectively protesting against police brutality sullied the image of the entire movement. Black Lives Matter wanted attention from the protest, but the news reports that followed were not the kind of attention they had wished to attract. Instead, the negative publicity detracted from the credibility and traction the social movement had built up. People were less willing to be associated with a movement that had unwittingly provided cover for a murderer. It took one unthinkable act to ruin the public perception of Black Lives Matter’s messages.

Regardless of whether you are an individual or an affiliate of an organization, it is essential to ask yourself what effect your actions will have on the public’s perception of your cause. Ultimately, the goal is to garner support, which will enable you to influence legislators to effect change. The million-dollar question, then, is: what form of protesting is the most effective? When we cannot carry out stunts like shutting off pipelines, what do we resort to in order to draw attention? The answer, from what has already proved effective, is the standard mob-with-picket-signs protesting at a visible, appropriate location.

But beware the pitfalls of the run-of-the-mill protest. Larger turnout to a demonstration does not necessarily correlate with more positive change. Often, protester gatherings lack an organized central agency to follow up with the demands of the protesters. As large followings and crowds increasingly become easily conjured with just a Facebook page and a few tweets, less planning in general is happening on the part of the people who spark the protest. There is little to no long-term vision, and so all the concern is for naught as it does not effect change. The best way to protest, as it turns out, is a mob with picket signs and a strong organizational committee behind it. An organizational committee that will sit through long tedious meetings with legislators after the crowd has dispersed. Moisés Naím, who writes extensively about social and governmental revolutions, said it best: without the final push by proponents, “the ‘movement’ doesn’t move.” [2]

So, if you are looking to change the world, you can begin by protesting ineffective protests. And don’t be a hypocrite; protest effectively. Carefully consider your actions and remain organized and dedicated to your core cause.