How can we study protest activity and the motivation behind it? To investigate the role of ideology in protest participation, we analyzed almost 700,000 tweets during and around Occupy Wall Street and found that the social identity of the protestors was usually balanced with their perceived efficacy of collective action, concern for justice, and negative emotions around the issue.
Langer, M., John T. Jost, Richard Bonneau, Megan M. Metzger, Sharareh Noorbaloochi, and Duncan Penfold-Brown. “Digital dissent: An analysis of the motivational contents of tweets from an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.” Motivation Science, 5, no. 1 (2019): 14–34. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000084
Feb 27, 2019
Area of Study
Social scientific models of protest activity emphasize instrumental motives associated with rational self-interest and beliefs about group efficacy and symbolic motives associated with social identification and anger at perceived injustice. Ideological processes are typically neglected, despite the fact that protest movements occur in a sociopolitical context in which some people are motivated to maintain the status quo, whereas others are motivated to challenge it. To investigate the role of ideology and other social psychological processes in protest participation, we used manual and machine-learning methods to analyze the contents of 23,810 tweets sent on the day of the May Day 2012 Occupy Wall Street demonstration along with an additional 664,937 tweets (sent by 8,244 unique users) during the 2-week lead-up to the demonstration. Results revealed that social identification and liberal ideology were significant independent predictors of protest participation. The effect of social identification was mediated by the expression of collective efficacy, justice concerns, ideological themes, and positive emotion. The effect of liberalism was mediated by the expression of ideological themes, but conservatives were more likely to express ideological backlash against Occupy Wall Street than liberals were to express ideological support for the movement or demonstration. The expression of self-interest and anger was either negatively related or unrelated to protest participation. This work illustrates the promise (and challenge) of using automated methods to analyze new, ecologically valid data sources for studying protest activity and its motivational underpinnings — thereby informing strategic campaigns that employ collective action tactics.
Past social science models of protest activity emphasize that people join protests for practical motivations, like rational self-interest and beliefs about group efficacy; symbolic motivations of joining a group; and frustration at perceived injustices. These models typically leave out the ideological motivations behind joining a protest, even though protest movements occur in a social and political context. While some people are motivated to maintain the status quo, others are motivated to challenge it.
To investigate the role of ideology in protest participation, we analyze the contents of 23,810 tweets sent during the Occupy Wall Street demonstration of 2012, along with 664,937 tweets sent in the 2-week lead-up to the demonstration. The analysis reveals that social identification and liberal ideology are major predictors of participation in the May Day demonstration organized by the Occupy Wall Street movement. In most cases, the social identity of the protesters was balanced with their opinions of the effectiveness of collective action; concerns for justice; and negative emotions relating to the issue. This finding highlights the importance of beliefs about the legitimacy (or illegitimacy) of the social system — variables that are often overlooked in social psychological models of collective action.
Overall, this work illustrates both the promise and challenge of using automated methods to analyze new data sources for studying protest activity and the motivation behind it.