For those who study and teach about social movements and collective action, the last year has provided us with numerous cases. From OWS, environmental activism, the Arab Spring, and the Tea Party, we have compared and contrasted these cases, often seeking to find common themes across these, using existing theoretical frameworks to shed light on contemporary cases, or alternatively, use what’s going on out there as a way to reevaluate existing theories of social movements and collective action.
One important and emerging theme is the way in which people – from the public, to the media, to political elites – react to social movements. Scholars have shown how positive and negative reactions, especially by elites, have important consequences for subsequent mobilization. Of course, elite responses to protesters vary; by no means is government surveillance (as is the case with environmental groups in Canada) equivalent to the brutality faced by activists and bystanders in Syria. Yet, there is a common theme when it comes to elite framing of challenges as illegitimate and depicting challengers as radicals and terrorists.
Back in December 2011, I posted about how media and elite framing of the Occupy Seattle (OS) movement unfavorably shifted the discourse surrounding that movement (Elites, Media and Framing in the Occupy Seattle Movement). In November of that year, the media, when covering OS, almost exclusively focused on sanitation, drugs and alcohol, homelessness and youth homelessness, crime and sexual assault. At the same time, there was a series of stories with headlines like “Community College wants Occupy Seattle to leave.” Eventually, school officials evicted activists from the campus while Occupiers sought to improve their image on campus through teaching and workshops.
In Canada, the Conservative government has depicted environmentalists and anti-pipeline activists as “radical.” On February 16th, the Globe and Mail (Security services deem environmental, animal-rights groups ‘extremist’ threats) reported that recent RCMP and CSIS documents obtained under Access to information characterize environmental and animal rights groups, as well as some First Nations people, as “militant.” Some have accused the Harper government of using this as a way to portray activists as radical extremists. In that article, McCarthy writes that critics “worry that new legislation designed to give police access to individual Canadians’ personal Internet information will increase surveillance of environmental groups that support acts of civil disobedience.” Jeff Monaghan, a Queen’s University sociologist, was quoted in the article as saying that “With a lot of the government’s rhetoric around Gateway [a.k.a. the pipeline] and the government’s frequent use of ‘radicalism’ and ‘extremism’ to characterize opposition, these kinds of [counterterrorist] categories are used to justify a surveillance campaign.” These reports make mention of PETA and Greenpeace and in a subtle way, link these to broader terrorist groups and “anti-capitalists.”
Earlier this year, I wrote about (Blogging, politics and social change, Jan 15) how the Harper government referred to environmental groups as “radical,” claiming that outsider support, particularly US financial backing, served to “undermine Canada’s national economic interests.” As I mention in my post, it was an independent blogger who was at the center of this controversy about how U.S. money is helping finance Canadian environmental activism. Thus, not only have reactions to mobilization involved radicalizing challengers, but they have also framed these challenges as foreign and non-indigenous.
Perhaps framing is a process more easily understood in democratic states where political elites are accountable to the public and fear electoral retribution, and thus, have to package information such as to make a position appealing (or at least more palatable). But we see a similar “frame via blame and vilification/illegitimacy” in non-democratic regimes, such as Syria, where the regime continues to use outright violence to suppress challengers. Joe Parkinson of the Wall Street Journal (Turkey Seeks Group on Syria, As Homs Shelling Draws On Feb 9) writes that “The regime blamed terrorist gangs and criminals for the violence in Homs.” They have also sought to frame challenges as outside driven. For instance, Jillian C. York for the Atlantic writes that: “The opposition and pro-regime forces alike took a stance that Syria is for Syrians, and Syrian matters for Syrian discussion. Yet, slowly but surely, as the death toll rose higher and higher, the Syrian opposition (or should I say ‘oppositions’) has turned to outside help, leaving them vulnerable to a slew of accusations from the regime and its supporters, as well as the “anti-imperialist” crowd, that has joined the clarion call to delegitimize the opposition.” According to a March 4th post on the CNN International Desk, “the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, continues to blame outside instigators for the unrest. He promises to defeat “terrorists” with an “iron fist”, while promising reforms critics say are toothless and cosmetic…When I reported from Syria last July, the government prevented us from traveling to the hotspot city of Homs because, they argued, they couldn’t keep us safe from “terrorists” and “armed gangs”… It has been the Assad government’s narrative from the beginning.”
These cases raise questions about the function, quality, and consequences of the ways in which elites frame challenges/ers in both democratic and totalitarian regimes. Do these frames have any value, or are these just mere prepared responses for the media? Is treating challenges as outside driven and challenging groups as radical, militant, terrorist, and extreme meant to sway public opinion? Do these frames help justify repression? And, is it important that challengers overcome these negative frames and how might they do so?