Threat and Mobilization: Contention in Spatial and Political Context

By Stuart A. Wright & Jared M. Wright

This blog contribution is split between father and son sociologists, Stuart A. Wright and Jared M. Wright, who share research interests in social movements.

Stuart Wright. In their seminal work refining the contentious politics model seventeen years ago, McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly (2001: 43) observed that the attention given to threat as a stimulus to collective action had remained “an underemphasized corollary of the model.” In my research on the Patriot movement leading up to the Oklahoma City bombing (Wright, 2007), I argued that this tendency could be due to the dearth of studies focusing on far-right movements which have invariably postulated a threat by liberal-left state and non-state actors. The Patriot movement and various elements of racial nationalism have come to see state sponsorship of civil rights, cultural pluralism, and social and economic justice as a problem rooted in the power of the federal government, paving the way for increasing antigovernment sentiments. As such, I found the mobilizing potential of threat to be a more significant force in the trajectory of contention that produced violent, anti-government violence.

I think the salience of threat certainly held true through the years of the Obama administration. With the election of the first black President, the number of antigovernment Patriot groups increased from less than 200 to over 1300 by 2012, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Gun production doubled and gun sales soared. Erich Pratt, spokesman for Gun Owners of America, summarized this putative threat to gun owners in 2015 stating, “People have been rushing to buy firearms because they are afraid that Obama will take away their Second Amendment rights” (Devaney, 2015). The conspiracy theories and fear-mongering surrounding the Obama administration among far-right actors has been well documented.

With the election of Donald Trump in 2016, we witnessed the occupation of the White House by an administration friendly to white nationalists and far-right causes. Candidate Trump built a campaign around the threat attribution of immigration, calling undocumented immigrants from Mexico “rapists” and ‘murderers,” and promising to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the U.S. –Mexico border. Trump also heralded the threat of Muslim immigrants, linking terrorism to Islam in sweeping generalizations, and once in office, sought a ban on immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries. President Trump has taken to calling the free press the “enemy of the people” in an effort blunt criticism of his administration and policies. Finally, the investigation by the Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has been repeatedly condemned by Trump as a “hoax” and “witch hunt,” as he has attempted to mobilize his base around the alleged threat of conspiracy by a “deep state” embedded principally in the Department of Justice.

The marshaling of threat to mobilize far-right groups has taken different paths in recent decades. But the power of threat attribution has been central to this mobilization and should be a focus for social movement scholars going forward.

Jared Wright. As my dad’s work shows, threat can be particularly important for mobilization among right-wing movements, or as my advisor Rachel L. Einwohner argues, under conditions of extreme oppression. I argue that another area in need of study is the mobilizing potency of threat in relation to digital space. The idea that spacial contexts can shape the dynamics of contention in important ways has been theoretically established by scholars like Lefebvre (1974) and Tilly (2000). More recently, some scholars have begun to explore the digital realm as its own type of space (e.g. Calhoun 2007; Castells 2015; Lim 2014, 2015; Lindgren 2013). So, if opportunity and threat both refer to changes in a movement’s environment which can increase the likelihood of mobilization, then how might online activists perceive and interpret such changes present in their digital environment?

There is still debate over whether opportunity or threat is a stronger mobilizing factor and under what conditions. Opportunities are typically conceptualized as openings which can reduce the cost of collective action, while threat is a force which increases the cost of inaction. However, in Earl and Kimport’s study of what they call the new “digital repertoire of contention” (2011), they assert that the affordances of Internet technology can provide new ways of reducing the cost of collective action. Therefore, it would be logical to argue that the more effectively activists are able to leverage such affordances, the more that the cost, or at least the perceived cost, of collective action will decline, possibly becoming so low that opportunities can actually lose their salience as a mobilizing factor. After all, an opening that lowers the cost of collective action may not be seen as especially helpful when the cost is already understood to be very low. Ipso facto, the more activists utilize online affordances, the more heavily they perceive and frame threats in their mobilizations.

In my most recent research, I examined an archive of four years of texts (newsletters and press statements) from two digital activist groups, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and AnonOps (a subgroup of Anonymous), from 2009 to 2012. These digital activists (and “hacktivists”) are well-suited cases because they arguably represent those most adept at leveraging technological affordances to their advantage.

I find that indeed frames of threat appear with far greater frequency than opportunity in the documents, especially for the more radical AnonOps. In fact, for AnonOps which engages primarily in online hacktivism, frames of opportunity are almost non-existent. The small proportion of opportunity frames which do appear only speak to broad, stable opportunities; no volatile opportunities directly impacting Anonymous activists are mentioned at all. It would certainly appear that opportunities can become less salient, and threat more so, for activists in digital space.

Digital technology continues to spread and pervade every aspect of our lives, from our daily routines to our national elections. As our social and political worlds becomes increasingly digitized, the more activism will move into digital space. It is likely, then, that just as the digital tools and tactics of protest diffuse to other movements, so too will these shifting perceptions of threat.


Calhoun, Craig. 2007. “Community without Propinquity Revisited: Communications Technology and the Transformation of the Urban Public Sphere.” Sociological Inquiry 68(3): 373-397.

Castells, Manuel. 2015. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Digital Age, 2nd edition. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Devany, Tim. 2015. “Gun production has doubled under Obama.” The Hill. Accessed online at

Earl, Jennifer and Katrina Kimport. 2011. Digitally Enabled Social Change: Activism in The Internet Age. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1974. The Production of Space. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Lim, Merlyna. 2014. “Seeing spatially: people, networks and movements in digital and urban spaces.” International Development Planning Review 36(1): 51-72.

Lim, Merlyna. 2015. “A CyberUrban Space Odyssey: The Spatiality of Contemporary Social Movements.” New Geographies 07: 117-123.

Lindgren, Simon. 2013. New Noise: A Cultural Sociology of Digital Disruption. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

McAdam, Doug, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly. 2001. Dynamics of Contention. New York: Cambridge.

Tilly, Charles. 2000 “Spaces of Contention.” Mobilization 5(2): 135-159.

Wright, Stuart A. 2007. Patriots, Politics and the Oklahoma City Bombing. New York: Cambridge.

1 Comment

Filed under Threat and Mobilization

One response to “Threat and Mobilization: Contention in Spatial and Political Context

  1. Reblogged this on Wright's Blog and commented:
    Our new essay, co-written with my father Stuart A. Wright, is now live on the Mobilizing Ideas blog hosted by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for the Study of Social Movements.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s