Weapons of Mass Disruption: How Anti-Trump Protests Are Using Social Media to Change Policy

Celine Caira

The U.S. President Donald Trump’s election and subsequent storm of executive orders provoked numerous protests around the globe. Most notably, the Women’s March on Washington garnered participation from an estimated 2.5 million people in more than 670 protests worldwide, from Capetown to Tokyo, in solidarity against the freshly inaugurated President’s agenda. Protests also erupted at U.S. airports and embassies around the world in response to Trump’s executive order banning refugees and individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. The Bodegas, Mar-a-Lago, and London protests add to this list, with more movements scheduled in the upcoming months, such as the Tax Day March and the March for Science.

march-in-chicago

Women’s March in Chicago

By these accounts, activism is alive and well. However, once the cardboard signs get put away and the street barriers come down, protests risk becoming little more than yesterday’s news and a collective pat on the back. The dominant tactic used by civil rights and activist movements in the late 20th century appears to have lost its punch, viewed by policymakers and politicians more as a “ritualized performance” rather than a meaningful cry for change. Some activists believe that successful modern movements are those that transform into political parties, such as Italy’s Five Star Movement. However, it is difficult to disentangle whether these movements are truly responsible for political change, or whether they are symptomatic of existing underlying shifts in policy preferences already in motion. What is undeniable is that access to technology and social media, coupled with growing national income inequality, has dramatically transformed the context in which protest takes place, and its power to impact policy decisions.

Several examples from history and current affairs stand as evidence that the most successful protest movements are those that leverage social media to take an economically disruptive approach to affecting change.

So, what makes protest successful in today’s day and age? Is protest broken? Co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Micah White, seems to think so. He argues that the traditional disruptive tactics used in protest movements have failed, and that activism must embrace social media and innovation or risk becoming irrelevant. However, White’s “New Unified Theory of Revolution” underemphasizes the fact that today, money speaks louder than microphones. Several examples from history and current affairs stand as evidence that the most successful protest movements are those that leverage social media to take an economically disruptive approach to affecting change.

The 1975 Icelandic Women’s Strike shows how potent an economically disruptive approach can be, even in the absence of social media. On October 24th 1975, the Icelandic economy was driven to a halt due to over 90 per cent of their female population refusing to do both their paid and unpaid work. On that day, everything came to a standstill – no newspapers were printed, there was no telephone service, and numerous flights were cancelled. The collective refusal of Icelandic women to participate in the economy sent a stark message to men who remember that day as “the long Friday.” A year later, the Women’s Strike achieved its goal: Iceland’s parliament ratified legislation that guaranteed equal rights between men and women. This also prompted the election of Vigdís Finnbogadóttir in 1980, a single mother and the first democratically elected women in the world. By unilaterally putting their national economy on hold, Icelandic women were able to make their economic power known, providing them leverage to establish equal rights legislation.

Francine Prose recently argued that Americans should “forget protest” in response to Trump, and instead stage a nonviolent national general strike where nobody goes to work, shops, or spends money.

In the same vein, Francine Prose recently argued that Americans should “forget protest” in response to Trump, and instead stage a nonviolent national general strike where nobody goes to work, shops, or spends money. She argued that political movements “rarely succeed without causing discomfort and inconvenience” and that an economically disruptive approach can trigger these necessary conditions. In the first two weeks of February alone, several examples of movements that have used social media to facilitate significant economic disruptions are snowballing into what could culminate in significant discomfort and inconvenience for the Trump Administration and those who associate themselves with it.

In February 2017, fashion retailer Nordstrom dropped a clothing line designed by the U.S. President’s daughter and close political advisor, Ivanka Trump, after the hashtag #grabyourwallet prompted a significant number of people to stop purchasing her brand. Interior décor store Bellacor as well as Shoes.com have also since dropped her line, and Hudson’s Bay and Macy’s are being pressured to follow suit, both via social media and declining consumer profits. In the same week, Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, stepped down from Trump’s Economic Advisory Council after the hashtag #DeleteUber led to more than 200,000 users deleting the app in response to Uber turning off surge pricing for trips to JFK Airport amid protests of Trump’s “ban on Muslims.” This led Uber’s primary competitor, Lyft, to top Uber in Apple downloads during the protest campaign. Further, last week over 935 companies including BMW, Lufthansa, and Visa, pulled away from providing Breitbart with their advertising revenues – an ultra-conservative news and opinion website created by Trump’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.

Although it is difficult to quantify the precise impact of these events, what’s certain is that they have succeeded in grabbing the attention of those in the political cockpit, which in some cases has resulted in swift policy changes. The use of social media to affect policy and politics has never been so ubiquitous, empowering consumers to instantaneously organize widespread economic disruption. If activists forge ahead using social media in pursuit of an economically disruptive approach, these new weapons of protest may usher in an era where politicians and corporations are forced to change policy in response to what citizens and stakeholders want.

Celine Caira is a Masters Candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. Celine holds a Bachelor’s degree in Honours Political Science, Minor Economics and French Language and Literature from McGill University. Celine is also a Senior Producer for the current affairs radio program Beyond the Headlines 89.5FM. Her academic and career oriented interests include European affairs, intergovernmental relations, social enterprise and venture capital, and housing and transit infrastructure policy.

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