Social and political change: The 50+1% fallacy

Tom Liacas —  February 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

How many times have I heard clients dismiss social movements building against them as a mere minority of the population? Answer: The same number of times that these clients were later dumbfounded that this minority had managed to shut down their projects or seriously damage their reputation.

In public affairs and public relations, there is an inordinate amount of trust accorded to polling data. Perhaps this is because most people working in these fields have done time in politics as well. Here, support for an industry or given policy is viewed in the same way as traditional political party affiliations. Sure, there is always some shift in loyalties – a few percentage points here and there – but the basic proportions remain stable over time. The rise of new social movements, especially those supercharged by the speed and amplification that social networks, makes mincemeat of such wisdom.

Erica Chenoweth, a global expert on civil resistance, has looked at social movements organizing against oppressive regimes from 1900 to 2006. By analyzing the numbers, Chenoweth has updated the bottom participation threshold required for the successful overthrow of governments. Can you guess what this number is? It’s not 50+1% of the population, nor is it 20% or 5%, as previously thought.

Astoundingly, it takes “the active and sustained participation” of only 3.5% of any country’s citizenry to pull off a revolution!

Now, consider how much easier it is to get 3.5% of the population behind a protest movement in the age of social networks. Petition sites such as Change.org, which routinely mobilize opposition to corporate and political agendas, now count over 100 million members. In most places on this planet, that’s more than enough to turn things upside down.

These days, when the right cause comes along, when various interest groups are strongly motivated to fight a shared enemy or perceived injustice, social movements sweep from fringe to change-maker status in a matter of months. Around the world, this has led to dramatic turnarounds on large industrial projects and regulatory policies.

The Keystone XL pipeline, meant to transport Canadian oil sands bitumen through the U.S. to foreign markets, is probably the best example here. In a detailed analysis of how U.S. government attitudes around the pipeline have gone from general support, to hesitation and then to veto, Richard Levick attributes agency to social movements and their savvy use of social media. Though Keystone XL benefitted from the support of 73% of the U.S. population in early polls, a minority group of activists were able to amplify their voices to the extent that they ended up shifting the political climate against the project. All this despite the tens of millions spent by the industry in lobbying and communications.

All of this begs the question. Are governments and corporations now simply at the mercy of such movements? Not necessarily. In fact, while a dedicated and vocal minority may be a considerable headache for the targets of mobilization, they also represent a force that can be partnered with.

Progressive political groups have long tried to hitch themselves up to cause-based constituencies, especially when their issues start to gain traction. Recently, businesses have also started to align themselves explicitly with edgier movements, notably around the fight to slow climate change. The We Mean Business Coalition, whose members include Unilever, Nike and Ikea, have committed to bold carbon reduction initiatives and are calling on governments to implement measures that will accelerate the shift to a low-carbon economy.

Below, Erica Chenoweth’s talk at TED-X Boulder:

Tom Liacas

Tom Liacas

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An M.A. graduate in Media Studies, Tom Liacas is an experienced Social Network Strategist who first cut his teeth creating and managing advocacy campaigns as an activist.