The Rise of a Worldwide Culture of Protest

By Oana Popa Rengle, Founder, Anamnesis, Bucharest, Romania, oana@anamnesis.ro

People have always protested; the term has a perilously wide definition. It doesn’t always include civil disobedience. When people vote in unexpected ways, or refuse to buy a product, or petition online, none of these break any laws or smash any windows.

One could argue that in the past decade, due to the prevalence of smartphones and the rise of social media, protest simply became more visible, more widely and carefully documented or reported, so there is an impression of a rise. However, available data show an actual recent intensification in protests. Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, a professor who studies social change and conflict at Vrije University in Amsterdam, recently reported in The Guardian that the number of protests is increasing, is as high as the turbulent 1960s, and has been since about 2009.

The aim of this article is not to describe the “global” protest. It is nearly impossible to gather a comprehensive set of statistical data that will quantify the rise in protests, mainly because of the varying definition of what constitutes a protest. However, we can learn much about the people and the times we are living in by looking at the phenomenon through a qualitative lens. I have reached out to several qualitative researchers and trend and cultural experts in countries that have seen protests in the past several years (but, really, that could have been anywhere in the world). I wanted to learn what they saw, how they interpreted what was happening, and what the protest phenomenon revealed to them about the people at the core of our profession. As expected, they offered interesting and nuanced perspectives and great starting points for reflection.

From Fighting for Survival to Looking for Meaning

Around the world, the overarching themes of the issues and concerns that spark protests are socioeconomic, political, territorial, and religious. However, if we superimpose this generic framework onto the specific causes of protests in different countries or parts of the world, it provides an interesting read on the differences.

There are places in the world where people’s very sense of survival is being threatened by war, crime, or poverty. Juan Pablo Zapata, foresight and strategic researcher, identifies Mexico’s most relevant protests as being “the social ones, not related to a political issue, but those on issues such as the increase of feminicides in Mexico.” These are protests led by women, ignited by acts of aggression in public transport and Uber, at universities, or carried out by the police themselves, demanding that the government take actions to improve the situation for women. The socioeconomic protests, such as those ignited by poverty or social inequality (including the decline of living conditions or austerity cuts), fall close to a sense of survival being threatened.

David Hopper, strategy director at H2 Partners, Ltd., U.K., provides an interesting perspective on what else may be at play as we pan out from war, crime, and poverty. He identifies six tension elements that can be summarised as the affluent West sensing a loss of meaning, direction, hope, and reward in a way that is different than the themes of past protests: disappointment with capitalism, failure and fragmentation of the political institutions, a thwarted sense of entitlement of the younger generation, the fading role of religion, identity politics, and climate change.

A Growing Divide

Modern protest is set against the backdrop of an increasing divide in normative notions within society. The changing understanding of how things should be, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong is rapidly dividing modern society. Having their normative notions threatened, people are more likely to actively participate in the political decision‐making process, which may turn to civil unrest on the street.

In many places in the world, this polarization is manifesting as a class-driven conflict. Looking at the affluent West, David Hopper sees manufacturing working-class citizens (who tend to believe in nationhood, conservatism, and local values) set against the middle-class, the elites, and intelligentsia (who tend to believe in the absence of boundary, global homogenisation, and neo-liberalism).

The situation is not very different in the developing countries. Across the ocean, Rodrigo dos Reis, founder of Zeitgeist, Brazil, also describes a conservative/progressive split in the Brazilian society, less connected with age or education, and more connected with the geographically-distributed wealth (south, southeast and midwest, the richer states, lean conservative, with a lot of young conservatives; north and northeast lean progressive). “Conservatives are getting future shocked,” Rodrigo says, “by rapidly eroding traditional social norms and roles, and increasing secularity, the rejection of religious norms. Brazil is mostly a Christian country, and Evangelicals (mostly conservative, some very conservative) have been on the rise for the last two decades, both in numbers and in political influence, but there’s also a rising number of people who identify as agnostic/atheists. On the other hand, progressives expect full compliance with new norms as the focus of the discourse is being shifted from inequality and poverty to identity politics, which resonate less with the general public.”

Hasn’t it always been like this? Hasn’t progress brought the need to deal with change in every era of humanity, and even more so in the past few centuries? Hasn’t there been a left/right divide ever since the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left? So, what justifies this worldwide spike now?

Let’s Take the Most Obvious Answer and Break It Down: The Internet

Every revolution in the history of humanity brought dramatic change. Both the agricultural and industrial revolutions changed the world, and now the digital revolution is changing the world from its foundations once again. Serdar Paktin, sensemaker at pakt and lecturer at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, points out how the internet gives people agency in many aspects of their day-to-day lives. “People want to be part of the decision-making process as digital/online tools gave them this possibility. They are already influencing, channeling, and changing how businesses, brands, and companies make their decisions—they expect the same thing from governments. People today demand participation in decision-making, as well as being part of the conversation as active participants.”

The ubiquity of social media to the modern protest phenomenon cannot escape us. From Sudan, to the Arab Spring, to Turkey, Brazil, Romania, or to the U.K. and U.S., social media is obviously changing the landscape of protest and activism, as a tool to communicate, organize, mobilize, and activate. However, it is more than just that.

Social media is also playing a crucial role in deepening the normative divide. According to Rodrigo dos Reis, “Preaching to the choir and filter bubbles severely potentialize confirmation bias, polarize, undermine critical thinking, and create generalized animosity toward perceived opposers or those who do not fully abide to implicit group norms (i.e. pro-abortion Evangelicals or pro-gun progressives in Brazil). Public digital lynching and ‘cancel culture’ are expressions of this type of peer pressure.”

Juan Pablo Zapata argues that this polarized conversation is mostly happening on social media, but it is not so visible (yet?) on the streets of Mexico—which points even more to the role of social media in deepening the divide and the gestation of major protest and civil conflict.

Division in Ignition, Bonding in Execution

A real-life protest provides a sense of belonging; it unites, and thanks to social media, it’s also becoming somewhat of a happening that people don’t want to miss. Pernille Kok-Jensen, director cultural insights, Fitzroy Communications, in the Netherlands reports her own case of FOMO (fear of missing out) when she did not show up to march for climate change. “Social media showed me that I had missed out on a social gathering and the bonding effect that it has by taking a stand for something together with others. It’s something society is lacking, and it’s a huge driver for many, be it conscious moms of the pragmatic generation or Gen Z.”

Humor and “Mocktivism” (Activism through Sarcasm)

I noticed it during the large Romanian protests in 2017: incredible creativity of the slogans and signs, with abundant humor and sarcasm. Widely covered in social media during the days of the protest, this creativity was also later documented in a museum gallery and physical art album.

Image: QRCA-VIEWS-Image-Protest2-2020-Summer.jpg

Serdar Paktin also identifies humor and sarcasm as a characteristic of the protests in Turkey. In the aftermath of the police implementing excessive power to stop and disperse Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013, he decodes these creative ways of expression as a subversive manner to express civil disobedience. “Humor and sarcasm are the new types of tools that physical weapons, such as police batons and shields, cannot fight against.”

Subversive use of humor against the political order is not new—Eastern Europeans have been using it as the only weapon against the establishment in decades of restricted freedom of speech during communist regimes. Today, in the age of social media, comedy is a sure way to grab attention in people’s newsfeeds.  But “collective” humor also plays a role that exceeds the obvious purpose of the protest itself. On one hand it is a manner in which to address issues in a more lighthearted way, to build hope, and to not let the seriousness of a grievance get one down—with stronger effects if done collectively. On the other hand, “laughing together” is a form of bonding, and it speaks to the bond-forming role of modern protests mentioned earlier.

I can identify a whole pattern of recreational activism: non-violent, almost fluid movements, protest humor, protest music, creative DIY banners, costumes, “Instagram-able” moments (for example, 250,000 people lighting up their phone flashlights for the perfect aerial picture in Bucharest protests, 2017), carnivalesque rituals (such as pilgrimage to the symbolic center of the grievances, like the Hamburg G20 Summit protest in June 2017), or that feeling of “a happening one shouldn’t miss.” I cannot help but wonder whether there is a correlation between this and what David Hopper identifies as “the rise of the middle-class and affluent civil disobedience.” He notices how, in both Brexit and President Trump’s victory, the losing sides that have taken to the streets to reject the results tended to be metropolitan middle-class, otherwise not known for their willingness for on-street protest.

However, it isn’t just the middle-class and the elites that might change the face of protests; it is also the generational shift that brings a different vibe.

Who Are the New Voices Being Heard in Worldwide Protest Culture?

Pernille Kok-Jensen cites research conducted by Fitzroy in the Netherlands among 1,000 digital natives, ages 18-25. When asked if they were prepared to protest in the streets, 30 percent of Gen Z said yes (compared to 21 percent of Millennials). Even though this is still an undercurrent, it is certainly a growing trend to watch.

Pernille notes that for Gen Z, standing for something is a means to obtain status. “Bear in mind,” she says, “that most causes have their personal heroes, sometimes in the form of a micro-influencer, sometimes someone with global celebrity status. If I say climate change, you say Greta Thunberg. If I say gun control, you say Emma González. If I say LGBTQ+ rights, you say Desmond Napoles. In our research we also found that members of Gen Z appreciate superstar celebrities who stand for something. For example, Emma Watson is loved for her work with the United Nations and Beyoncé for her fierce take on feminism, transcending age, borders, and causes.”

According to Pernille, the activist undercurrent has already affected the mainstream. One concrete example that things are changing is the “VSCO Girl” trend (named after a photo editing app). VSCO girls are the latest subculture to arise from apps such as TikTok and Instagram, with environmental advocacy a common trait found in those who identify with the term. The point: It is cool to be environmentally friendly. Additionally, re-commerce is taking over and becoming a new status symbol. People love to tell how they’ve rented, gone vintage, or repurposed stuff rather than just purchased it online. Thanks to LGBTQ+ activists, several mainstream fashion chains now have gender neutral collections, and slowly but surely, companies are closing the wage gap. Unisex has already gone mainstream.


The recent global protest culture is not entirely modern, but it reflects the eclecticism, digital transformation, and increased polarization of the world we live in.

In turn, global protest is changing the world that gave birth to it. It pushes new social and political themes with a bigger bang than earlier protests in history. Even with smaller numbers of people actively involved, protest amplification tactics based largely on social media can break a theme into the mainstream faster and more effectively than ever before. Furthermore, there’s more at the individual level—there’s protesting to console oneself, look for hope, or express loss of meaning. There’s protesting as bonding and finding your tribe, and protesting in search of status. From rage and fear to hope and personal growth, the modern protest is a mirror of our humanity.

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