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Editor’s note

Dr. Lukas Hensel and his co-authors conducted two sets of fieldwork to investigate how turn-out at movements and counter-movements affect a potential protester’s decision to show up at a protest. They make three key contributions. First, they study interactions both within and across political movements. They find that turn-out at acticvists’ own movement is more influential than turnout at the opposing movement. Second, theystudy differences in how turnout affects protest intentions across right-wing movements and left-wing counter-movements, which have heretofore gone unnoticed. They find that protesters on the left and on right react in opposite wayt to learning that the turn-out at their own movement is relatively high. While it leads to more people participating on the left, right-wing supporters decrease their willingness to participate. Finally, they hypothesize that the observed heterogeneity in dynamics across the political left and right can be explained by differences in social motives across movements. That is how much individuals’ care about the perceptions by or enjoy the company of others.

 BACKGROUND AND THEORIES

Dr. Hensel and his co-authors observed that currently, little research has been done to address and explain how movement–countermovement dynamics affect movement participation. This is especially prominent when it comes to evidence on individual-level participation in movement protests. They proposed three different potential causal channels that link protest intention to predicted turnout in a potential activist’s own protest and in the opposing protest. The theoretical background used in this study can be categorized into micro-, meso-, and macro- levels.

First, Dr. Hensel and his co-authors develop a theoretical framework for when there is a high turnout in own protest. At the micro-level, whether growing turnout in one’s own movement acts to foster or hinder willingness to participate in the protest depends crucially on the presence of social motives. This has a larger impact among individuals who are more committed to the movement. At the meso-level, cultural expression can help foster a collective identity within a movement. Yet, the impact of growing turnout in a potential activist’s own protest on her enjoyment value depends on the context under which the protest occurs. At the macro-level, increase in turnout allows for more media coverage. This means protesters will be faced with either more praise or scorn from the society. Their willingness to participate depends on the degree to which society approves or disapproves of a movement, giving rise to immaterial benefits of participation.

For the case when there is a high turnout in the counterprotest, perceived self-efficacy level is a potential determining factor for a protester’s intentions at the micro-level. At the meso-level, it is group level competitions. At the macro-level, the explanation is similar to that of the scenario where there is a high turnout at own group protest.

RESEARCH DESIGN

The study takes place in the context of two protests organized by the “Alternative für Deutschland”(“Alternative for Germany,”AfD). This party falls on the far-right end of the political spectrum. AfD organizes protests the German government. Over 50% of Germans perceive the AfD as a threat to democracy. Therefore, these protests typically attract counterprotests by left-wing parties and organizations which seek to defend multiculturalism. The cases studied in this paper are the protest and counterprotest in Berlin on May 27, 2018, and in Erfurt on May 1, 2019. In Berlin, AfD’s protest“Germany’s Future” attracted around 5,000 people. The counterprotest“Stop Hatred” had approximately25,000 people attending. The latter mentioned AfD protest in Erfurt saw about 1,000 AfD supporters turning out. They were opposed by about 4,000 activists in the counterprotest.

To implement the interventions needed for this study, Dr. Hensel and his team implemented a field experiment among 1,464 left- and right-wing potential activists ahead of these two political protests and counterprotests in Germany. They devised a targeted recruitment strategy using online ads distributed via Facebook for the recruitment of potential activists for experimental intervention. Potential activists were randomly exposed to low or high official estimates about their own and the opposing protests’size. Subsequently, they elicited respondents’post-treatment beliefs about turnout at the right-wing protest as well as the turnout at the left-wing counterprotest. Next, the team collected data for a categorical measure of respondents’willingness to take part in their respective protests. This was measured on a four-point scale, ranging from certain non-participation to certain participation.

RESEARCH FINDINGS AND ANALYSIS

With regards to potential protesters’ own movement’s turnout and their protest intentions, the following observations were made. For right-leaning protesters, it was found that as expected turnout for their own protest increases, they are less likely to protest. The contrary is true for those on the political left. This means that, on the left, the supporter’s own engagement and that of their peers are strategically complementary.

Dr. Hensel and his co-authors linked these results back to the theoretical framework to explain this phenomenon.

On the micro-level, supporters of the left-wing movement comparatively knew more people who had previously participated in the protest than those on the right. They also are more likely to have had participated in similar protests before. This is in line with the understanding that experienced protesters are more likely to be affected by treatment effects. All these factors help explain why, with a higher prediction in turnout for own protest, left leaning protesters are more likely to offset free-riding incentives on the basis of social motives.

On the meso-level, left-wing protests generally provide greater enjoyment value to their followers. Moreover, this qualitative value is likely to increase as protests become larger.

On the macro-level, left-wing counterprotests enjoyed more support from the general population. Notably, Germany’s right-wing protests challenges the current status-quo. Since rising turnout translates into increased media and social attention, left-wing protests can expect to receive more praise with increased group size while for the right-wing protests-- scorn.

In contrast, the estimated turnouts of the opposing protests do not seem to affect the decisions to protest for both right and left leaning protesters. There is no political heterogeneity in this finding. Put simply, opponent turnout does not seem to play a part in protest intentions regardless of political alignment. As such, the focus of discussion by Dr Hensel and his co-authors is on the effect of activists’ownprotest size.

To conclude, Dr. Hensel and his co-authors’ findings indicate that the size of the opposing protest has no effect on protest intentions. However, when information indicated that the own protest was large, right leaning potential activists became less likely whereas left-leaning potential activists became more likely to protest. To explain this heterogeneity the authors suggest that social motives differ across the political left and right.

APPLICATION

Dr. Hensel and his co-authors are cautiously optimistic regarding the generalizability of the findings. Similar evidence across both typical and atypical cases were observed. In terms of size of protests in Germany, since the 1950s, right-wing protests have consistently been smaller than left-wing counterprotests. Erfurt is typical in that it shows moderate turnout on both sides. Berlin, on the other hand, constitutes a large turnout on the right, which is unusual. Despite the differences, similar findings are observed for both cases.

Next, the locations of the protests in chosen studies are also not unusual in a broader European context considering how 28% of protests in five large western European Democracies take place in the nations’capital and 32% take place in university cities other than the capital. Thus, cities like Berlin and Erfurt account for about 60% of protest locations in these countries. In addition, the team also characterized to what extent these scope conditions are likely to hold across right and left leaning protests in Germany more broadly.

Finally, the team pointed out scope conditions and characterized to what extent these scope conditions are likely to hold across right and left leaning protests in Germany more broadly.

   

About the author:

Dr. Lukas Hensel is a postdoctoral researcher of the Department of Applied Economics, Guanghua School of Management, Peking University. He received his PhD from Oxford University. His research interests include development economics, political economy, and behavioral economics. He has published in leading international journals, such asThe Review of Economics and Statistics,Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization,and theAmerican Political Science Review.