For decades, scholars in social movements have been struggling to know why and how movements mobilize. Their earlier works have been useful in informing us about the importance of social problems and how and what type of “collective behavior” and calculated “collective action” would emerge to address them. Subsequent scholars have also looked at the relevance of “resources,” “opportunities” to intervene, and the existing “political processes” for the emergence, changes, and decline of movements. Later on, a new breed of theorists offered claims and theories that focus on the role of “identities,” schema of ideas or “framings” and their alignments, “emotions,” among other things, in understanding contemporary social movements.
In terms of demobilizing movements, many social scientists have already informed us of how “state repression,” patronage politics, and “resource curse,” to name a few, tend to counter the growth and expansion of movements through sheer physical violence, unequal political access, control of resources, etc. These works were valuable in telling us of how contemporary movements struggle to survive or remain relevant especially in facing a powerful government, counter movements, and other stakeholders in the society.
From this discussion, I am here to talk about a point that would be helpful for contemporary movements especially with their mobilization efforts vis-à-vis populist leaders and forces — “movement distraction.” I define “movement distraction” as a specific demobilizing tactic used by governments or counter-movements that forces a movement to respond to a predetermined issue which is known to be contentious to that targeted movement. The demobilizing effect comes from the predicted issue framing, usage of repertories, perception of “opportunities” and “threats,” among other things, that are inherently conditioned by the ideological orientation, political cause, alignments, and dispositions of the social movement involved.
Movement distraction is oriented toward redirecting the mobilization of political movements to an issue that is innocuous to the government or a counter-movement through the exercise of agenda-setting power or the limitation of the scope of the engagement of opposing actors within a particular political issue that is favorable to the one exercising this tactic. This digression therefore implies the existence of an objective condition or an issue that the government or counter-movement does not want the opposing groups to know of or to mobilize on. This important issue is assumed to be harmful or destructive on the part of the government or counter-movement — thus must always remain hidden within the purview of social movements.
This point of “movement distraction,” I believe, is what explains why distraction is an effective way to demobilize movements. Social movements — groups that are supposed to push for a change in the existing policies, advocate for the radicalization of problems, engage the government on contentious issues, among others, are constantly demobilized by governments due to the following. First, random appearance of a new issue that is closely identified to a major social movement. What is interesting about this is that this issue activation usually happens after or even before the initial exposure of a political issue that has the potential of creating a crisis to the government. So, upon closer look, this appearance of a new issue is not really random. It is actually a calculated one. Its purpose is to redirect the attention of social movements on a more critical issue.
Second, to further this effort, governments and counter movements will gather all their attention and focus on this new issue to force social movements to shift their resources too. In this stage, governments usually employ raw power and speed to force social movements to mount a quick yet unplanned response. With this ploy, social movements are forced to pull out some of their resources from an existing mobilization (old issue) — depleting the overall logistics, manpower, etc. of their organization. Worst of all, because of this sudden mobilization, social movements are forced to use their old tactics, strategies, framings, etc. — making them so predictable in the eyes of the government and counter-movements.
Lastly, while these social movements are engaging the government on their issue, what happens next is that they tend to lose sight or lose interest to other issues, especially that political issue that has the potential of creating a crisis. This strategy is effective because the government uses issue activation and their own resource mobilization just to prevent social movements from mobilizing on the more objective political crisis that they are trying to control or handle. The assumption here is that the more the government pulls in resources, the more social movement mobilization will be.
This rough sketch of the situation involving the government, movements and the kind of issues that they are contesting on, I hope, gives a sense of how this “movement distraction” has become an effective counter-movement strategy that involves not just the control of the spaces of interaction but also the shrewd way of managing political resources of an actor. What social movements should realize from this lesson is that governments today are capable of using both physical violence and agenda-setting power.
Arjan P. Aguirre is an Instructor at the Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University. He handles courses on Politics and Governance, History of Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theories, Electoral Reform, and Social Movements. He is currently based in London to finish his second masters degree, MSc in Comparative Politics, at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) under the Chevening Scholarships, the UK government’s global scholarship.