Even in the era of social-media supremacy, protest movements rely in large part on traditional media to disseminate their message and their goals. Research shows that media coverage of peaceful protests is more likely to focus on a movement's goals, while coverage of violent, confrontational demonstrations tends to center on protesters' actions rather than their objectives. But what if a protest movement is too nonviolent?
That's what has been playing out the past week in Hong Kong. A recent wave of protests was set off by an official announcement on August 31 that Hong Kong voters could choose only from a list of candidates approved by the Chinese government in elections starting in 2017. In response, students boycotting schools and universities came out in a demonstration that began on September 22 and has continued and grown in size since.
Hong Kong demonstrators have made international news for their unusually peaceful organizing and conscientious actions. "Very Civil Disobedience," read the Wednesday MSNBC headline of a story that noted the movement's "good nature—including trash removal, graffiti scrubbing, and notes of apology for the urban gridlock." Even in the face of the aggressive tactics the city's police employed last week before withdrawing over the weekend, demonstrators came together to protect one another from tear gas and did not retaliate. "The cooperation was incredible," a 23-year-old protester told CNN.
According to Michael Boyle, a professor of communication studies at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, nonviolent protest is more effective when it comes to meeting a movement's media coverage goals. When groups "engage in more extreme tactics," Boyle says, the coverage they receive is likely to focus on the tactics themselves. "We learn about what they look like, whether they're engaging in civil disobedience or violence or not, but we get very little sense of why they're doing what they're doing."
He points to the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization as an example. As demonstrators took to rioting and disruption, media coverage emphasized their actions, including photos of looters breaking windows and clashes with police. The focus on tactics came at the expense of an explanation of the reason protesters were in the streets in the first place.
In Hong Kong, protesters are "trying to maintain a nonviolent approach." Boyle says this is key, "because at any point that there's violence, then that becomes the thing" that the media zooms in on. By keeping peaceful, the protesters in Hong Kong are trying to "keep the conversation about what they're doing."
But there's a downside to taking these tactics too far, and we're seeing it in Hong Kong. Right now, the international media coverage of the demonstrations is "positive in the sense of PR and feelings," says Scott Talan, assistant professor of public communication at American University. But "what you have to then wonder is if there's so much focus on the niceness of the Hong Kong protests that their overall message or their main point is not being communicated and not being understood."
Taken to an extreme, nonviolence can have the same effect on media coverage as physical confrontation. Just like it might have been if the protests were characterized by clashes, Hong Kong media coverage has been focused on demonstrators' tactics. Instead of showing burning tires and rock-throwing, however, stories like this one from the BBC described "things that could only happen in a Hong Kong protest": students who sat in the street to complete their homework, demonstrators who posted apologies for inconveniencing commuters on makeshift barricades, and complete compliance with a sign that asked protesters to keep off a neatly trimmed grassy plaza. In this and other stories, the movements' goals are relegated to a footnote or aren't mentioned at all.
"Great, there's people carrying umbrellas," Boyle says, referring the movement's nickname, the Umbrella Revolution. "But does that become the focus as opposed to 'There's actually a big issue at stake here'?"
Talan thinks an escalation could prompt more in-depth international coverage than is being produced now. The media would "go beyond coverage of their peaceful" actions, Talan said, to "major-league analysis" of the China-Hong Kong relationship, a look at Hong Kong's history of British rule, and at Hong Kong's role as a global financial leader.
But if things get out of hand, Talan thinks the media will fall into the same trap that Boyle warns of. "It's certainly easier to cover, visually and descriptively, things involving clashes, violence, damage, destruction," he says. "Media will oftentimes go for the thing that is more dramatic and easier to cover rather than explaining large issues."
These considerations matter most for domestic media, says Orion Lewis, professor of political science at Middlebury College. The international press may be distracted by stories of peaceful protest, but the media in China are making almost no mention of the protests at all. What heightened international coverage can do, Lewis says, is increase the likelihood of intervention—but the strength of the Chinese regime makes it improbable that the international community will do anything beyond making official diplomatic statements.
"Thus I would say that favorable international coverage of the Hong Kong protests might help them on the margins, but will not be a decisive factor," says Lewis. "This will hinge much more on internal dynamics in Hong Kong and China more broadly."
The movement may not remain completely peaceful much longer. On Wednesday, organizers threatened to occupy nonessential government buildings if Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying does not step down before the end of Thursday. That deadline has passed, and Leung Chun-ying has said he's not going anywhere. Riot police Thursday afternoon were preparing for a confrontation, stocking up on rubber bullets and tear gas in preparation of what an organizer called "decisive action" to clear out protesters. If demonstrators and police clash, the event will likely draw widespread coverage from international media.
But Hong Kong's demonstrators are stuck in a near-impossible balance: Their peaceful protests haven't always been successful in spreading the movement's pro-democracy message globally. But if they go too far now, images of violence and confrontation could completely overtake their effort.