Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, December 9, 2016

#NoDAPL- The Power of Social Media and Protests 

Over the past few months protests have been taking place over the Dakota access pipeline. This is a pipeline that will be used the transport crude oil across several states. The protests were started by the Native American Sioux tribe as the pipeline will pass extremely close to their reservation and it is said that it will desecrate land that is sacred to them and was dishonourably taken from them in 1851. The pipeline is also being protested by environmental activists who feel that it will greatly increase fossil fuel emissions.

There are many protests going on around the world, many climate change atrocities and it cannot be disputed that this is not the first time that Native American people have been poorly treated and their values disregarded. So what makes this different? Although there have been little mainstream media reports, these protests have a massive online presence which has lead to far more support from a greater range of people than could have been expected. This includes people from around the world as well as veterans who have now apologised for their ancestors behaviour to the Native American people.

 Social media has not only allowed people to hear about the protest, it has become another form of the protest. This is not just in the form of hashtags, it’s been used practically. For example when the protesters thought that the authorities where using their Faceboook to track who was there and where they were, 1.4 million people checked in at Standing Rock (the location of the protest) in order to try and confuse them. It has also been used to share petitions and go fund me pages. There are go fund me pages for things such winterising the camp and getting supplies, as well as a page which has raised over a one million dollars to facilitate 2000 veterans to go help and protect the protestors, who have been named the water warriors.

Social media has also been used to share videos and pictures of the now violent protests, in which attack dogs have been used as well as pepper spray, concussion grenades and water cannons in freezing temperatures.

So why is that this protest has gained so much support with so many people giving their time and money to the cause- could it be because of its prevalence on social media?  Of course its wide coverage on social media has allowed a lot of people to hear about it, however this also occurs with stories reported on mainstream media, so what has made this different? I would argue that crucial to this, or any social media campaign is the fact you have made the choice to follow the person whos tweets, and posts you are now reading. This is may be because you like them and support their views, or even want to be like them. However this could potentially lead to cognitive dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two contradictory beliefs, ideas or values and this leads to psychological discomfort. So in this case someone has followed an individual on social media because they have the belief that they like them and support them. If this person has then shared something supporting the protests against DAPL and the follower disagrees or even simply doesn’t care this could produce mental discomfort in them as their attitude towards the person they follow is different to their attitude to the DAPL protests which they are supporting. When cognitive dissonance occurs, people will often aim to reduce it. This can be done by doing a behaviour that demonstrates your attitudes are aligned. So if someone sees or hears about DAPL through someone they follow and they don’t care or disagree with it, this might make them feel uncomfortable. Therefore they might try and change their attitude and demonstrate this through behaviour that supports the protests. In this case this behaviour can range from liking the post, checking in at the protests on Facebook, donating money or travelling to the camp to take part in the protests.

A classic study that demonstrates cognitive dissonance was conducted by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). Participants in this study had to spend an hour on a boring task which they would have a negative attitude to. They then had to do the experimenter a favour and persuade another participant to do the task and say that it was interesting. Some of them were paid $1 and others paid $20. Those were paid just $1 later rated their enjoyment of the boring task much higher than those paid $20. This is because their negative attitude towards the task did not match their behaviour of persuading someone else to do it with little motivation. Those paid $20 did not experience such discomfort from the dissonance between their behaviours as they could justify it by the fact they were paid $20.

Of course this is likely not the only reason why the protests have got so much support and will not affect everyone. There are many other factors, and not everyone will like everyone they follow, they may just be interested in what they have to say. However it may have played a part in persuading and influencing so many people to get behind the campaign. Perhaps it is something that should be considered when people want to protest or campaign against something. It could be a smart tactic to encourage as many people as possible to promote it through social media as it is likely to be a more persuasive way of hearing about it than in mainstream media.  


Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology58, 203.

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