The Transformation of Activism

Here’s what you need to know…

Coronavirus has changed a lot about the way we live our lives. What hasn’t changed is the desire to organize ourselves to advocate for the things that matter to us.

While you may think coronavirus has quashed traditional in-person protests and picket lines, activists are still making their cases for their causes online or in person with creative social distancing. Their campaigns, whether six feet apart or virtual, are as vociferous as ever, rallying their troops, many of whom, thanks to widespread lockdowns, have found themselves with more time on their hands than ever. Unfortunately, some are spending that bountiful time disseminating message-tested tropes and unfounded conspiracy theories, often aimed at destroying their targets at a time when organizations and industries feel most vulnerable due to the global pandemic and the economic destruction it has wrought.

The team of analysts here at Delve are monitoring many of these efforts every day, and we are seeing key strategies, themes, and messages emerge as activism in the new normal takes shape – all of which will have consequences for companies and industries navigating toward recovery. Here are some ways that activists have exploited the coronavirus, adapted their tactics in pursuit of their agenda, and recalibrated for the fights that lie ahead.

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Activists haven’t stopped advocating, they’ve just gotten creative…

  • Earth Day Goes Online: Environmental activists had long relied upon large-scale demonstrations boosted by star power and grants from big foundation to draw attention to their cause. With Earth Day gatherings canceled due to coronavirus lockdowns, activists were forced to turn to online alternatives like digital presentations, film screenings, and “teach-ins.” They coordinated social media messaging, urging fans to share digital posters and collaborate virtually to “demand #climateaction,” while celebrities like Joaquim Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo lectured the world on video chat panels. Predictably, the media fawned over their campaign and its ability to adapt to coronavirus lockdowns. However, supporters lamented that 2020 Earth Day celebrations, which were meant to organize hundreds of thousands of protesters in honor of the movement’s 50th anniversary, attracted less interest in the midst of the pandemic.
  • Virtual Campaigning and Campaign Schools: While many of us are on lockdown, campaigning continues from inside the house. The Verge reports that activists are once again embracing the long-dreaded phone banking system of outreach to complement their online efforts to elect their preferred candidates and promote their favorite causes. Meanwhile, virtual rallies are being held to “fix our health system,” targeting Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to “demand tests and immediate production of ventilators and universal access to healthcare” through “Twitter live protesting” and speeches from activists. Over at the Sunrise School, the online activity academy of the environmentalist organization Sunrise Movement, activists are “seizing this moment to become the leaders [the green energy movement] needs,” hosting online courses to “build connections with other young people who are freaked out about climate change, the coronavirus, and the state of our world” and teaching activists how to confront “crises gripping our society.”
  • Social Distancing for a Cause: Even as most activism has moved online, Americans have gotten creative about how they can express themselves without breaking social distancing regulations. In Pennsylvania, criminal justice advocates held a “drive-by-protest” to demand a mass release of inmates, while their Mississippi counterparts held a “Care-a-Van” in Jackson.  Angry Michiganders attracted international media attention when they descended upon Lansing to plea with the Democratic governor to ease what they felt was a draconian stay-at-home order. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which opposes the state’s petrochemical industry, hosted a socially distant protest in front of a Denka/DuPont facility they livestreamed on Facebook and held its “Stop the Money Pipeline” demonstration standing six feet apart in COVID-19 hotspot of New Orleans.
  • The New Advocacy Frontier: Video Games There is already evidence that these changes are not just temporary solutions for this unusual period of time. Newsweek reports that beyond social media, activists are now looking at less traditional platforms, like gaming, as sustainable, permanent organizing tools. They point out that Hong Kong’s freedom-fighting efforts, which had been all-but-eliminated due to China’s public health catastrophe, had moved to Nintendo, where advocates used the game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” to speak freely without the communist party’s censorship.

… And they are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to promote their long-term policy goals.

  • Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste: Progressive activists have apparently learned from Rahm Emanuel’s famous quote and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) call to revive it: now is the time for big change. In POLITICO Magazine, senior writer Michael Grunwald argues that while it is “horrible” the economy has collapsed due to the coronavirus, there is value in how it has shown that human beings’ day-to-day living – eating beef, flying in airplanes, driving to work – can harm the Earth. Greta Thunberg, who commands an army of young activists and who enjoys legitimacy from admiring world leaders and celebrities, says the shutdowns prove that when science calls for it, we can make major lifestyle changes – like those required for her green agenda. Meanwhile, social justice activists claims the virus proves the dangers of income inequality and racial disparities. UNAIDS, meant to eliminate “AIDS as a public health threat by 2030” as a part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, is demanding an “increase in health spending and social protection” become an “essential part of the economic response to COVID-19,” claiming the pandemic’s consequences are the “man-made” impacts of “extreme inequality that is hardwired into our global economy.”
  • ‘Keep It In The Ground’ Becomes ‘Put Them In The Ground’: Green activists are pushing for stimulus bills to provide financial backing for their preferred products while pressuring policymakers to divest from fossil fuels. founder Bill McKibben writes in The New Yorker that lawmakers should use coronavirus as an excuse to “distance ourselves” from fossil fuels all together, arguing they must do so immediately to take advantage of the crisis to achieve lasting policy changes. He points to Congress passing financial relief bills as the perfect opportunity to use “corporate bailouts to advance green energy.” Activists in academia agree, with Ivy League students and boards of trustees candidates demanding divestment from fossil fuels, as others muse about a potential government takeover of the oil industry and “wind down their operations.”
  • Criminal Justice Reform as Public Health Concern: Bipartisan criminal justice reform proponents claim the highly virulent COVID-19 shows just how dangerous overcrowding in prisons can be. Josh Spickler of Right on Crime, a national initiative affiliated with the free market-oriented Texas Public Policy Foundation, told The Tennessean that coronavirus brought about the “hyper-acceleration” of long-term policy goals, as lawmakers across the country released inmates due to fears of infection spread. If they can demonstrate that released inmates posed few or no problems to society, they may be able to bolster their case for future systemic reforms. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has demanded prisoner releases from prisons in several jurisdictions the group has long fought against to protect inmates from the disease.
  • Punishing or Rewarding Corporate Behavior: As Morgan Stanley’s Head of Sustainability Research warns, “Corporate behavior in a time of crisis … can have lasting implications, both positive and negative … These factors can be linked to long-term performance and returns.” Activists are building on their success connecting such environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors with market expectations and ramping up efforts to hold corporations responsible for the way they (are perceived to) conduct business in the current crisis. A new study by Nuveen anticipates an uptick in ESG scrutiny by protestors, the media, and investors, and we are already seeing evidence of such pressures. In the health care sector, for example, British activists want the government to guarantee that “any COVID-19 medicines or technologies created with public funds are available to all, patent-free,” while in America, activists are tracking which utility companies suspend customers’ service over unpaid bills. Companies need to consider their risks from this scrutiny, but also the opportunities. A recent Harvard Business Review article details ways they can turn their talk of “social purpose and … values” into action during the COVID-19 crisis, noting the effects of how well they do so will be felt long after the pandemic concludes.

So be prepared to defend your brand and reputation.

Coronavirus might have caused activism to change, but it certainly hasn’t stopped it. In spite of the realignments necessary to successfully employ new tactics, activism has in some ways intensified, in large part due to an abundance of time and energy on the part of those who might otherwise by occupied by work or social engagements.

Corporations and industries must not mistake social distancing as a lack of disturbance for their industries. Instead, they must be prepared to confront new forms of activism that brings consequences with staying power. If you need help understanding the challenges, we are happy to chat.