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Can People Be Manipulated to Protest?

August 10, 2022
Sarah J. Lockwood


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Sarah J. Lockwood, assistant professor in the Centre of Development Studies and Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, analyzes the complicated role of elites and brokers in helping to organize protests. 

We live in an era of increasing protest, with large-scale, sustained social unrest regularly seen around the world. From Sri Lanka and the United States, to Iraq and India, protests are used to raise awareness, highlight injustice, and demand change, and play an important role in democratic accountability at all levels of government.

Whenever large protests take place, however, they are often accompanied by allegations that they were organized by elites from outside the community. In the United States, for example, George Soros has repeatedly been accused of funding and mobilizing rioters connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, while protests around the Dakota Access Pipeline were claimed to be organized by a shady group of billionaires intent on pushing a left-wing environmental agenda. Similar arguments can be found in countries ranging from South Africa to Indonesia and Kyrgyzstan.

In almost all cases, the organizers are claimed to be outside individuals and groups who don’t represent the community or care about the issue, but want to use the protest to cause disruption and advance their own interests. And the protesters themselves are seen as inauthentic—individuals with no legitimate claim to a grievance, who have somehow been manipulated into protesting by the elites.

But is it true that elites regularly organize community-level protests to advance their own agendas? And how are they able to manipulate the residents of communities they don’t know into protesting around the issues they want?

The answer is: it’s complicated.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.