Occupy Wall Street: raising awareness

One major goal of protests is to raise public awareness of a cause.  In order to do that, generally protesters hope to generate a lot of media coverage.

OWS has certainly been garnering a lot of attention from the press lately.  It took a while for that to happen, however.  Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight analyzes the amount of media coverage over time and concludes that

the protests in Manhattan…and in other parts of the country, have found two ways to draw attention to their cause. First, keep at it. Second, wait for confrontations with the police.

One of the points covered by my previous protest post was that most modern protests lack the longevity of famed effective U.S. movements like the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.  However, with many people unemployed for a long time and angry about it, there is a large base of protesters able to participate in a more sustained effort (though not all of the OWS demonstrators unemployed).

Police brutality and protester staying power may have driven publicity.  But what kind of publicity is it?  Much of the coverage has been critical,  primarily pointing out the lack of organization or coherent message and the off-putting (to some) hippyish appearance of the protesters.  Even some more neutral coverage from sources such as NPR’s On The Media or Planet Money has set out to try to identify protester demands — and hasn’t ended up able to attribute any clear, united purpose to the protesters.

Some protesters argue that reform of Wall Street and Congress isn’t going to happen overnight, and it’s hard to generate a list of pithy slogans and demands for such a big problem (one protester interviewed by On The Media emphasizes this point).  Many protesters view the media attention as a positive thing, even if it focuses largely on the incoherency of the protests.  But does this coverage raise public awareness of anything more specific than, “There are people who are angry?”

One thing that I have noticed is that, as the duration of the protests increases, there have been at least a few more educational pieces about the U.S. economic situation in the media.  Some of these pieces explain why protesters are angry and what they’re up against (sometimes with helpful charts and statistics about the American economic situation).  In addition, the viral campaign, We are the 99%, may be helping to engage more of the public and cause more people to feel angry about the status quo.

So, media coverage and viral campaigns may be starting to increase awareness of issues like income inequality, corporate profits vs. individual wages, and unemployment.  I think a lot of people probably were aware to some extent of these issues (especially unemployment), but perhaps that understanding is being fleshed out with more statistics and historical context.  (I’m curious to find out whether that’s the case — I hope some surveys are being done to compare public knowledge of these issues before/early on in OWS vs. after the protests have been going for a while).

The real question, for me, is what do the protesters actually plan to do with the attention, emotion, and engagement they’ve generated?  As I’ve already mentioned, there isn’t one coherent plan.  In my next entry, I’ll be looking at various proposals for action.

Edit:  see also Part 1 in this series and Part 3.

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