Protests occur all the time and most of them are political. They are loud, vibrant, spectacular displays of energy (of both opposition and support) and most often, considered as a problem by communicators. They occupy spaces, they create images that capture people’s attention and imagination, and they create a disruptive spectacle for consumption by media audiences. At times, if the protests are perceived to be representing minority views, they are largely ignored. This year, however, more than any other year has shown that values based protests, especially opposing injustice and corruption, have captivated audiences and received support far beyond their geographic location. This is the case of the current Kenyan protests against alleged poll fraud, this was the case of the Russian anti-corruption protests, the Venezuelan anti-government street movements and the Polish opposition to judicial initiatives.
This was also the case of the Romanian #rezist anti-corruption protests, sparked by the then newly appointment government’s decision to issue an executive order which would have decriminalized corrupt activities valued at less than 200,000 lei (cca. 45,000USD). In effect, this would have resulted in either the release from prison or the dropping of charges against many key political figures. The protests spread to 81 cities in 36 countries and achieved both the repeal of the order and the fall of the government.
The #Rezist Romania’s 2017 Anti-Corruption Protests: Causes, Development And Implications (doi.org/10.23774/QUAS.RP2017.00) report, launched by Quadriga University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, Germany and edited by Prof. Dr. Ana Adi (Quadriga University of Applied Sciences) and Dr. Darren G. Lilleker (Bournemouth University) captures analyses from journalists, politicians, academics and activists.
Beyond the valuable information about Romania and its political context, including its history of corruption and fight against it (see the articles authored by Victor Alistar, Irina Lonean and Ruxandra Soare), the report includes valuable lessons for communicators as well as equally important ethical questions (see Raluca Feher’s article on advertising and fake news in particular). The most important five lessons, in our view, are below.
Specific demands make for clear objectives
Romania has witnessed a major protest almost every year since 2012 and each protest has seen its demands met: three Prime Ministerial resignations, one executive order repealed, the halting of a mining project. Cosmin Pojoranu traces in his article all these changes, but the lesson for communicators here is that specific demands in effect lead to a protest having very specific objectives, these can be clearly formulated and so the impact of the protest can be easily measured. Moreover, the more specific the demands are, the easier it is to get support of various stakeholders for them. One change at a time, makes a big change overall: and if the objective is achievable – or when it is achieved – it maintains the spirit of the protests leading to longer-term empowerment.
Social networking platforms as values based peer-to-peer connectors
Social networking platforms have acted as opinion aggregators, activist and protester connectors and organizing environment. This has been the case beyond Romania’s protests (see Occupy, the Arab Spring, the Umbrella Movement). In Romania’s case, Facebook is having almost a monopolistic position, with more than 90% of online Romanians also having a Facebook account. However, the existence of a favorite social network is not sufficient for action. What brought Romanians together in the streets was not Facebook, but rather their outrage at the Government’s decision and their sentiments being shared and echoed by their peers. Ana Adi and Ruxandra Boicu trace some of these aspects in their articles. The importance of social media is that it facilitates the sharing of emotional communication, which can bring a community of like-minded strangers closer together. Emotional reactions of outrage towards perceived corruption can be easily expressed in forums created by citizens, these lead to the reinforcement of these emotions and mobilize citizens to action. Therefore while politics provide the stimulus, a social media strategy for citizen interaction provides a pathway into more active forms of participation.
Learning from failures and successes
Romania’s anti-corruption fight and opposition is long and sinuous (Monica Macovei, former Minister of Justice and current Member of the European Parliament traces some of that history). It is only recently that Romania’s protests have been successful (the protests of the early 1990s were ruthlessly and violently quashed) and the successes need to be attributed in part to the maturing of the post-communist generation and with Romania’s accession to the European Union – and more specifically with freedom of movement. Younger Romanians see a better future for the nation is possible, are mobilized to act, but also leverage communication networks in order to safeguard themselves against oppression. Cosmin Pojoranu’s article traces some of the lessons protesters and activists alike learned from one protest to another: from specifying their demands, to making them visible and traceable online to using powerful (and at times, staged) imagery to encapsulate the essence of the protests. This level of scrutiny of previous activities could only benefit communicators as well.
Stamina and long-term planning
The Romanian #rezist protests continue even today; the numbers in the streets have dwindled and the activity online has become more focused: on tracking the government’s initiatives and on identifying solutions. Some of the protesters launched their own Facebook based TV channel – Rezistenta.TV – initially called Piata Victoriei TV (read the article by Adrian Cristian Ionescu and Diana Carmen Ciudin). This shows that a protest, even if had its demands met, is not the end but rather the beginning of civic engagement. Communicators too should cease thinking about projects and campaigns, and switch to thinking long-term, reconsidering how to use communication tools, build a communication infrastructure and develop appropriate means for measuring the utility of their tactics.
The communicator as a civic activist
Finally, Romania’s protesters were generally young, urban, well-educated and well-travelled (see Ana Adi and DOR’s protester profiles, Eliza Rogalski’s analysis of the moments leading up to the street protests and Raluca Feher’s analysis of advertising and fake news), some of them working in communication related fields. This shows that the functions of communicator and activist are increasingly blurred and that the skills and knowledge from both fields combined can help drive change without necessarily jeopardizing the reputation or credibility of their clients and employers. In Romania’s case, communicators not only took a political stance but also joined what they have perceived to be a protest of principle. Their action, like that of everyone else in the streets, was beyond the profit line or the political line of their employers and clients. For those joining the #rezist protests, a corrupt country sets a negative example, including to businesses, inviting them to cut corners rather than play fair. This is perhaps one of the few times recently when professional communicators took a moral position that advocated for responsibility and sided with the members of the public and used their skills to build a politically-motivated campaign.
Dr. Darren G. Lilleker is Head of the Centre for Politics and Media Research and Associate Professor at Bournemouth University. Follow him on Twitter @DrDGL.