Controlling the masses

Written by: Dimitra Grancharova

When we imagine a protest, more often than not, we think of a fight against the status quo, a social movement demanding change. But what if this is not the case? What if the showcasing of disagreement with something has been carefully orchestrated to fit someone’s particular interests far from the individual motivations of the protesters? What if instead of changing, protests are solidifying the status quo? This article explores the possibility and methods of controlling a protest. This relates to the study of political repression and social control which may condition all kinds of protest’s characteristics – from emergence and organisation, to methods used and prospects of success.

One of the most fundamental factors in social control are the agents participating in it. They could be organised, following the conceptualisation made by John Wilson, into three groups – social control agents, target groups, and protesters. Social control agents are, simply put, the one enforcing social control. In relation to control in the political context, public officials have the highest influence as (usually) they act formally and publically while claiming legitimacy to do so. That is why social control enacted by a state’s government will be a main point of reference throughout this article. The target group is the group against which the protest is organised. It is important to note that the target group is not a social control agent even if they have a common goal. Finally, protesters could be labelled as deviant or dissenters by the social control agent, emphasising their divergence from the norm, or alternatively they could be dismissed as irrelevant and subsequently ignored. This leads to the question of methods employed in repressing protests and, contrary to popular expectations, they are not only about police brutality or overt force.

Jennifer Earl discusses varieties in repressive action leading to differences in methods employed. First, social control agents could be a national authority, a local/sub-national authority, or a private actor. Second, repression could be coercive, or channelling. Third, repression could be covert or overt. All these factors combined result in twelve types of repression which can be used at different times throughout the ‘life course’ of a protest.

Contrary to common wisdom, channelling repression, not coercion, is most successful at preventing protests, because the best way of dealing with a protest is to never have one. For example, by creating complete citizen dependency on a state regime, as long as the state does not fail at meeting its obligations, dissent is prevented before protests even emerge. Alternatively, if a social movement is emerging, channelling can control it by institutionalising conflict resolution processes determined by the social control agent. Coercive repression can be used once channelling has failed and surveillance can be seen as an early sign of it. Surveillance itself is a covert action which may be partly overt in order to intimidate or be truly covert, leading to infringement on personal freedoms and acquirement of intelligence used to facilitate the employment of other forms of repression. Even if a movement emerges, it may be constrained by overt coercion, or so-called institutional repression. This method drives a movement to concentrate on survival rather than activity by draining it of resources and possibilities to organise and connect with others. If a protest occurs anyway, protest policing may be employed as a further tool of repression. Strategies such as negotiations, targeted arrests and trials are employed aiming at scaring supporters and impeding the organisation of the protest. Conventional theory has it that protest policing is reactive, meaning that the social control agent is going to use force proportionate to the threat posed by the behaviour of the mobilising group. However, as Patrick Rafail discusses, protest policing is strongly influenced by contextual, temporal and ideological factors leading to inequality and political stratification in dealing with social movements. The next section looks at this further, by exploring the reasons why states allow some kinds of protests and their respective strategies for control.

The social control agents can hardly ever suppress all protesters. First, this is a matter of resources. Whether it is employing police forces guarding protesters, using intelligence services to track dissidents or institutionalising preventive policies, social control agents have limited amount of resources and time which they have to always balance against other needs. Second, democratic states or states in the process of liberalisation, have to be vigilant not to infringe their own ideologies and values by being seen as preventing freedom of speech and affiliation. Thus, such states do have to allow at least some kinds of protests. Third, according to Peter Lorentzen authoritarian regimes allow small-scale protests to happen in order to identify discontented social groups and to monitor lower levels of government, leading to the solidifying of the regime. The reason behind this seemingly counterintuitive statement, is that authoritarian regimes often lack informative feedback which competitive elections, free media and active civil groups provide. Consequently, instead of protests symbolising discontent with a regime and its increasing weakness, protests may exemplify the solidifying of the status quo.  Accordingly, if protests are a necessary part of a state’s functions, what determines which protests receive repression and which do not?

According to Earl, the biggest predictor of whether repression is going to be employed is ‘threat’. On the one hand, protests that are larger, have more radical ideas or more confrontational tactics are expected to be viewed as challenging the dominance of a regime and thus, become the target of repression. On the other hand, situational threats to social control agents (e.g. police during a protest) may be even greater triggers for repression as they demand a hurried response. This leads to the idea of ‘threat perception’. It means that threats are not always objective and are often influenced by prior beliefs and biases. Media plays a crucial role in the development of such biases. A research conducted by McLeod and Hertog examines media coverage of three anarchist protests. The results reveal that mainstream media tended to emphasise the deviance from public opinion of the protesters and thus, isolating them as illegitimate. Alternative media, on the other hand, was focusing on the idea of public opinion as a form of social control, impeding the protesters from expressing their opinions and emotions. Consequently, mainstream media coverage could be seen as controlling the threat perception by discouraging protest participation and reinforcing the position of the status quo.

This leads to the conclusion that behind the signs held by protesters demanding change, there is a whole system of social control that tries to preserve the status quo. The methods of social control are not always overt and easy to track but they do create the environment in which we all live. This does not have to have necessarily negative consequences as social order and stability is something that every society aims for. However, by acknowledging the existence of social control forces we can develop a more critical view of our surroundings and contribute to the dismantling of biases impeding us at recognising the real sources of tension deserving change.

Please Note: This article should have been part of The Protest Issue – NO.21 from May 2020. If you want, you can check out the whole Issue in our Dialogue Section!


John Wilson, ‘Social Protest and Social Control’ in Social Problems, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Apr., 1977), pp. 469-481.

Jennifer Earl, A Lawyer’s Guide to the Repression Literature, 67 Nat’l Law. Guild

Rev. 3 (2010).

Patrick Rafail, Structural Contingencies and the Social Control of Protest, a dissertation in Sociology, the Pennsylvania State University, 2012

Douglas M. McLeod and James K. Hertog, The manufacture of ‘public opinion’ by reporters: informal cues for public perceptions of protest groups, Discourse and Society, vol. 3(3), 1992, pp.  259-275.

Peter L. Lorentzen, Regularizing Rioting: Permitting Public Protest in an Authoritarian Regime, Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 2013, 8: pp. 127–158

Peter Ullrich, Preventionism and Obstacles for Protest in Neoliberalism. Linking Governmentality Studies and Protest Research. – In: Heßdörfer, Florian; Pabst, Andrea; Ullrich, Peter: Prevent and tame: Protest under (self-) control. – Berlin: Dietz, 2010. – (Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung: Manuskripte; 88) – ISBN 978-3-320-02246-4. – S. 14–23.

Picture Source: Rebecca Hendin for The New Statesman:

Categories Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close