I wonder whether the scale of a political protest can be used as a proxy for public opinion on the protest issue.

For example, a protest where 0.1% of the population attended. Can this be used to infer that, say, 20-40% of the population care about the issue?

Or are there too many variables to make this possible?

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    The causality can often be reversed: Protests lead to media coverage and discussion of an issue which results in people forming an opinion about the issue in the first place. – Philipp Aug 19 '15 at 11:55
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    Also, protests might set a lower limit about how many people care about an issue it doesn't set an upper limit because you don't know how well the protests are organized. When I organize a protest for issue X and only manage to organize a measily 10 people to join my protest, it doesn't mean that support for issue X is weak, it only means that I suck at organizing protests. – Philipp Aug 19 '15 at 11:59
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    And then there is a difference between "caring about an issue" and "caring about an issue enough to join a protest". When someone would ask me if I care about the environment, I would say yes. If someone would ask me to spend next sunday with a protest for the environment, I would say no, because I don't care that much about the environment. If someone would ask me to spend next sunday with a protest against mass surveillance, I would say yes, because this is an issue I strongly care about. – Philipp Aug 19 '15 at 12:12
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    @Philipp It also depends whether the protest is outside your local community centre or whether it takes an overnight bus ride with other protesters to get there. – gerrit Aug 21 '15 at 14:01
  • On the local level: Take the KKK rallies. It's the reverse of what the OP said, instead of 0.1% showing up and we infer they represent 20-40% of the populous, at a KKK rally i would say 80% -95% are in attendance but only represent 0.1% of the population, lol. – Helzgate Aug 24 '15 at 2:46

I found this question very interesting and I will try to answer it. I think it is very hard to answer in current form, as there were so many protests in so many contexts.

Disclaimer: I will concentrate more on the actual outcome, rather than public sympathy evaluation. Clearly, public sympathy is much harder to evaluate than the political, economical or social changes due to a protest, as history concentrates on these more.

In some contexts what is the reference population? That of the cities the protests are located into. The whole country? Also, some protests happen outside of the target country (sympathy protests).

Measuring the sympathy is much easier through the use of technology (e.g. online polls), so it is much harder to evaluate for some past events.

Short version

I do not think there is a correlation between protest size alone and public sympathy, even less the outcome of that protest. The context of a protest can be very complex and determine both the sympathy and the outcome:

  • global political context
  • local political regime
  • economical context
  • social context
  • cultural context
  • protest technique

I will choose some notorious protests mostly in the European World to illustrate this conclusion. Why European? Because it had an interesting (not necessarily in a good way) in the past 120 years, with lot of changes: severely affected by both WWs, the Iron Curtain, developing countries, UE and NATO extensions.

Long version

This include some protests, their estimated size, public sympathy evaluation and the outcome.

Estimated protest size 3000 and it happened outside of India. According to this source the protest was repressed, but many sympathized with the protesters and the government had to negotiate with them. But more important, Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) was born.

Protest size was rather small, but protest technique (non-violent) helped gaining sympathy and forcing authorities to negotiate. Cultural background is also important, as those people were prepared to endure lot of suffering to obtain what they wanted (this is visible later, when India non-aggressively fights against the British occupation).

  • 23 October 1956, Hungarian Revolution - 20000 protesters gathered in Budapest (out of about 10M population of Hungary back then => 0.2%). I assume large public sympathy in Hungary. The Government fell, but the Soviets intervened military and restored the political regime.

The political context was against this uprising: see Suez Crisis and Cold War. Also, Soviet Union was already known by the harsh policy against those opposing the mainstream policy. See Stalinism, forced settlements, Gulag.

  • 5 January 1968, Prague Spring begins, the soviets eventually Czechoslovakia and non-violent protests occur against the invasion. I could not find information about the local protest size (thousands or tens of thousands max), but the public sympathy was very large: Romania, Italy, France, Finland and many others, including Russia.

Again, the political context was against the protests. The Cold War and very aggressive policy of the Soviet Union gave on chance for significant changes. The importance of political context is clearly visible when looking at the Velvet Revolution.

  • December 1989, Romanian Revolution - initial protest was in Timişoara (I could not find the exact size, but several hundreds max, out of 23M => less than 0.05%). It extended to Bucharest where massive protests occurred. Eventually, the regime fell and a (more) democratic regime took its place.

The initial protest size was very small, but the sympathy was very large. The actual change was possible due to very favorable context:

  1. political context - the Wind of Change was blowing inside the Iron Curtain. See Perestroika and Glasnost.
  2. economical context - the austerity program to liquidate public debt had made virtually everybody very unhappy.
  3. social context - people were very unhappy with lack of freedom of speech

So, positive outcome despite initial small protest.

  • [21 November 2013, Euromaidan]17 - more than 400,000 protesters at its peak out of 45M population => less than 1%. Public sympathy and support was very large both in Ukraine and outside.

The outcome is very complicated due to the political context (so close to the Russian Federation, Annexation of Crimea etc.)

An important thing to note is that Western countries (through EU and NATO) actually had a meaningful reaction to what happened in Ukraine, by setting up economical and political sanctions.

Conclusion: I would definitely go with the option "There are too many variables to assume a correlation".

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The conception of any protest is a problem, which is almost a conflict (or a conflict per se) that, according to the information of protesters have some solution, generally in short-medium term. To put an example of this: I think the climate change is a current issue and we need to act seriously. My government is doing almost nothing to prevent the effects; in that moment generally (hypothetically) is when a protest born.

Now, according to the experience1, the sympathy and size of protest don't have (usually) any pattern in common. I'm going to use two specific cases:

1.- Egypt: The case of Mohamed Morsi

Mohamed Morsi was the first president elected democratically in almost 5000 years. He started his current presidency doing several political reforms, inspired most of them in the islamic law, the Sharia. Although he preached the tolerance, most of his projects were builded with tolerance. On June 23 of 2013, protesters came out and asked to resign immediately; the protesters argued that he was becoming "dictatorial". Even there were anti-Morsi protesters, at the streets came another group: the pro-Morsi.

Pro-Morsi forces were a respectful amount of group, but the polls showed other reality:

The Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research “Baseera” on the extent to which Egyptians sympathise with protests staged in support of ousted President Mohamed Morsy showed that 71 percent do not sympathise with the protesters, while 20 percent sympathise with them.

Conclusion: If we put these 2% of pro-Morsi (it's not a real figure) against the whole country, we can see "they infer" about the topic in negative terms.

2.- The Sheehan anti-war cause

Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq in April 2003, went to Bush Texas' home to protest against the Iraq War. The Gallup Opinion showed that almost 91% of the americans, in some way, supported his activism but this wasn't translated in protest/actions. According to CNN, Sheehan had the company of 100 people. Why is this? This case had the support of almost all americans. The support, however wasn't guarantee for her political activism.

Conclusion: 91% of the americans, in some way, supported the anti-war cause. The cause didn't go to general action or big protest in 2004.

General conclusion: There's no correlation between the size of a protest and the public sympathy. The case #1 showed the sympathy wasn't achieved, despite the demonstration of the pro-Morsi forces. The second case expressed a particular case; almost all the americans were against the war or they knew the war was a mistake, but this particular feeling wasn't translated into action.


1 The experience I'm talking about is my hypothesis based of more cases like these presented.

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    I think your anecdotes are helpful in understanding the problem, but I think your conclusion is too strong without a much more thorough examination of large numbers of protests. For example, one missing variable that could account for much of the variation is that in America there's a strong history of public opinion (albiet not perfectly) translating into policy through democratic process, while in Egypt, average people have had incredible difficulty getting public opinion into policy and a protest was one of the tools that seemed to work. – lazarusL Aug 19 '15 at 20:08
  • You're right about my conclusions. That's why I specified about MY hypothesis and put "General Conclusion". This case is to talk in one academic paper. Your point is valid; are you going to write an answer? – nelruk Aug 20 '15 at 17:07
  • I actually suspect your conclusion is correct, I just don't have the data or theory to convince myself one way or the other. – lazarusL Aug 20 '15 at 17:10
  • Great answer thank you! This has helped me form a more detailed understanding of my question, and some of the reasons it might not be possible to find a correlation. I agree with lazarusL, though: these anecdotes are helpful, but they make a small, hand-picked sample size of 2. I'm interested if there's been any research into finding a correlation, but I'm having trouble finding the right Google search terms. – aaaidan Aug 21 '15 at 23:23

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