The media has recently been marking the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq – and of the massive anti-war demonstrations that preceded it. One minor hobby horse throughout the coverage has been the supposed dwindling of the anti-war movement since then.
At the same time, the mainstream media has waxed lyrical over the role played by new technologies such as the internet in organising political action, especially among the young.
In neither case does the media’s arguments rest on much evidence. While it’s undoubtedly true that the Stop the War demonstration on 15 March this year was a fraction of the size of that on 15 February 2003, it does not necessarily follow that the anti-war movement has shrunk to a “hardcore of protestors”.
Similarly, although you will be hard pressed to find a political group or campaign without some sort of a web presence, it does not necessarily follow that the internet is the essential ingredient for mobilising young people politically.
Myself and a colleague set out to do some research into who is marching against the war and how they are mobilising. We surveyed protesters at three national Stop the War demonstrations – Manchester in September 2006, London in February 2007, and most recently London last month.
Is it just a hardcore of activists left marching? The evidence suggests not. About 22 percent of the marchers we surveyed at these demonstrations were on their first anti-war demonstration since 9/11. This shows that even five years on from 15 February 2003 the anti-war movement is attracting new supporters.
Another 22 percent had been on just one or two other demonstrations, 21 percent had been on three to five, leaving 35 percent of demonstrators who had been on six or more anti-war demonstrations since 9/11. In other words the “hardcore” makes up about a third of current anti-war demonstrators.
Notably a higher proportion of “first timers” were found on the Manchester demonstration than on either of the two demonstrations held in London.
It might be imagined that “first time” demonstrators are overwhelmingly those too young to have been politically active five or six years ago. Indeed, some 47 percent of “first timers” are 25 or less. But that still means over half the “first timers” are older adults.
There were more surprises when we examined what role the internet played in mobilising demonstrators.
About 24 percent of protesters found out about the demonstration through a website, with the national Stop the War site being the most common source of information. But it is not the “internet-savvy kids” who rely most on the web, but older age groups – 36 to 50 year olds in particular.
Young people were less likely than others to have found out about the demonstration through an email from someone outside of their immediate social circle. Just 3 percent of the under 18s and 7 percent of those aged 18 to 25 mentioned this, compared to 22 percent of the over 50s.
This suggests it is the older activists who make the best use of internet and email communication. Online communication was also used more by activists who had already participated in several demonstrations.
The most frequently mentioned information source for the demonstrations was neither the web nor email, but personal networks – friends, family members or colleagues.
About half of respondents found out about the demonstration in this manner, and it was especially important for younger people (the under 18s) and for first time demonstrators.
Posters and leaflets, a more traditional form of mobilisation, were mentioned by about a quarter of demonstrators. They were especially important for demonstrators of university age (18 to 25 year olds).
In contrast, public meetings were a source of information for about 20 percent but were mentioned more often by older protestors and by those who had been on six or more demonstrations already.
The news media – TV, radio, or newspapers – provided information for about 13 percent of the demonstrators, with men mentioning it more than women. The media was much more important for informing participants at the Manchester than the two London protests, perhaps because national Stop the War events are rare occurrences outside of the capital and generate more interest.
What does this mean for future organising? The first thing to focus on is the good news – new people are still getting involved in the Stop the War, and not just the young.
Our research also shows that the Internet and email are seen by demonstrators as useful information sources and are especially important for informing and maintaining contact with existing activists. But personal relationships between friends, work colleagues and families continue to be central to the effectiveness of the movement.
A friend or family member is more likely to motivate people to join a demo for the first time than a website posting or chain email. Posters and leaflets seem to be effective in attracting students, while public meetings are useful for motivating older people and existing activists. Online communication is important – but it does not act as a replacement for traditional means of mobilising.
Rachel Cohen and Natalie Pitimson surveyed 446 randomly selected protesters. For more information on their results go to » www.go.warwick.ac.uk/antiwar