Research from the UK on the effectiveness of disruptive animal rights protests and media reporting on UK public attitudes towards animals.
Animal Rising disrupted the 2023 Grand National, the biggest horse racing event in the UK, kickstarting a national conversation about society’s relationship with animals. We conducted nationally representative public opinion polling to understand the impact this had on UK public attitudes towards animals. Additionally, we used internal data from Animal Rising to understand the impact of this protest on their mobilisation of activists, donations and media coverage.
We discover mixed signals – whilst these protests led to significantly increased public salience of animal issues and increased sign-ups for Animal Rising’s future actions, they had some negative consequences on UK public attitudes towards animals.
A tug of war between momentum and public opinion.
Previous research has highlighted that disruptive protest often attracts a lot of attention, bears useful consequences but can also lead to negative impacts. The tension between simultaneous positive and negative effects was also on display in our data. On the one hand, the more people had heard about Animal Rising or the Grand National protest, the more they indicated having thought about animal welfare/rights issues in the past week (somewhat obvious some might say, but salience is perceived by experts as an important factor for political success).
Figure 1. Increased awareness of AR after the GN protest is associated with increased thoughts about animal welfare/rights issues.
Moreover, the media response to the protest on April 15, 2023 was absolutely massive with mentions of Animal Rising skyrocketing to over 400 media articles in a single day and spokespeople from Animal Rising (AR) being invited to over 60 interviews, often on mainstream media channels such as ITV or the BBC.
Figure 2. Daily mentions of “Animal Rising” in April. The Grand National protest occurred on April 15, 2023. A journalist had leaked their plans some days prior, hence the increase before the event. Numbers were calculated with LexisNexis. A majority of the mentions were from UK media.
All this seems to have greatly benefited AR’s mobilisation efforts: Sign-ups to take action with AR already shot up when their plans for the Grand National were leaked and saw another sharp peak in the days leading up to the event. Also, direct donations to AR increased sharply in the days after the protest and reached the highest volume for the entire year so far (barring a single outlier day in February).
Thus, the protest was highly successful when it came to sparking a national debate about animals and mobilising people who are sympathetic to animal advocacy.
All this seems to have greatly benefited AR’s mobilisation efforts: Sign-ups to take action with AR already shot up when their plans for the Grand National were leaked and saw another sharp peak in the days leading up to the event. Also, direct donations to AR increased sharply in the days after the protest and reached the highest volume for the entire year so far (barring a single outlier day in February). Thus, the protest was highly successful when it came to sparking a national debate about animals and mobilising people who are sympathetic to animal advocacy.
However, our data suggest that the protest had negative effects on people’s attitudes towards animals. The more people heard about AR or the protest, the less they agreed that society has a broken relationship with animals and that society needs to change how we treat animals used for entertainment (panel B in the graph below). Moreover, awareness of the protest was also linked with increased agreement that it is morally acceptable to use animals for entertainment, with decreased agreement that society needs to change how we treat animals used for food, and with more negative attitudes towards vegans/veganism. To reiterate, these were specific variables that Animal Rising told us they wanted to measure, as they were outcomes Animal Rising wanted to impact. Thus, at least the immediate effects of the Grand National protest on public opinion were negative. Follow-up studies later this year will reveal whether these effects persist, are reinforced by further protest actions, or change over time.
Figure 5. Results of the pre-registered analyses. Increased awareness of AR after the GN protest is associated with increased thoughts about animal welfare/right issues (A), decreased agreement that society has a broken relationship with animals and needs to change how we treat animals used for entertainment (B); was not associated with how morally acceptable people considered using animals for entertainment (C).
The average public opinion impacts for the variables we measured, which had robust impacts (according to our Bayesian analysis method), can be seen summarised below in Table 1.
Table 1. Overview of the observed associations between changes in the variables of interest from wave 1 to wave 2 and changes in awareness of AR (middle column) and awareness of the GN protest (right column).
Interestingly, these negative effects of the protest on attitudes towards animals were limited to those people who had quite unfavourable views towards animals in the first place. For people with overall very favourable views towards animals, the protest had a positive impact. However, the latter segment is very small, whereas the former segment is much larger, which is why the overall effects were negative.
Finally, we tested whether people’s level of support for AR after the protest depended on where/how people had heard about the protest. Different news outlets have different leans and narratives, and it is known that they can strongly affect people’s impressions of a protest. Indeed, relative to hearing about it on The BBC (a reasonable reference level because it is generally assumed to be rather neutral), hearing about it on ITV was associated with lower support for AR, whereas hearing about it on The Guardian, social media, or from friends/family was associated with stronger support for AR. We statistically accounted for confounding variables, such as people’s political leanings, demographics, and their attitudes towards animals, suggesting that there was an independent effect of the news outlets on people’s support for AR.
Figure 7. Forest plot of the regression estimates showing the link between different news outlets (as well as control variables) and support for AR. The BBC was used as the reference level for the news media outlets factor, i.e. the estimates for the remaining outlets show the differential effect on support for AR compared to hearing about the protest on the BBC. The error bars represent 95% confidence intervals around the estimates, some of which are very wide due to small sample sizes for some outlets. Non-significant effects are plotted in light grey. The plot also shows a number of control variables that were included to de-confound the estimates for the news outlets factor.
The more people considered the reporting they saw to be favourable towards the protestors, the higher their own levels of support for AR.
These two findings together highlight the significant influence the news media can have on shaping the public’s perception of disruptive protest – also seen in the academic literature.
Figure 8. A forest plot of the regression estimates showing the relationship between media views (as well as control variables) and support for AR’s actions. “Strongly condemned” was used as the reference level for the media views factor, i.e. the estimates for the remaining factor levels show the differential effects on support for AR relative to that reference level. The error bars represent 95% confidence intervals around the estimates. Non-significant effects are plotted in light grey.
In summary, our data suggest that the Grand National protests negatively affected people’s attitudes towards animals. They did so as a function of the extent to which people were aware of AR/ the protests and as a function of how favourable their attitudes towards animals were in the first place. At the same time, the protests sparked a national conversation about animal welfare and rights and greatly accelerated mobilisation for Animal Rising: People indicated thinking more about these issues as a function of how much they’d heard about AR and the protests, and there was a sharp increase in sign-ups to take action with AR and direct donations to AR.
An important question is how to balance these simultaneous positive and negative outcomes, and to decide which aspects are more important in the long run.
Experts for one seem to think that disruption will pay off. Clearly, more research is needed to answer this question – especially on the longer-term public opinion outcomes of disruptive protest. Watch this space as we have some upcoming work tackling this very question!
There are many more details, additional results, and contextual information in the full report.
- Animal Rising’s Grand National Protest: Public Opinion Impacts and Beyond (PDF)
- Animal Rising’s Grand National Protest: Public Opinion Impacts and Beyond (Google doc)
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