For these reasons, I was surprised to read Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza's article which asks: "Is Occupy Wall Street Overblown?" Cillizza implies that the movement is probably overly hyped. He reaches this unstated conclusion after analyzing a recent Pew study which shows that only a small percentage of the public is following the protests "very closely":
Just 17 percent [of respondents] said they were following the protests “very closely”. Independents — at 19 percent — were keeping the closest eye on the “Occupy” efforts while just 12 percent of Republicans did the same."Very closely" is probably too high a standard to measure the importance of any movement's relevance to society at any given moment. This is especially true with respect to embryonic movements like Occupy Wall Street.
Only 17 percent of self-identified Democrats said they had were [sic] watching the protests closely, a somewhat surprising number given the party’s recent embrace of the motives and goals of the “OWS” crowd.
My examination of the Pew study adds additional context. The five stories that respondents said they were following most closely include (in descending order): the economy, the death of Steve Jobs, the 2012 election, Amanda Knox, Afghanistan, and Occupy Wall Street. Yet, the study finds that only 7 percent of recent news coverage related to the Wall Street protests. Not surprisingly, only 7 percent of respondents listed the protests as the most important news story. The scant media coverage makes it difficult for the average member of the public to follow the protests closely.
The study also finds that the public is less concerned with the Wall Street protests than it was with the Tea Party in 2009, during the early stage of its development. Pew finds, however, that media coverage of both movements was roughly equal during their developmental stages. Cillizza seizes upon this data to bolster his argument about the irrelevance of the protests. But neither Pew nor Cillizza recognizes that the Tea Party protests were often violent and rancorous -- factors that invited public attention and which undoubtedly led to a subsequent surge in media coverage.
Final Word: A Tip for Organizers
Although I believe that Cillizza's column does not provide nearly enough context to help readers appreciate the Pew study, I also believe that participants in the early Occupy Wall Street movement must quickly cohere around a marketable and distinct message. At the moment, the group has apparently resisted developing a political platform or policy agenda. The lack of specific demands or proposals will likely deter media coverage and hinder growth in public attention.
Historically, successful social movements have utilized creative frames to express and market their messages. They have also developed public policy agendas that they wish to implement through the political process. Furthermore, successful social movements have raised the awareness of not only potential movement participants but of the public at large. Unless the budding Occupy Wall Street movement begins to utilize some traditional social movement mobilization techniques, it will probably dissipate without effectuating any meaningful social change.
[Note: I write and teach in the area of Law and Social Movements.]
Two new surveys suggest that Cillizza's article was shortsighted. First, a Time magazine survey finds that a 54 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Also, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 37 percent of respondents "tend to support" the movement; only 17 percent "tend to oppose" it.