@Dudewithsign and the Effects of Peaceful Protesting on Social Media

© Copyright 2022 Paige Gray, Ryerson University.

Social media is a tool created with the potential to supply society with unlimited possibilities of use. What started as a simple platform to connect with friends has turned into an instrument that can reach a vast audience worldwide. If used correctly, the action of spreading a picture that can feasibly ignite a movement or voice an opinion in an impactful way is at every user’s fingertips. The Instagram page @dudewithsign is one of the many examples that execute a breakthrough in Instagram due to his method of expressing societal debates and opinions on matters ranging from minimal to considerable controversy. Media examples such as @dudewithsign’s posts can broadcast freedom of speech in a non-violent and non-intrusive way that still creates a vast societal impact with worldwide distribution. “Dudewithsign,” otherwise known as Seth Phillips, uses this platform to showcase that stating an opinion or voicing a concern does not have to be complicated. It especially doesn’t have to result in hurting someone with different views. He makes voicing opinions less intimidating to youth worldwide by demonstrating that simple protests can create a massive ripple effect. The concept of having your voice heard without speaking makes social media the new politically powerful platform as Seth Phillips’ use of his account exhibits that social media protests convey action in a nonviolent way and therefore are more effective. 

@dudewithsign Instagram post raising awareness on treatment of women outside of Women’s Day.
Seth Phillips [@dudewithsign].”Celebrate Women Every Day”. Instagram, 8 March. 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CMLLLmKlIsH/, ©Seth Phillips
In the Forbes article, “Meet The Creators Of The Dude With Sign Instagram Account” Seth Phillips gives a statement on his success while having his work analyzed by Heather Leighton. In this article, Phillips describes that “When creating the protests, we try to come up with something funny that is relatable that people don’t particularly talk about. We try to have each of these elements while appealing to every type of person, which is a big part of why I think the account has accumulated as many followers as it has.” (Phillips). Initially, a post holding a sign that said “Seinfeld is way better than Friends” was published on Phillips’s personal Instagram and received immediate popularity from not only his followers but people across the platform. Running with this idea, he created a separate profile dedicated to this type of content, and his ideas for protests escalated and advanced from there. Though Phillips’ small protests often revolve around humorous, mundane dilemmas, there are times when he speaks on more immediate political issues, and the response is received just as well. 

Social media has become a massive outlet for people to voice their opinions. It has initiated a spectrum of results that form further use of this accessible platform to spread awareness to the public. Seth Phillips’ posts include candid bystanders, which add to his simple method of protest as they aren’t perfect depictions of reality. He has strangers crowding his images who often aren’t paying attention to his in-person protest at all. This element introduces a concept in our society that analyzes how the form of a message can shift the level of engagement and awareness from a viewer. Furthermore, it raises the idea of  “message persistence theory”, which suggests why combining his in-person statement alongside the post on a globally accessible platform creates a heightened audience. His use of a cardboard sign to state an opinion can arguably come across as unsophisticated to a viewer scrolling through Instagram. However, the casualty of the action initiates a strong response as the page demonstrates that protests don’t have to be calculated and perfectly presented to impact globally. 

@dudewithsign Instagram post raising awareness of Australian wildfires, with a caption that contains information on where to donate.
Seth Phillips [@dudewithsign].”Let’s Help Fight Australian Wildfires”. Instagram, 6 January. 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/B6_moodFNfO/, ©Seth Phillips

From News Media to Social Media

The role of media as an innovative platform for protest activities has received mixed reviews due to its varying reliability in coverage of protestors that challenged societal norms in the past. In the article “Martin to Brown”, Danielle Kilgo questions the use of media by introducing the framework of the “protest paradigm” as she examines the protest report in the United States following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old, and 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2012 and 2014. She describes that the protest paradigm occurs when the media gives the narrative inaccurately while misrepresenting protestors and their cause (Kilgo). Therefore Kilgo further examines that when a protest is done peacefully, the press often deems it not newsworthy, which can initiate violent tactics from activists to be noticed by the public (Kilgo). In these cases, news media played a massive role in displaying public voices, but the coverage varied as protestors that challenged societal norms were marginalized in media coverage. She explains inconsistencies in coverage in the media compared to the reality of movements that contribute to black oppression specifically (Kilgo). Kilgo contrasts the analysis of @dudewithsign’s success; however, this example can also demonstrate the progression of media coverage in the years since. With protest media now stemming away from news coverage and more drawn to the sources of individuals on their personal social media platforms, it offers an insightful perspective of how social media can generate a more accurate depiction of concerns and protests; rather than an edited coverage done by news teams. This further demonstrates the evolution over the decade involving the advantages a protest can obtain when taking the credibility into the hands of the participators rather than relying on news media for valid coverage. 

Engagement with Reality

On a platform such as Instagram, Seth Phillips’ post contain elements that allow a viewer to interact with a message that can create a transmission of attention and discussion. Features that Phillips incorporates into his posts include website links to external resources, “tags” that extend to another user, an open comment section, and the ability to repost his image. These tools allow more people in society to participate in voicing opinions and initiate a conversation that can be viewed multiple times by one user. In Pablo Barberá’s study, “The Critical Periphery in the Growth of Social Protests.” he reveals that the simple action of reposting plays an essential role in protesting within the media environment due to the circulation that accumulates on the platform. Barberá examines the growth of social media having a prominent role in social protests. More specifically, she views the development of “slacktivism” which occurs when there is a shallow commitment to sharing a post or forwarding a movement (Barberá et al.). The role of online participants is analyzed in their study, and it is revealed that power lies in numbers. While the “slacktivists” could be thought of as non-members, their action achieves the task of spreading awareness which is the routeing problem of many protest concerns (Barberá et al.). They touch on the fact that though the risk and involvement are very minimal for these members while they post a message from a distance, the attention in the media environment still plays a significant role in a movement (Barberá et al.).

To address these concerns, they gathered data from three different protests that predominantly used Twitter as a platform to reach, recruit, and organize participants (Barberá et al.). Furthermore, to track the impact of peripheral users, they removed them from the network to determine outcome variables, audience and reach (Barberá et al.). This observation also supports critical mass theories and “identifies the factors that cause participation to become self-sustaining.” (Barberá et al.).  This information combats the assumption that just because a protest is widely viewed or reposted on social media doesn’t mean the platform is effective. Barberá contributes success to social media as an outlet for political concern because it verifies that the reach of a post, no matter what the user provides, is prominent in combating a problem.  

This idea correlates directly with German Neubam’s article, which reveals that message persistence on social media in multiple forms can combat the “spiral of silence” theory, which prevents people from expressing their political opinion. The spiral of silence theory can be described as a person’s hesitation when participating in public political debates when they are a part of a minority (Neubam). In contrast, one would “voice their viewpoint when they are part of the majority,” which touches on people’s fear of isolation and rejection of a social environment (Neubam). However, Neubam’s study finds that what combats this political shyness is the temporary aspect which the message can be interacted with; in other words, a message persistence (Neubam). He explains that in the technological advancements of social media, some posts or stories are only available for twenty-four hours which temporality evokes a somewhat freedom of expression from users because their voice isn’t permanent. Yet, this “persistence” isn’t only characterized by the limited availability but is based on public accessibility and removability (Neubam). By analyzing the specific use of social media that is most effective in allowing people to express their political opinion, it can be identified that @dudewithsign’s post would fall on that spectrum of engagement.

Successful Political Youths

The circulation achieved by a social media post is a crucial element of Seth Phillips’ success. Yannis Theocharis studies the success that follows this in his article “Cuts, Tweets, Solidarity and Mobilisation: How the Internet Shaped the Student Occupations.” when participants leveraged social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to organize a peaceful event. Theocharis describes the “increasingly influential role” the internet provides for politics in youth as he writes of the students in the UK who protested the rise in tuition fees for higher education (Theocharis). Theocharis describes that media has become an impactful way to arrange political action as these students across thirty-five universities organized a peaceful protest through outlets such as Instagram and Twitter (Theocharis).  He introduces the idea of “political mobilization” in an environment of “information exuberance” (Theocharis). To this, he mentions the effective uses that a digital platform can distribute, which are not only powerful imagery but functional links to causes and coordination between communities (Theocharis). He describes that the use of internet-assisted political action made the voices of UK students at the time more effective as well as more immediately and effectively-known (Theocharis). In addition, this growing spotlight on the matter grabbed the attention of people who may not have been immediately aware of the new circumstances in tuition fees (Theocharis). This level of community-based activism demonstrates youths’ ability to progress political movements and create a long-lasting impact through a social media platform.

Effects of a Peaceful Protest: Why we Should Strive to Achieve Them

In Faith Demir’s “Keeping It Peaceful: Twitter and the Gezi Park Movement.” Demir describes social media as a communicative device for global activists that promotes peaceful protests by preventing vandalism and violence against police forces (Demir). Demir focuses on the allure of Twitter’s “prompt response delivery and mass messaging capabilities” to recruit and increase the public’s awareness of specific issues (Demir). At the same time, Demir draws attention to the debate if this tool can be leveraged for both good and harm during protests. The anonymity of some users might create harmful or criminal activity while avoiding law enforcement detection, while at the same time influencing other users to follow in their violent steps (Demir). Demir’s study analyzes how Gezi Park activists used Twitter to attract attention to their activities while keeping the protest non-violent. Demir showcases statistics that demonstrate what tactics can be utilized on social media to ignite a peaceful and nonviolent voice of opinion. Phillips’ use of the  @dudewithsign’s page exhibits tools that invoke a relaxed setting. However, if he were to attempt to further his political debates, there are active models available to follow to regulate the community’s reaction. 

Whether a peaceful protest will result is an issue that is brought up throughout Demir’s work and is a concept supported in Christian Welzel and Franziska Deutsch’s study that reveals the effectiveness of a non-violent protest and why society should strive to achieve this. Christian Welzel and Franziska Deutsch examine the ecological effects of non-violent demonstrations in their article, “Emancipative Values and Non-Violent Protest: The Importance of ‘Ecological’ Effects.”. Furthermore, they theorize that “governments are more accountable and responsive where non-violent protest is more widespread.” (Welzel and Deutsch). They draw on the connection between development, values, and behaviour, specifically, the “social prevalence of values” (Welzel and Deutsch). Their study concludes that though human behaviour has to do with psychological variables and value orientations at the individual level, non-violent protests emerge when human empowerment increases. Furthermore, they state that the “prevalence of emancipative values elevates non-violent protest above the level that people’s emancipative values suggest.” which increases protest activity altogether (Welzel and Deutsch). This supports that @dudewithsign’s concept and category of non-violent protesting through the use of media can result in a more effective outcome due to the more welcoming response from the government.

@dudewithsign holding up a cardboard sign that says, "My Arms Hurt".
Seth Phillips, [@dudewithsign].”My Arms Hurt”. Instagram, 19 November. 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CWd3AnpFqkW/, ©Seth Phillips

Due to social media’s engagement and interactive function, a simple post with a cardboard sign can initiate a growth in awareness that is more impactful than traditional news media. The characteristics of such a platform invite a feature in which news can be accurately told in a way that doesn’t disclude content, even if the topic is thought to be not newsworthy. Without the fear of this protest paradigm, peaceful activism can be initiated globally through casual and communal participation. The elements of this analysis situate Seth Phillips’ account @dudewithsign among various cross-examination through the history of media use concerning protests. The discussion of purpose and value that follow such activity, regardless of the genre of action, contributes to the idea that involvement in political action through social media is effective because it is communal and peaceful. The strength that is apparent when people are motivated by each other on a platform with the same vision and goal is a force that can be crucial to society’s development. What is needed is the background knowledge and figures of success in the area to inspire the initiative to be vocal.

Works Cited

Barberá, Pablo, et al. “The Critical Periphery in the Growth of Social Protests.” PLOS ONE, vol. 10, no. 11, 2015, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0143611.  

Demir, Fatih, et al. “Keeping It Peaceful: Twitter and the Gezi Park Movement.” Communication and the Public, vol. 5, no. 3-4, 2020, pp. 149–163., https://doi.org/10.1177/2057047320959852.

Kilgo, Danielle K., et al. “Martin to Brown.” Journalism Practice, vol. 13, no. 4, 2018, pp. 413–430., https://doi.org/10.1080/17512786.2018.1507680

Leighton, Heather. “Meet the Creators of the Dude with Sign Instagram Account.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 10 Dec. 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/heatherleighton/2020/01/28/meet-the-creators-of-the-dude-with-sign-instagram-account/

Neubaum, German. “‘It’s Going to Be out There for a Long Time’: The Influence of Message Persistence on Users’ Political Opinion Expression in Social Media.” 2020, https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/kqywr

Phillips, Seth [@dudewithsign].”Celebrate Women Every Day”. Instagram, 8 March. 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CMLLLmKlIsH/

Phillips, Seth [@dudewithsign].”Let’s Help Fight Australian Wildfires”. Instagram, 6 January. 2020, https://www.instagram.com/p/B6_moodFNfO/  

Phillips, Seth [@dudewithsign].”My Arms Hurt”. Instagram, 19 November. 2021, https://www.instagram.com/p/CWd3AnpFqkW/ 

Theocharis, Y. “Cuts, Tweets, Solidarity and Mobilisation: How the Internet Shaped the Student Occupations.” Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 65, no. 1, 2011, pp. 162–194., https://doi.org/10.1093/pa/gsr049

Welzel, Christian, and Franziska Deutsch. “Emancipative Values and Non-Violent Protest: The Importance of ‘Ecological’ Effects.” British Journal of Political Science, vol. 42, no. 2, 2011, pp. 465–479., https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007123411000421.

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