Repression, backfire, and the theory of transformative events

Mobilization, Vol. 11, No. 1, June 2006, pp. 249-267. The version here differs slightly from the printed text.
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David Hess and Brian Martin

David Hess is Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Brian Martin is an associate professor in the School of Social Sciences, Media, and Communication, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia.


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Repression sometimes can lead to greater movement mobilization: repressive events that are perceived as unjust have the potential to generate enormous public outrage against those seen as responsible. One result of repression - backfire - can contribute to the understanding of the conditions under which some repressive events may become transformative for social movements. Three case studies that highlight the processes involved in backfire are examined: the 1930 Salt March in India, in particular the beatings at Dharasana, that mobilized popular support for independence; the 1991 massacre in Dili, East Timor, which stimulated a massive expansion in international support for East Timorese independence; and the arrest of alternative cancer therapist John Richardson in 1972, which led to a huge growth in the U.S. movement for alternative therapies. The cases generate a preliminary understanding of the potential scope of backfire, the processes involved in backfire, and new hypotheses.


A transformative event is a crucial turning point for a social movement that dramatically increases or decreases the level of mobilization. A theory of transformative events is potentially of interest not only to social scientists but also to activists who struggle with the problem of turning a cause into a mass movement (Flacks 2004). It is widely recognized that repression by authorities can become a transformative event either by significantly increasing the costs of additional mobilizing and organizing work (Tilly 1978: 100-102) or by leading to greater mobilization (McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly 2001: 69).

We develop an analysis of repressive events that lead to "backfire": a public reaction of outrage to an event that is publicized and perceived as unjust, and we study the processes associated with backfire, which include the management of backfire by authorities and the opposing moves from social movements. In most cases elites use techniques that can defuse mobilization, but sometimes the techniques fail badly. Depending on how successful elites are at controlling backfire, authorities may defuse public opposition or open political opportunities for mobilization. In the tradition of Marx's (1979) typology of "strategies and tactics intended to facilitate or damage social movements," we develop a typology of five strategies used by elites and authorities to prevent or manage backfire. Our goal is to theorize the role that the media and public-opinion management play in transforming repression into transformative events. We aim not merely to contribute to social movement theory but to offer practical and tactical insights that may be of use to movement activists.

McAdam and Sewell (2001), Morris (2004), and Moyer, McAllister, Finley, and Soifer (2001) define transformative events as turning points in the history of a social movement. In the case of the U.S. civil rights movement, they point to the Montgomery bus boycott and the Greensboro sit-ins as exemplars. In the case of the Iranian revolution, a cluster of events in August and September 1978, including the Abadan cinema burning, have also been described as transformative events (Rasler 1996). Moyer et al. (2001) argue that such "trigger events" follow a period of organizational groundwork and precede a "take-off" of mobilization. McAdam and Sewell (2001) note that transformative events can also be negative in the sense of leading to demobilization or collapse, and that the interpretations assigned to the event by participants and observers determine its transformative potential.

Although the categories of backfire and transformative events are independent, we are interested in their overlap. Backfire may occur around censorship, police brutality, or other kinds of repressive events that are perceived as unjust and generate public concern without necessarily being directly linked to social movements. An example is the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1991, which generated enormous outrage, much of it directed against the Los Angeles Police Department. King was not a nonviolent protester, nor did the beating occur as a response to social movement action (Martin 2005). Likewise, transformative events in the history of social movements are not always associated with backfire. Examples include mass rallies that show the strength of a social movement but are not directly in reaction to a specific event that is perceived as unjust; mobilization around natural or technological disasters, such as Chernobyl, where incompetence rather than injustice was the key behind the grievance; and spillover from transformative events in other social movements, such as a democratic revolution in a neighboring country.

One of the key mechanisms for generating backfire is public outrage at repressive events. This connects with a major debate in social movement research about the effects of repression on mobilization (Davenport, Johnston, and Mueller 2005). Some argue that as represssion escalates, it can dampen protest (e.g., Olzak, Beasley, and Oliver 2003) and increase the use of weaker forms of protest by strong actors (Titarenko, McCarthy, McPhail, and Augustyn 2001). Conversely, the absence of repression can open political opportunities and spur on large protest waves (della Porta 1995; della Porta and Diani 1999: 210). Activists too have long recognized the negative effects that "state crime" and "state terrorism" have on protest mobilization (e.g., Chomsky and Herman 1979; Ross 2000; Stohl and Lopez 1984).

Harsh repression may drive portions of the movement underground (Zwerman, Steinhoff, and della Porta 2000). Authorities who have experienced backfire due to excessive repression may strategically divide a movement by repressing a movement's radical wing and using accommodationist tactics for the moderate wing (Koopmans 1993) or for groups with which the state is more sympathetic (White 1999). Indeed, the state may legally recognize moderates and incorporate them into the political system, directly through negotiation, or indirectly through toleration of their peaceful protests (Koopmans 1993; Tarrow 1998).

Others argue that repression can lead to new mobilization - as we are claiming via backfire and transformative events. Violent repression of a peaceful movement can generate public outrage and escalate a movement, in contrast with the dampening effect of legal or institutional means of repression (Barkan 1984; Koopmans 1997). If the violent repression is seen as illegitimate, people are exposed to repression, and they are integrated into protest networks, then micromobilization processes can be activated (Opp and Roehl 1990). Given the lag before which micromobilization takes place, repression may have a short-term negative effect and long-term positive effect on movement mobilization (Rasler 1996). Authorities may also reduce violent repression when they are in the media spotlight (Wisler and Giugni 1999), and they may utilize disinformation and engage in media manipulation to discredit a movement (Marx 1979). In turn, media attention tends to be more sympathetic to protestors who have a rights-based or instrumental agenda rather than a countercultural or collective identity emphasis, and violent repression of a rights-based movement can generate public outrage (Wisler and Giugni 1999).

We argue that for a repressive event to generate backfire, two factors must be present. First, an audience must perceive the event to be unjust. Violent repression of a social movement with claims that are widely perceived to be legitimate is one example of a situation that some people will perceive as unjust, particularly in a civil rights scenario for instrumental movements (della Porta and Reiter 1998: 18; Wisler and Giugni 1999). Second, information about the event or situation needs to be communicated effectively to receptive audiences that are substantial enough that authorities must take their outrage into consideration. In the case of the Rodney King beating, television broadcasts of a videotape taken by observer George Holliday were crucial to backfire; there had been many far more serious beatings by Los Angeles police officers and police officers from other agencies that were not widely known and therefore generated little or no public outrage.[1]

The existence of backfire has been commented on in passing in the social movement literature (e.g., Wisler and Giugni 1999), but its dynamics as a process have not been extensively explored (although some discuss backlash, such as Francisco 2004, 2005 ). The nonviolence and peace literature has also touched on issues related to backfire, and its insights can be integrated with those of the social movement literature. We are especially interested in the existence of "moral shock" as the starting point of a public reaction (Jasper 1997, 1998; Jasper and Poulsen 1995). For example, Smith (1996) found that a key factor in recruitment into the U.S. Central American peace movement, which had strong religious roots, was "moral outrage." He also delineated several factors that were important in producing outrage, including religious murders (such as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980), refugee stories, and visits by activists and political officials to Central America.

A historically recurring form of backfire occurs when excessive police or military violence is directed at peaceful protesters (Barkan 1984). Examples include the 1905 "Bloody Sunday" massacre in Tsarist Russia and the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. In these and other cases, state violence strengthened the opposition. Leading nonviolence researcher Gene Sharp (1973) has called this process called "political jiu-jitsu," an analogy to the sport of jiu-jitsu in which the opponent's power is used against them. Political jiu-jitsu is one stage in what Sharp (1973: 447-817; 2005: 357-430) calls "the dynamics of nonviolent action." Other stages include laying the groundwork, mounting a challenge that brings repression, maintaining solidarity in the face of repression, and redistributing power. Sharp's political jiu-jitsu has also been called the "paradox of repression" (Schock 2005; Smithey and Kurtz 1999). In a similar way, McAdam (1999) uses the expression "critical dynamic" to refer to the way U.S. civil rights protesters used the violent response of white supremacists to prompt the federal government to intervene on behalf of the protesters, which was one facet of political jiu-jitsu in the civil rights movement (Sharp 1973: 670-671, 689-690).

The concept of "backfire" can be viewed as an expansion of Sharp's political jiu-jitsu on two dimensions. First, as our third case study demonstrates, backfire can occur not only in reaction to violent state repression but also in reaction to imprisonment, censorship, and lawsuits (Jansen and Martin 2003, 2004; Martin 2004; Martin forthcoming). Second, we view backfire as a political process that includes authorities' tactics to manage, inhibit, or promote outrage, and which contentious actors typically attempt to oppose. Specifically, we identify five of these tactics that occur across a variety of situations:

* Covering up the situation, including censorship of media coverage;

* Stigmatizing the target so that the repressive action seems legitimate or less offensive to audiences;

* reinterpreting the event as something other than an attack (e.g., presenting it as self-defense against protesters or as legitimate law enforcement behavior);

* obtaining authoritative assessments, typically by marshalling statements by experts or officials, setting up a formal inquiry, or developing some other official analysis of a more general situation (e.g., setting up an independent commission or scientific review), thus legitimating the event; and

* intimidating and/or bribing participants and witnesses (Jansen and Martin 2004; Martin 2004).

In this essay, we provide three case studies that allow an investigation into the dynamics of backfire, particularly in terms of analyses of tactics and countertactics. We explore how a double "legitimation battle" helps determine the extent to which an incident of perceived injustice can be turned into a transformative event. The first of these two battles occurs when elites and social movement leaders clash over the legitimacy of the repression and subsequent investigations and cover-ups. The second occurs when elites and social movement leaders battle over the legitimacy of the means and ends of the social movement. This second battle may include the extent to which social movement goals are aligned with general societal commitments to values such as democracy and justice, but they may also include arguments over factual or knowledge-oriented claims by the social movement. However, the tactics of backfire struggles go beyond battles over legitimation. The mechanism of cover-up aims at preventing awareness of events; if successful, cover-up reduces or even eliminates the need to demonstrate legitimacy. At the other end of the process, intimidation and bribery can dampen the expression of outrage even for activity perceived as totally illegitimate.

The five techniques of inhibiting outrage inevitably work differently for different individuals and audiences. For example, reducing information about an atrocity may mean that it is covered only in specialist publications or mailing lists. Even for those who find out about the atrocity, there will be different responses, ranging from shock and horror that leads to participation in social action, through mild concern with no change in behavior, to overt approval for the atrocity. Similarly, attempts to devalue targets of attack will vary in effectiveness according to prior beliefs (such as racism) and a range of other factors, including commitment to a law-and-order or civil rights frame, as recognized in the literature.

Despite the diversity of audiences and responses, there are some patterns that stand out, including - most relevant for our purposes - a strong likelihood that many people will be outraged by what they perceive as a gross injustice, and that some acts are regularly perceived as unjust (Moore 1978). Without some degree of commonality in response, the phenomenon of backfire would not be apparent. Thus, although we readily acknowledge diversity within audiences, it is the common patterns that are our focus of attention in this article.

To summarize our terminology, we have adopted "outrage" to refer to the reaction of individuals to events perceived as unjust, illegitimate, or otherwise inappropriate, notably events that involve political repression. We use the term "backfire" to refer to the ongoing, adverse reactions and mobilization generated by outrage, and the "dynamics of backfire" to refer to the techniques used that inhibit or promote this reaction. We examine three case studies to develop the hypothesis that backfire can play a role in generating transformative events for social movements.


This article does not treat backfire as a dependent variable that can be predicted by independent variables, nor does it assemble a large data set of cases of where backfire occurred and failed to occur with accompanying variables. Rather, our goal is to examine the extent to which the concept of backfire can be widely applicable across different types of social movements and repression, and to generate hypotheses about how backfire is related to transformative events. Because the goal is exploratory, qualitative methods are most appropriate. The case history method is also appropriate for our second goal: to provide insights that may be of help to movement strategists who wish to take advantage of backfire or develop tactics to counter the techniques of backfire management.

The first case study is the 1930 Salt March in India, a transformative event in the struggle for India's independence from Britain and a canonical campaign in this history of nonviolent action. The second case is the massacre of peaceful protesters in Dili in 1991, a transformative event in the struggle for East Timorese liberation. The third case study concerns the 1972 arrest of U.S. physician John Richardson for using the natural substance laetrile in treating cancer patients, a transformative event for the movement for alternative cancer therapies. The last case moves well beyond Sharp's model to a case of perceived injustice based on the violent repression of nonviolent protestors to injustice based on an attack on medical freedom. At the conclusion of each case study, we make brief mention of a parallel case in which backfire was largely averted.

In presenting the three cases, we rely on historical accounts of well-documented events. The cases are selected to provide some sense of the scope of the application of the concepts and to explore the dynamics of backfire in the context of social movement mobilization. The cases involve a range of national settings (less developed countries and the U.S.), social movement types (independence movements and a health social movement), national political systems (British colony, territory occupied by a repressive state, and representative government), and types of repression that is perceived as unjust (beatings, massacre, and state arrest).


India was conquered by Britain in the 1700s and turned into a profitable colony. Using divide-and-rule techniques to maintain dominance, the British took advantage of the deep cleavages in Indian society along lines of race, caste, religion, class, gender, and language; many Indians were willing to work for the British. The key figure in the Indian independence movement was Mohandas Gandhi (Brown 1989). Born in India in 1869, Gandhi left for South Africa as a conventionally minded lawyer. His experiences with the oppression of Indians in South Africa, plus his reading and correspondence, led him to develop a distinctive method of struggle based around what we today call nonviolent action. With a reputation as a principled and fearless advocate of the oppressed, within a few years of his return to India in 1915, Gandhi was established as the de facto leader of the national independence movement, though his approach was regularly challenged by critics and leaders on the left.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Gandhi led numerous campaigns (Dalton 1993; Gandhi 1940), many of which can be used to illustrate backfire dynamics. We choose here to examine one of the highlights of the struggle, the 1930 Salt March, and to focus on the beatings at the Dharasana saltworks, an episode featured in the 1982 feature film Gandhi. In planning his campaigns, Gandhi thought deeply and consulted widely in order to pick a theme and a set of actions that would mobilize support and be awkward for the British. In 1930, he decided that salt would be a suitable target of campaigning. The British rulers maintained a monopoly on salt manufacture and imposed a tax on it. Because salt was a familiar substance and widely used, the salt monopoly and tax provided a grievance with potent symbolism. Rather than move immediately to civil disobedience by making salt, Gandhi led a 24-day march to the sea, stopping to give talks, rally support, and call on village officials to resign. The Salt March captured the public imagination and led to parallel actions across the country (Weber 1997).

The Viceroy, Lord Edward Irwin, was caught in a bind: if he arrested Gandhi before breaking the law, this would arouse indignation, but if he waited, the campaign would build more momentum. Irwin's concerns about making a repressive move that would backfire were apparent in a letter to his father:

I am anxious to avoid arresting Gandhi if I can do so without letting a 'Gandhi Legend' establish itself that we are afraid to lay hands on him. This we clearly cannot afford. But at present there are no signs of that idea gaining currency. Apart from this, there is the undoubted fact that he is generally regarded as a great religious leader rather than a politician and that his arrest, while it will certainly not make the world fall in half, would yet offend the sentiment of many who disagree with him and his policy. (Dalton 1993: 112).

At the conclusion of the Salt March, near the village of Dandi, Gandhi and the other marchers committed civil disobedience: they waded into the sea, scooped out symbolic lumps of mud, and later proceeded to extract salt by boiling sea water. But this was not the end of the campaign. The next stage was raids on salt works, symbols of the British monopoly. By this time, Gandhi had been arrested, so the campaign was led by other experienced activists in his group.

Outside the Dharasana saltworks, satyagrahis (i.e., nonviolent activists) came forward in groups, attempting to breach the walls of the salt works and to snatch some of the salt. They were met by native police, under the command of the British. What happened is best described in the words of journalist Webb Miller:

In complete silence the Gandhi men drew up and halted a hundred yards from the stockade. A picked column advanced from the crowd, waded the ditches, and approached the barbed-wire stockade, which the Surat police surrounded, holding their clubs at the ready. Police officials ordered the marchers to disperse under a recently imposed regulation which prohibited gatherings of more than five persons in any one place. The column silently ignored the warning and slowly walked forward. I stayed with the main body about a hundred yards from the stockade.

Suddenly, at a word of command, scores of native police rushed upon the advancing marchers and rained blows on their heads with their steel-shod lathis [batons]. Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow.

Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down. When every one of the first column had been knocked down stretcher bearers rushed up unmolested by the police and carried off the injured to a thatched hut which had been arranged as a temporary hospital. (Webb Miller quoted in Weber 1997: 444-445).

The confrontation lasted many days, until it was ultimately called off by the organizers.

In the classic book The Power of Nonviolence (1966 [1934]) Richard Gregg coined the term "moral jiu-jitsu" to explain how violent attacks on nonviolent protesters could be counterproductive. Gregg assumed that the attackers would be converted to the protesters' cause, but this did not seem to be the case when police were beating protesters at Dharasana. Instead, some of the police became infuriated by the lack of resistance and increased the severity of their beatings. Thomas Weber (1993, 1997), who made the most comprehensive study of the Salt March, concluded that the primary effects of the beatings were on the Indian masses and on public opinion in other countries. In India:

Talking with those old enough to remember the heady days of 1930, the consistent response is that the event transformed the feeling in the country from one of pessimism to revolution, that nothing which could now be said about those times could possibly capture the intense sense of drama and wonder that surrounded the event, that the movement changed the face of India's history, that the country of before and after the Dandi March was not the same. (Weber 1997: 479).

The level of commitment inspired by the Salt March was a tremendous achievement, the enormity of which is suggested by the more than 60,000 Indians who were jailed for civil disobedience during the salt satyagraha according to official counts (Dalton 1993: 115).

The Salt March, and in particular the Dharasana beatings, also had a powerful effect on public opinion in Britain, the United States, and other countries, creating antagonism to British policy and support for Indian independence. Much of this was due to Miller's vivid reports. Miller's story, part of which was quoted earlier, was circulated by United Press, published in 1,350 newspapers, read out in the U.S. Congress, and reproduced by U.S. Gandhi supporters with more than 250,000 copies (Weber 1997: 404). The political impact of the Salt March was such that Time named Gandhi "Man of the Year" for 1930 (Dalton 1993: 107-108). Given the mobilization of public support in India and in other countries, it can be said that the Salt March was a transformative event for the Indian independence movement.

It can also be said that the arrests and the Dharasana beatings backfired on the British rulers: rather than dampening willingness to resist, they encouraged it. We commented earlier that in backfire, three groups can be affected: the grievance group, the attacker group, and third parties. As we have already described, the grievance group, namely the Indian population, was greatly mobilized by the Salt March. Key members of the attacker group, such as Lord Irwin, were beset with indecision. Finally, the Salt March and the Dharasana beatings were the subject of widely circulated news stories internationally. It is reasonable to presume that public opinion was affected, though there were no polls at the time to measure the impact.

Understanding the Dharasana beatings as a case of backfire, we now examine how the British tried to inhibit outrage and prevent backfire. We look in turn at each of the five techniques of inhibition outlined earlier.

As noted above, the first technique is cover-up. As the Salt March proceeded, the British imposed media censorship throughout the country in an attempt to prevent other challenges to the salt laws. They also tried to stop Miller's reports from getting out of the country, even though the censorship law did not cover foreign correspondents. In one instance, Miller was alerted by an apparent Gandhi sympathizer that one of his cables had not been sent. Only after threatening to fly to Persia to file the story was his story cabled.

The second technique for mitigating backfire is devaluing the target, which was not an easy task given the principled nonviolence adopted by the satyagrahis. The government nevertheless attempted to ridicule the protesters, for example describing some as requesting "a tap or two on the back of the legs" so that they could return home with a good reputation (Weber 1997: 453).

The third technique involves attempts to reinterpret the events. After the beatings, the government denied that there was any brutality involved, claimed that there were no wounded satyagrahis in hospitals, and alleged that they were faking their injuries. More generally, the government took the line that it was enforcing the law and ensuring order in the face of disruption.

The fourth technique uses official channels to try to create an appearance of justice. The arrest of Gandhi and other movement leaders was undertaken in accord with the law. The British government organized a conference in London to seek a settlement with the independence movement, though, according to Weber (1997: 461), "The negotiations yielded no tangible gains to the nationalist cause."

The fifth technique for dampening or averting backfire involves intimidation and bribery. The brutal beatings undoubtedly discouraged many supporters from participating, as did the possibility of arrest. Likewise, the reality or possibility of employment maintained the loyalty of most native police and other functionaries.

The British used all five techniques for inhibiting and manage outrage, but they were unsuccessful. Censorship did not prevent news of the campaign from circulating inside and outside India; attempts to denigrate satyagrahis had little impact given their principled stand; government lies were countered by independent accounts; laws and failed conferences did little to give an appearance of justice; and intimidation and bribery, though influencing some potential participants, were not enough to prevent an effective campaign.

A comparison can be made to an independence struggle in another British colony, Kenya, in the 1950s. Here, the British used extremely repressive measures against the Kikuyu population, including suspension of civil liberties, detention (usually without trial) of tens or hundreds of thousands, collective punishment, more than 1,000 executions following imposition of the death penalty, systematic torture of detainees, and killing of tens of thousands of people. Yet these horrific actions caused relatively little public concern: "Back in Britain there would be no soul-searching or public accounting for the crimes perpetrated against the hundreds of thousands of men and women in Kenya" (Elkins 2005: 363). The British covered up their actions, including massive destruction of records. They successfully stigmatized their opponents, the Mau Mau rebels, as ruthless savages. They interpreted their own actions as a necessary defense against a fearsome enemy. They used laws to justify much of the repression. Finally, they supplemented the repression with opportunities for Kikuyu who supported the British (Anderson 2005; Edgerton 1989; Elkins 2005). A key difference from India is that the Mau Mau in Kenya themselves used brutal methods (although the rebels' violence was greatly exceeded by that of the British).


East Timor was colonized by the Portuguese in the 1500s, whereas most of the remainder of the Indonesian archipelago was later colonized by the Dutch. After Indonesia obtained independence in 1949, East Timor remained a Portuguese colony. In 1974, the Portuguese fascist government was toppled in a military coup, enabling Portuguese colonies such as Angola to gain independence. In East Timor, the organization Fretilin declared the colony's independence and was poised to take power when, in December 1975, Indonesian military forces invaded and occupied the small territory (Joliffe 1978; Kohen and Taylor 1979).

The conquest and occupation was brutal. Members of Fretilin retreated to the mountainous hinterland and began a guerrilla resistance, a move that caused significant casualties among Indonesian troops but exacted a far more horrific toll among East Timorese fighters and civilians. Inner parts of East Timor were blockaded by the Indonesians. A commonly cited estimate is that warfare and starvation led to the death of perhaps one-third of the pre-war population of 700,000.

From the onset of the invasion, there was significant international opposition, with repeated motions in the UN General Assembly condemning the occupation as illegal. Only one government, Australia, ever recognized Indonesia's occupation as a legal incorporation of East Timor. But the UN took no action, nor did major governments. The Australian, British, and U.S. governments, among others, sold weapons and provided training to the Indonesian military (Pilger 1994).

At a grassroots level, there was significant opposition to the Indonesian occupation in several countries, including Australia, Britain, Portugal, and the U.S. However, it proved difficult to raise the profile of the issue, despite vigorous efforts by prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky (Chomsky and Herman 1979). From a backfire perspective, there were two major obstacles to movement mobilization. First, unlike the Salt March in India, the East Timorese struggle was perceived as a war in which violence was exercised by both sides. The Indonesian military had an overwhelming advantage in terms of troops and weapons, and it committed far more atrocities, but because Fretilin was committed to armed struggle, there was no great qualitative divide between the methods used by each side, thereby reducing the perception of injustice. Hence the major injustice was seen as the illegality of the occupation rather than the means used to maintain it. Second, the Indonesian occupiers exercised effective control over information, preventing nearly all communication between Fretilin and the rest of the world. Initially, short-wave contact was maintained via a transmitter in northern Australia, but the Australian government closed it down. Although some East Timorese were able to leave and share their experiences, their testimony lacked immediacy, authority, and vividness, which limited backfire.

In the late 1980s, Fretilin reconceived its strategy in order to unify the opposition within East Timor and to build international support (Fukuda 2000). Rather than concentrate on armed struggle in the countryside, the new emphasis was on nonviolent urban resistance, with a priority on protests during visits by foreign dignitaries. Fretilin resolved not to launch attacks but to use arms only defensively. This new approach maximized the likelihood that Indonesian repression would backfire. Indonesian atrocities committed against peaceful protesters would be seen as clearly unjust, and visits by dignitaries would increase the prospect of international media coverage.

A visit by Portuguese members of parliament was scheduled for late 1991, and East Timorese liberation supporters planned a major protest in Dili, the capital. But the visit was called off at the last moment due to protocol disagreements. During a confrontation around this time, an East Timorese youth, Sebastião Gomes, was killed. His funeral, held two weeks later, provided an occasion for the preplanned protest. On November 12, thousands of people joined the funeral procession, which was surrounded by Indonesian troops. The protest was vocal but peaceful, aside from one largely unnoticed scuffle. However, when the mourners entered the Santa Cruz cemetery, the troops suddenly opened fire without warning, killing and wounding a large number of mourners (Kohen 1999).

This massacre might have remained largely invisible to the rest of the world except that a number of western journalists were present and provided eyewitness accounts. Some of the journalists were beaten, including Amy Goodman of Pacifica Radio and Alan Nairn of The New Yorker. British photographer Steve Cox took striking pictures of the massacre. Most effectively of all, British filmmaker Max Stahl obtained video footage of the events. Shown around the world, this footage caused massive outrage and triggered a dramatic surge of support for the international East Timorese liberation support movement. It was the presence of independent observers, credible to Western audiences, along with photographic and video evidence, that turned the Santa Cruz massacre into a major backfire and, in this case, a transformative event.

The Indonesian government immediately took steps to inhibit the scale of the outrage. The first technique was cover-up. Phone connections to East Timor were cut off, so that prominent independence supporter Bishop Belo could not contact international media. The Australian government was alerted, so when Max Stahl arrived in Darwin, he was carefully searched by Australian customs officials. Stahl had the foresight to give his videotapes to someone who left East Timor and Indonesia by another route. Thus Indonesian attempts at cover-up largely failed.

The second technique involved attempts to devalue the victims. General Try Sutrisno, commander-in-chief of the Indonesian armed forces, in an address to troops called the protesters "scum," "ill-bred people," and "delinquents" (McMillan 1992). However, stigmatization of the East Timorese had little saliency in the West. Western audiences mostly perceived the East Timorese as equally deserving of justice as anyone else in South East Asia.

The third technique was to reinterpret the events, in this case by gross misrepresentation. Some Indonesian officials claimed that the events were caused by the actions of armed protesters. Others said that the Indonesian actions were not premeditated. Officials also minimized the casualties, initially giving the death toll as 19, but later raising it to 50. An independent investigation later gave a figure of 271 dead and 250 missing. The video evidence proved highly effective in exposing Indonesian lies about the massacre, showing it to be an unprovoked assault.

The fourth technique was to set up official inquiries in order to give the appearance of justice. The Indonesian government set up an inquiry - something unprecedented in the aftermath of atrocities in East Timor - and so did the Indonesian army. The inquiries led to the dismissal of some generals and the imprisonment of a few troops, which was a far more serious response than ever before. Nonetheless, on the outside the inquiries did not greatly reduce concern about the massacre.

The fifth technique was intimidation. Immediately after the massacre, Indonesian troops searched for protest leaders and arrested, beat, and killed large numbers of East Timorese. Some of those arrested and tried were given long sentences, a far more severe treatment than given to the Indonesians responsible for the massacre. This severe intimidation no doubt deterred some East Timorese from further protest, but it did not dampen international outrage. In other words, the intimidation was targeted at the grievance group, namely East Timorese who might pursue the independence struggle. But the Indonesians did not have resources to intimidate international audiences, the most crucial third party in this case. The beating of Western journalists at Santa Cruz cemetery only served to increase outrage.

In sum, the Indonesian government used all the standard methods to inhibit outrage, but without much success. The Dili massacre was a transformative event for the East Timorese liberation support movement. The event invigorated its activists, brought in many new members, created popular awareness, and triggered diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Indonesian government (Cox and Carey 1995: 55; Dunn 2003: 333; Fukuda 2000: 23; Kohen 1999: 168; O'Shaughnessy 2000: 36; Walsh 1995: 149). "At least three governments (Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands) suspended their aid programs to Indonesia" (Cox and Carey 1995: 53). East Timor became a higher profile issue for journalists in many countries, and movement speakers were in greater demand. In the U.S., the East Timor Action Network, a grassroots effort, was created. It put enormous pressure on key members of Congress, with the result that funding for a U.S. military assistance program to Indonesia was cut off, rather than being doubled as requested by the administration (Kohen 1999). "It was the first time that Suharto's U.S. aid had ever been cut for atrocities." (Nairn 1997: xxi).

Many observers have commented on the crucial role of the Dili massacre in the struggle for East Timor's independence. For example, Pat Walsh, a worker in an Australian NGO, commented that the Santa Cruz massacre was the "single event" most responsible for increased international pressure on Indonesia over East Timor since 1991: "The tragedy galvanized whole new sectors of public opinion around the issue, sharply increased scrutiny and criticism of Indonesia's behavior in East Timor and provided unprecedented visual evidence of East Timorese opposition to Jakarta's rule" (Walsh 1995: 149). In a book documenting the East Timorese struggle in words and photographs, Peter Carey said, "The 12 November massacre was a watershed ... in the modern history of East Timor" (Cox and Carey 1995: 55).

In 1998, long-standing Indonesian president Suharto stepped down in the wake of massive protests. The event opened the door to a referendum in East Timor. Following a vote of nearly 80% in favor of independence, Indonesian-supported militias went on a rampage of destruction. International media coverage and popular outrage led to the dispatch of UN troops to restore order, and East Timor subsequently became independent.

The Dili massacre, which backfired, can be compared to earlier massacres in East Timor, some of which were worse (Dunn 2003: 292) but caused little impact internationally. The difference is that in these earlier massacres, cover-up efforts by the Indonesian occupiers were far more effective. In part this was because there were no Westerners present and no video cameras, and hence no easy way for highly credible testimony and vivid images to reach outside audiences. Because reaction to these massacres was so muted, the Indonesian government was under no pressure to set up inquiries or even to justify its actions.


Throughout the twentieth century various doctors in the United States developed cancer treatments that they claimed had fewer side effects and greater efficacy than surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. In many cases the alternative doctors were targets of repression, and occasionally patients and other supporters rallied to their cause (Hess 1999, 2003). However, a mass social movement did not emerge until the 1970s, when the medical profession and regulatory authorities attempted to halt the use of laetrile, a nontoxic chemotherapeutic substance found in apricot kernels that is also called amygdalin or vitamin B17. Beginning in the 1950s there had been some skirmishes between laetrile advocates and the authorities. In 1965 one of the leading laetrile researchers, Ernst Krebs, Sr., faced criminal charges for distributing laetrile in violation of a court injunction (Culbert 1977: 145). Doctors who distributed laetrile were arrested, including Arthur Harris in 1956 and Maurice Kowan in 1967 (Griffin 1977: 42).

Although the arrests and criminal charges during the 1950s and 1960s generated outrage among alternative cancer therapy clinicians, researchers, and advocates, they did not reach a wide public and generate widespread backfire. This is not so much due to a cover-up of the repression as much as utilization of the third technique to manage outrage: the ability of the medical profession and state to convince the media and the public that they were engaged in legitimate law enforcement behavior.

However, the 1972 arrest of California physician John Richardson proved to be a transformative event that marked a dramatic increase in the mobilization of the laetrile movement. The arrest was not reported to be violent, although a subsequent arrest and raid on Richardson's clinic in 1976 reportedly involved police violence against his staff (Culbert 1977: 35). As Michael Culbert, a journalist (and later patient advocate) who covered the events, noted, the arrest was significant for the following reason:

Dr. Richardson was an outspoken member of the John Birch Society. And neither he nor any of his friends intended to back away from a good fight. The Richardson arrest marked the explosive entrance into the vitamin B-17 controversy of numerous Birchers.   (1977: 29)

Richardson fought the case not only in court but on the national lecture circuit; he traveled widely and attracted publicity and recruits for the laetrile movement. With support from the Birchers initially, the Committee for Freedom of Choice in Cancer Therapy sprang up to defend Richardson. In 1975, federal agents arrested several leaders of the organization, and in that year and the following year they arrested other California doctors for using laetrile. By 1977, the organization had 30,000 members in 500 chapters (Culbert 1977: 1-10, 191; Petersen and Markle 1979: 165).

In speeches given across the country, Richardson advocated medical "freedom of choice" legislation. The frame of health freedom was broad enough to attract supporters across the political spectrum and to generate outrage over the gap between the claim of the medical profession and state - to protect public health - and the perceived "reality" of health censorship. Like other laetrile advocates, Richardson argued that laetrile was suppressed because it presented a financial challenge to the pharmaceutical industry and to medical professionals who had a stake in the cancer industry. Richardson appealed to constitutional principles and even to the Nuremberg principles by arguing that laws must be rejected when those laws require a citizen to condemn others to death (Richardson 1977: 103). Although violence by the state was minimal - there were no beatings or massacres as in the previous two cases - its actions were perceived as life-threatening to the degree that patients believed that cutting off access to the drug meant a death sentence. This point should not be lost in understanding the mobilization that can occur from patients who are suffering from chronic, terminal disease. In addition to drawing support from patients and their families, the health freedom frame allowed the Richardson trials and subsequent mobilization to move rapidly beyond a core of right-wing supporters. For example, antiestablishment hippies and supporters of left-leaning presidential candidate George McGovern also rallied to the medical freedom cause, and over 1,000 physicians joined the Committee for Freedom of Choice in Medicine (Culbert 1977: 10). Other patient advocacy organizations joined in support, and by 1978 seventeen states had passed legislation that legalized or decriminalized laetrile and protected physicians from prosecution when using experimental or compassionate therapies (Petersen and Markle 1979: 163).

Efforts to control the backfire generated by media attention and public outrage, and like those directed at other complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches to cancer in both prior and subsequent decades, used most but not all of the five techniques for the control of outrage outlined at the outset of this article.

First, there is little evidence of attempts to cover up the repression; media coverage was not reduced as much as tilted toward the perspectives of the state and medical profession. This difference from the other two cases is probably related to the absence of a colonial situation and the absence or relatively low level of violence in the repression.

The second and third mechanisms, which involve devaluing the target and reinterpreting the events, occurred together. Doctors who advocated for laetrile were stigmatized; the state and medical profession branded them as quacks who were peddling potentially dangerous substances and profiting from the ill fortune of terminal cancer patients. In turn, the state was exercising its proper paternalistic role in protecting the public from untested medicine. Much of the laetrile controversy could be seen as a credibility battle (Epstein 1996) in which both sides attempted to portray their version of the story as grounded in solid science, to portray the other side's therapies as inefficacious and dangerous, and to portray the other side as not interested in the patient's health as much as in their own financial benefit.

The fourth mechanism of backfire management, official inquiry, proved to be the most effective, but not directly through the prosecution of laetrile doctors and leaders. Because the scientific claim that laetrile was safe and effective underlay the defense of laetrile doctors, the court cases could not resolve the underlying gap in legitimacy that the laetrile movement's frame posed. This problem meant that a second type of official inquiry was needed: an independent scientific assessment. The use of clinical trials proved to be a second transformative event - in this case, a negative one - in which the medical research establishment regained control over the therapeutic challengers through the frame of evidence-based medicine. The strategy did involve ceding some ground to the laetrilists, and subsequently to other CAM cancer therapy advocates, by transforming the substance from a hoax into an unproven and testable therapy (Markle and Petersen 1987: 328). In this sense, the development of clinical trials of CAM therapies marked a victory for the movement, even as it ended up undermining the movement through a form of cooptation. Clinical trials were also used effectively to defuse other challenges, such as those mounted by Linus Pauling and colleagues over vitamin C and cancer (Richards 1991). The suppression strategy was no longer necessary, because the alternative physicians and patient advocacy organizations lacked the material and technical resources to develop their own clinical trials.

Although conflict did not disappear with the turn toward the use of clinical trials as a way to mediate disputes, it became transmuted into a much more complex politics of the design of clinical trials and a more general modernization of the relationship between health social movements and researchers around evidence-based medicine (Hess 2004). When the results for the laetrile trial came in negative, advocates cried foul and claimed that real laetrile had never been tested (Moss 1996). However, because the medical researchers dominated the media coverage and because it was so difficult for laypeople to make an assessment of competing knowledge claims, a second level of backfire did not develop around the clinical trials. Ralph Moss, a leader of the CAM cancer therapy movement, described the press coverage as a "major public relations setback for unorthodox medicine" and noted, "Laetrile's demise as a national phenomenon was as rapid as its ascent" (Moss 1996: 150-152). Although the movement had won its legitimation battle over the rights issue under the banner of medical freedom, it suffered significant setbacks in the second legitimation battle over its factual claims.

Regarding the fifth mechanism for the control of backfire, intimidation and bribery, in both the laetrile case there were attempts to intimidate patients by confiscating their medical records and by threatening them with legal action for use of "illegal" substances. Furthermore, advocates pointed to a host of extralegal mechanisms of suppression, such as hostile tax audits and confiscation of property. Yet, this mechanism was not as salient in this case as the second, third, and fourth mechanisms.

In subsequent decades, the movement for complementary and alternative cancer therapies underwent two other waves of repression, the first of which generated backfire. In July 1985, the offices of two leading CAM cancer doctors, Stanlisaw Burzynski in Texas and Lawrence Burton in the Bahamas, were raided (Moss 1996). Working with the U.S. authorities, Bahamian health authorities padlocked Burton's clinic, and Burzynski's records were seized by the U.S. government. This repression generated a swift reaction from patients and alternative cancer therapy movement leaders. While Burzysnki fought ongoing court battles, Congressman Guy Molinari supported the patients and held public hearings that eventually led to a congressional mandate for the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to carry out an investigation and to test Burton's therapy. Note that in this case the official inquiry came as a demand from those sympathetic to the movement, and originally movement leaders welcomed the investigation.

However, as movement actors began to view the inquiry as coopted by researchers who were hostile to alternative therapies, the investigation became increasingly politicized and contentious. Movement leaders turned against the investigation and exposed biases, and Burton eventually refused testing under what he saw as conditions that guaranteed failure. When the National Cancer Institute did not cooperate with a Congressional call to investigate alternative cancer therapies fairly, Congress mandated funding for a program that eventually became the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. In short, backfire from the repression in 1985 generated the fourth response - an official inquiry - that itself eventually generated a second wave of backfire, in a process analogous to the laetrile and vitamin C clinical trials. The second wave of backfire eventually led to a new research center, which might be viewed as an institutionalization of the fourth mechanism of the management of backfire. The trajectory of events became transformative for the alternative cancer therapy movement because it marked its "integration" into the mainstream (Hess 2003).

A third wave of repression occurred in 1999-2001. In 1999-2000, the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission intervened with supplements retailers that were selling shark cartilage (Hess forthcoming). The government agencies argued that unapproved health claims were being made and the products were being used for cancer treatment rather than for general health and structure/function purposes. About 25,000 people were using cartilage products, and the industry was earning about $50-60 million in annual sales. In 2001, the U.S. federal government joined with the Mexican government to raid and close some of the cancer clinics in Tijuana, which had been the mecca for tens of thousands of North American cancer patients since the laetrile era (Moss 2005). New levels of coordination of repression had been facilitated by the post-NAFTA organization of health and regulatory authorities into the Mexico-U.S.-Canada Health Fraud Work Group. Moss notes that only one Tijuana alternative cancer clinic per year has been targeted for closure, perhaps to reduce the potential for backfire.

In neither the cartilage crackdown nor the Tijuana closures was significant outrage generated, even though the level of repression was significant and certainly equivalent to that of the laetrile era. Again, there was no cover-up of the repression, but the second and third techniques were evident. For example, coverage in a key newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, alleged abuses at the clinics and corruption of Mexican regulatory officials (Moss 2005). Moss attributes the lack of widespread public outrage to the collapse of the movement from its heydey of tens of thousands of members during the 1970s (Moss 2005). To some extent, the collapse was due to the movement's success at transforming repression into a research problem and its "incorporation and transformation" into the medical mainstream, whereby alternative cancer therapies were increasingly redefined as complementary and the diffusion of both was controlled by the results of clinical trials (Hess 2005). The events of 1999-2001 may turn out to be yet another transformative event in the movement, marking the death knell of truly alternative therapies in favor of adjunctive uses for standard chemotherapy.

In summary, the most recent wave of repression, like the very first waves prior to Richardson, are examples where no significant backfire occurred. Elsewhere the different historical circumstances of the movement, including its integration into the mainstream, and its relationship to similar processes of routinization and cooptation in the social movement literature are discussed in detail (e.g., Hess 2006). The existence of a social movement organization in the Richardson case (the John Birch Society) and its absence in the cartilage-Tijuana crackdowns suggest that in cases other than severe police brutality against peaceful protestors, a large and organized movement may be necessary to create and sustain backfire.


Our case studies suggest how a concept developed from nonviolence theory - backfire - can be utilized in the context of social movement studies to deepen the understanding of how under some circumstances repression can generate transformative events. We suggested that backfire played a significant role in transformative events in the history of three social movements, and we identified five techniques that elites use to control or inhibit backfire in two of the cases, and four in a third case. Collecting examples from all three case studies, table 1 lists some of the methods used to inhibit outrage and diminish the likelihood and/or severity of backfire.

This table highlights the importance of communication to movements, both to overcome censorship and to counter elite perspectives. As new communication technologies are introduced and become familiar to audiences, it seems plausible that the characteristic communication media for generating outrage may change. For the 1930 Salt March, the key was text, notably stories by journalist Webb Miller; photos were taken at the time but there was no technology for quick distribution of images. For the 1991 Dili massacre, videotape was the most effective communication medium for generating outrage; photos and eyewitness testimony also played a role. For the repression of Richardson, the key was public lectures and movement organization newsletters. In a contemporary example, the key medium was digital photographs in the torture and abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (Danner 2004). Generally speaking, movements against repression are better served by communication technologies that are decentralized, namely in the form of networks (Martin and Varney 2003: 166-67) - the internet is the archetype in this regard - though such technologies do not automatically foster liberation (Kalantil and Boas 2003).

The table also highlights the importance of maintaining initiative in the face of both official channels, which give the promise of justice through the system, and intimidation and bribery, which discourage action by those feeling outrage. The table is built on the assumption that there is an event that can potentially cause backfire for elites. It is here that the technique of devaluation has a special role: if the target is perceived as unworthy, then actions taken against it may not be seen as unjust. In the case of the CAM cancer therapies, cover-up was not necessary because the authorities could pursue their law-and-order frame of legitimate repression of public health threats. This is the reason that authorities portray targets as alien, inferior, lazy, crazy, dangerous, or any number of other derogatory labels. The more highly valued the target, the more easily the public is outraged by attacks on that target.

Table 1: Techniques Used to Inhibit Backfire and Responses to Those Tactics

Technique of inhibiting outrage Examples Methods of promoting outrage
Censorship; confiscation of evidence
Communication to movement members and wider society; journalism (stories, photos, videos)
Devaluation of the target Racial prejudice; framing of repressed as liars or quacks Principled nonviolence; humanization through personal stories
Reinterpretation Lies; spin; frame alignment of elites with public interest Persuasive accounts by credible witnesses; revealing power or financial interests of represssive elites
Official channels Official statements; formal inquiries; courts; scientific research and expert panels Use of alternative, nonofficial channels; exposing biases in formal inquiries
Intimidation and bribery Threats, arrests, beatings, killings; job loss/demotions Continued initiative by movement members; initiative by third parties

Based on our case studies, we can present five hypotheses for future testing:  

Hypothesis 1: When repression backfires, we expect that a thorough investigation will reveal evidence of most or all of the five methods of inhibiting outrage.

Our three major case studies conform to this hypothesis; all five methods were used in Dharasana and Dili, and four were used in the Richardson case.

Hypothesis 2: When repression does not backfire - the usual scenario - we expect to find evidence of at least one of the methods of inhibiting outrage. Sometimes only a single method - such as cover-up or framing the event as legitimate law enforcement - is enough to prevent public outrage, so that it is not necessary for perpetrators to use other methods. But when an incident or issue begins to escape elite definition and control, then elites are more likely to use other techniques.

Two of the parallel cases examined in this article - in which repression did not backfire in Kenya and in earlier East Timor massacres - conform to the second hypothesis.

Hypothesis 3: Tactics for control of backfire will vary by societal and institutional context. Under conditions of high levels of violent repression and in cases of totalitarian or colonial governments, the first and fifth techniques will be more salient, whereas in cases where repression is less violent and there is a relatively open society (in terms of freedom of the press), the second, third, and fourth techniques will be more salient.

We note that elites will probably utilize as many techniques as necessary, but that they may fall into these two general groupings.

Hypothesis 4: We expect that because backfire requires general communication to a movement as well as to a potentially sympathetic public, it is very dependent on the degree to which elites control the media. Where there is relatively open and decentralized media, we expect backfire to be more easily generated.

Corollaries of this hypothesis would include the negative effect of high levels of media ownership on backfire and the negative effect of cooptation of journalists by government agencies and professional groups (such as in the tight control of information by the American Medical Association).

Hypothesis 5: When repression is used in more institutionalized forms rather than violent brutality against nonviolent protestors, such as in the crackdowns on health-care providers that the state has portrayed as threats to the public health, we do not expect backfire unless there is a significant social movement in place (as occurred during the 1980s repression of Burzynski and Burton) or a related movement that can be easily mobilized (as Richardson did with the Birchers).

Based on our case studies, we do not attempt to judge which techniques are most likely to be successful in particular circumstances because too much depends on resources, circumstances, and skill in using techniques. It would require a much larger sample size to begin to assess the effectiveness of particular techniques in specific circumstances. It is still quite useful to be able to predict that certain types of techniques - such as cover-up or official channels - will be used, even if assessing their effectiveness must occur on a case-by-case basis.

Our analysis also suggests that the generation and management of backfire may be a significant element in the way a social movement responds to repression. Much of the politics of backfire involves a credibility battle (Epstein 1996) over whose version of the facts of the repressive event and whose legitimating/delegitimating frame is correct. To some extent, elites can drown out opposition through control of the media and (in some cases) scientists and intellectuals. However, when the media are not tightly controlled and the elites have trouble keeping all media outlets in line, secondary credibility battles can break out within the media and in scientific communities, as occurred in the laetrile case. Social movements often embody not only moral claims but also factual claims about what is or is not happening, and in this sense they are knowledge-bearing or knowledge-making entities (Jamison 2001). The credibility battles that emerge in the media and scientific communities are particularly salient where science and technology issues intersect with social movement claims, as in the peace, health, and environmental movements, but they can be found to some degree in all social movements. Social movements' knowledge claims represent a potential Achilles' heel, because knowledge-making activity requires expertise and resources that elites can easily control. Whereas some analysts and activists think that the establishment of official investigations is a positive development, our analysis suggests their downside: they serve to blunt outrage over injustice by fostering the belief that matters are being handled fairly and appropriately, while usually serving the interests of elites. These observations suggest some future areas for investigation regarding credibility, the media, and science in the dynamics of backfire.

In addition to adding insight into why some events can be transformative for the movement's history, studying backfire and actions by authorities that attempt to avoid, mitigate or manage backfire has practical applications for activists.2 For instance, some social movement leaders believe that violence is more effective than nonviolence, whereas backfire analysis shows that outrage is maximized when the injustice is clear-cut. Sharp (1973: 573-655) gives many examples showing that nonviolent activists need to maintain their solidarity and nonviolent discipline to be effective. Many activists believe that official inquiries and courts offer a road to justice; the backfire framework points to the role of such official channels in reducing outrage and even their potential to become negative transformative events. Gandhi, who supported nonviolence as a matter of principle, not pragmatism, believed that it mainly worked through converting opponents; Weber (1993) and this research suggest that the greater impact maybe through winning over third parties.

The backfire framework can also provide a checklist for activists to ensure that they are prepared for likely responses by opponents. Using the backfire framework, movement leaders and activists can anticipate opponents' likely actions, such as cover-up and devaluation, and prepare accordingly. For example, in organizing a rally, activists could prepare to make police assaults backfire by deploying numerous witnesses (including videocameras), promoting the most image-enhancing dress and comportment, making clear the purposes of the rally to wide audiences well in advance, avoiding being bogged down in official investigations, and preparing to resist intimidation.


We thank Truda Gray, Elizabeth Gregory, Hannah Lendon, Greg Scott, Thomas Weber, and several anonymous reviewers for valuable discussions and comments on drafts of this article. This work is supported by the Australian Research Council.

1 Note that "receptive audiences" can include those in the "grievance group" (Sharp 1973, 2005) whose concerns are at stake and are championed by the social movement, those in the attacker group, and third parties such as the general public of a city, state, or larger geographical unit.

2 In principle it could aid movement opponents, who might use the techniques of inhibition to prevent outrage from repression. In practice, however, oppressors seem to use the techniques instinctively; furthermore, people who perpetrate violent and cruel acts usually see themselves as justified or as victims, not as calculating evildoers (Baumeister 1997).


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