Triumph for Extinction Rebellion as protests spark huge surge in ‘climate change’ web traffic

Group apologises for disruption but says demonstrations were ‘hugely successful’

Joseph Cowell
Friday 26 April 2019 15:47
Extinction Rebellion protesters continue to block Oxford Circus and Waterloo Bridge in third day of action

Extinction Rebellion activists have hailed their protests in London as a “huge success” after data suggested they caused a five-fold increase in online searches for climate change.

The demonstrations, which began on 15 April, saw activists shut down major roads and bridges in the capital for over a week, resulting in more than 1,000 arrests.

Ten days later, members of the organisation glued themselves to the London Stock Exchange and the Treasury in the capital’s financial heartland as the protests were brought to a close.

The protest provoked howls of outrage from climate change deniers, and politicians including Boris Johnson, who described the protesters as hypocritical, “smug, irritating and disruptive”. Home secretary Sajid Javid said police should “take a firm stance and use the full force of the law” against them.

However, data collected from Google Trends indicates the group succeeded in raising public awareness about what they call “an unprecedented global emergency”.

The analytics tool, which assigns search terms a popularity score out of 100 based on usage over a defined period, shows searches for ‘climate change’ and ‘Extinction Rebellion’ exploded at around the time the protests began.

In the week leading up to the protest, from 7 to 13 April, the term “climate change” was assigned a relative score of 13, while “Extinction Rebellion” was assigned a score of five.

In the first week of the protests, the score for the term “Extinction Rebellion” soared to 100 and “climate change” rose to 68.

The surge in interest is also borne out by the number of Google search results – indicating the number of times a keyword has been published online, in everything from news articles to blog posts.

In the 10 days leading up to the protests, googling “climate change” returned around 77,600 UK results; but during the protests from 15 to 25 April, this number more than doubled to around 165,000.

The results are similar when the term “Extinction Rebellion” is applied. In the 10 days prior to the protests, there were around 26,900 UK results, which jumped to 78,100 while they were taking place.

Google does not provide sufficient detail to isolate exactly how many searches were by people who simply wanted to know about the disruption to transport networks.

However, analysis by The Independent shows the overwhelming majority were intended to uncover information around the issue, such as general facts about climate change, the specific definition, evidence for it, and David Attenborough’s view.

In addition, Extinction Rebellion claims that 30,000 people became members and £300,000 was raised in crowdfunding after the protests began.

Alanna Byrne, a press coordinator for Extinction Rebellion, said the protests were “hugely successful” and they were pleased with the way the “message has travelled”.

“Most of the feedback that we’ve had has been very positive, and even the right-wing press has been covering us pretty well,” she added.

She also claimed that the protests were justified, despite criticism of the organisation’s techniques. “People have to understand that this is urgent and we have to act now,” she said.

“We think the government has to do their part and take action now as well. We’re really sorry to the public for being disruptive – but at the end of the day if we don’t cause this temporary disruption now, the disruption in the future is going to be horrifying.”

Defending the conduct of Extinction Rebellion protesters, she added: “We are non-violent and even Cressida Dick has commented on how peaceful we’ve been. We’ve had over 1,000 peaceful arrests and there’s been no trouble or aggression with regards to that.”

PR experts also agreed that the type of disruptive tactics employed by Extinction Rebellion had successfully made people take notice.

“People talk about water cooler moments, and they do exist,” said John Wringe, former chief operating officer at PR firm Red Cell. “At the moment it’s Line of Duty, but everyone is also talking about this thing called ‘Extinction Rebellion’.”

“In propaganda, the quickest way to get PR uptake is to do something radical that causes column inches.

“It’s a tried and trusted PR tactic going back generations – for very little cost – and it’s obvious that they’ll succeed in temporarily getting people to take notice.

“The media are doing exactly what they [Extinction Rebellion] want them to do, and that is talking about them.”

Mark Borkowski, who has written extensively about the art of the “publicity stunt”, said that the campaign was markedly different from previous eco-protests.

“The aims of the Extinction Rebellion press operation is gradual change – to gather momentum, and what we’ve seen recently with them has been something that has built up over a period of time,” he said.

Publicity stunts, to a certain extent, are a tipping point to achieve a consciousness. What the PR world does badly sometimes are bad publicity stunts – that go off and generate a focus of attention for a 24-hour period but is then forgotten about.

“What they have done through the use of direct action and social media is build a momentum behind their campaign. You have to sustain the momentum of your action to keep interest going.”

He added: “They’ve had really strong iconic messages, such as the pink boat and stopping the traffic, which have really resonated with people’s consciousness – similar to protests in the past like ‘Ban the Bomb’, Greenham Common and anti-racism that had a profound effect.

“A lot of charities and protest movements could learn from the PR tactics of Extinction Rebellion.”

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Extinction Rebellion argues that the government response to climate issues has been inadequate, and calls for the UK government to introduce a new target of achieving net carbon neutrality by 2025.

While Labour is pledging to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050, the Conservatives are yet to specify a target.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said that the government is committed to reducing carbon emissions.

“We’ve seen first-hand the impact climate change is having on our environment, and we share people’s passion to tackle this issue and protect our planet for future generations,” he said.

“The right to protest peacefully is a long-standing tradition in this country and a vital foundation of our democracy. People should be free to gather and demonstrate their views in public – provided they do so within the boundaries of law and without endangering the safety of the public.”

A Home Office spokesperson reiterated Mr Javid’s stated support for peaceful protest.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments