Dilemma Actions: Understanding and Response

Dilemma Actions: Understanding and Response
June 4, 2024 sdcpm
Dilemma Actions Understanding and Response - TorchStone Global

Dilemma Actions: Understanding and Response

By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart

When Alexi Navalny returned to Moscow in January 2021, he presented Russia’s President Vladimir Putin with a dilemma. As a persistent thorn in Putin’s side, Navalny had previously been beaten, arrested, attacked, imprisoned, and even survived an assassination attempt using the nerve agent Novichok. Yet despite this history of government violence directed against him, Navalny chose to return to Moscow after recovering from Novichok poisoning in a German hospital—and he knew the pressure his return was placing on Putin.

Navalny was intentionally forcing Putin to face a dilemma in which he had no good options. If Putin allowed him to return peacefully to Moscow to continue opposing Putin, Navalny would gain a highly symbolic political victory. If Putin chose to have Navalny assassinated, he would become a martyr for the Russian opposition. If he decided to have Navalny arrested and tried on trumped-up charges, the trial would become a media bonanza for Navalny’s supporters and Putin’s critics across the globe.

Ultimately, Putin decided to have Navalny arrested and tried on contrived charges. He was later murdered in a remote Siberian gulag, although it is unclear if the murder was ordered by Putin, or simply conducted by someone seeking to curry favor with the Russian dictator. While Navalny paid for this dilemma action with his life, the chain of events kicked off by his return to Moscow resulted in widespread condemnation of Putin both inside and outside Russia.

Dilemma Actions

By design, dilemma actions are intended to place the target of the action between a rock and a hard place by forcing them to choose between two or more bad options. In a properly conceived and executed dilemma action, activists can claim victory if those securing the target do nothing in response to the action—and they can also claim victory if security forces do respond—especially so if they over-respond.

The main goals of a dilemma action are to:

1. Create media coverage for a protest campaign launched in furtherance of the cause.
2. Draw new supporters to the campaign and cause.
3. Shift public perception of the cause driving the campaign.
4. Change the popular narrative regarding the cause.

While protest actions that create dilemmas have been used for a very long time, Mahatma Ghandi’s Salt Protest in 1930, is an often-cited example, it is only in recent decades that they have become studied by academics seeking to understand how and why they work—and by activists keen to teach others how to plan and execute them.

One recent work studying dilemma actions is Pranksters vs. Autocrats, a book written by Srdja Popovic and Sophia McClennen and published by Cornell University Press in 2020.  Popovich, an activist, is the founder of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS) and was instrumental in the overthrow of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000. McClennen, an academic, is the founding director of Penn State’s Center for Global Studies.

Popovic has devoted his life to overthrowing dictatorships and under his leadership CANVAS has trained activists across the globe in nonviolent protest tactics and creative activism. One important element of the training provided by CANVAS is dilemma actions.

Although dilemma actions have historically been used in nonviolent struggles against oppressive governments, the concept is being increasingly adopted by activists involved in campaigns spanning a wide variety of causes that target democratic governments, companies, and private organizations.

Sometimes protest actions can become dilemma actions unintentionally simply because of the awkward situation they place their targets in. Recent examples of this include the anti-Israel protests wracking college campuses, marches through cities by neo-Nazi groups such as the Patriot Front, and speeches by alt-right extremist influencers in libraries and other public venues.

Because of the growing number of dilemma actions, security leaders need to learn how to recognize them, understand how they are planned and the dynamics of how they work, and then based on this knowledge, develop plans to help mitigate their impact.

Successful Dilemma Actions

Not every protest action creates a dilemma for the target. If an action is small or insignificant enough to simply be ignored, the target will not feel compelled to respond at all, much less respond in a manner that will result in some sort of pain or embarrassment.

Conversely, if the goal of the action is far too broad or symbolic, it is also unlikely to create hard choices for the target.

According to those who study and teach dilemma actions, to be successful, the action must reflect a widely held belief that has meaning to the members of the audience the planners are attempting to recruit to their cause.

The action must also be creative enough to draw media attention, as heavy public interest and widespread media coverage will combine to help generate pressure on the target of the action to respond in some form.

However, media coverage itself does not create a dilemma for the target. The action must be crafted so that it will create sympathy in the public rather than generate hostility. For example, recent climate campaign actions that interrupt rush-hour traffic in European cities have generated massive amounts of publicity, but have also served to anger members of the public in the affected cities. Because of this, when the police began to arrest protesters, the people being obstructed tended to cheer them on. In some cases, angry and frustrated commuters have even taken matters into their own hands and attacked or removed protesters blocking traffic. In such situations there is no dilemma, it is quite easy for police leadership and their political chain of command to decide to arrest the protesters.

Similarly, violent protests such as those that broke out in the wake of the death of George Floyd in 2020 that involved looting, arson, and attacks against the police and courthouses failed to attract widespread support from the public that was shocked and outraged by the destruction caused during the protests.

For a dilemma action to gain traction, the public needs to look at the action, and the way it has been framed, as being appropriate for the cause it is connected with. Even an action conducted for a cause that the public is generally sympathetic to, can quickly fizzle if the action is deemed inappropriate. A good example of this was the 2012 protest by the punk rock band Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The protest was meant to criticize the Russian Orthodox church for their backing of Vladimir Putin’s 2012 reelection. However, since many Russians considered the protest to be sacrilegious, the focus of media attention and public discourse surrounding the protest quickly focused on hostility to Christianity and attacks against the church, rather than on the church’s support for Putin.

Rather than planning actions that will provoke outrage, Popovic stresses the importance of humor and absurdity in dilemma actions, something he refers to as “laughtivism.” As an example of a dilemma action using laughtivism that provoked a dilemma for the authorities, Popovic cited another protest that was directed against Putin’s 2012 reelection. After people in the Siberian city of Barnaul protesting Putin’s reelection were told they were no longer permitted to protest, they staged a protest of children’s toys holding protest signs. The authorities reacted harshly and declared the toy protest an unsanctioned public event. When citizens petitioned to allow the toys to conduct protest a city official ruled that the toys were not “citizens of Russia” making the authorities look foolish. The absurdity of the situation generated widespread public support and global media attention.

Another example of laughtivism cited by Popovic, and one that will be familiar to many corporate security managers is the Yes Men, a group of activists that frequently targets corporations and executives by creating phony websites, corporate videos, and impersonating corporate spokespeople in the press.

Responding to Dilemma Actions

Those planning dilemma actions are taught to study their target’s typical response to a protest action and are encouraged to design an action intended to make that response seem inappropriate or foolish.  What they are attempting to do is to turn the security response against itself.

Because of this, the first step security managers should take to counter dilemma actions is to examine the activist campaigns being directed against their company or organization and develop a thorough understanding of their cause(s), their grievance(s), their objectives, and the narratives they are using to frame their causes and campaigns. These can vary greatly depending on the company or institution and the activist movement(s) focused on targeting it.

Based upon this knowledge, security managers should then carefully examine every facet of their security operations through the lens of an activist seeking to target them for a dilemma action. This examination should include executive protection, facilities security, residential security, event security, etc.

The goal of this exercise is to consider ways an activist can plan an action that uses security operations against the target by either inducing security to do nothing and thus appearing weak and ineffective, or by overreacting and looking brutal or foolish.

These potential actions may not exactly predict what activists will do, but they can still be used to conduct tabletop or physical exercises that explore how to quickly recognize a dilemma action and how to properly respond if a similar action is conducted by activists.

It can also be helpful to work a dilemma action scenario into crisis management team training exercises. This is a good way to educate corporate leadership about dilemma actions and can help shape their response in a real situation.

Such exercises are also a good way to get corporate communications focused on dilemma actions and to help them prepare to get out in front of the activists’ media efforts to shape the narrative surrounding the action in a more favorable light.

Remain Even-Handed

Previously I noted how a successful dilemma action must be neither too small, nor too violent and inappropriate. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, it needs to hit the sweet spot and be “just right.”

To mitigate the impact of a dilemma action the security response to it must also be neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. The response should be considered through the lens of public opinion. Were the actions of the security personnel appropriate and measured?

Another helpful tool for proactively mitigating the impact of dilemma actions (and other protests for that matter) is to watch for signs that activists are planning actions against your company or organization and then legally monitor their open communications and chatter. What type of training are the activists targeting you receiving? What techniques and tactics have they used in the past?

Activists are taught to conduct pre-operational surveillance prior to actions, they call the process “scouting,” but it closely resembles the preoperational surveillance conducted by a terrorist planning an attack, and like a terrorist planning an attack, activists are vulnerable to detection during their scouting operations—but only if someone is looking for them.

By watching what and how the activists scout, security managers can gain some idea of the type of action they are planning and then plan the security response accordingly. This early warning also permits a very quick reaction to the action, sometimes even preventing the activists from fully deploying, which can help limit the publicity the action can generate.

Also, by preventing activists from scouting certain areas, security managers can help limit the types of actions activists can conduct and the places where they can conduct them.

Dilemma actions can be difficult to handle when activists catch security unprepared and unaware. But like any other threat, training, preparation, awareness, and a little creativity can make a world of difference in your company or organization’s ability to appropriately respond to a dilemma action.

Some resources for learning more about dilemma actions and the tactics employed during them: