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Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action

Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action

by Helen Margetts

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As people spend increasing proportions of their daily lives using social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, they are being invited to support myriad political causes by sharing, liking, endorsing, or downloading. Chain reactions caused by these tiny acts of participation form a growing part of collective action today, from neighborhood campaigns to global


As people spend increasing proportions of their daily lives using social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, they are being invited to support myriad political causes by sharing, liking, endorsing, or downloading. Chain reactions caused by these tiny acts of participation form a growing part of collective action today, from neighborhood campaigns to global political movements. Political Turbulence reveals that, in fact, most attempts at collective action online do not succeed, but some give rise to huge mobilizations—even revolutions.

Drawing on large-scale data generated from the Internet and real-world events, this book shows how mobilizations that succeed are unpredictable, unstable, and often unsustainable. To better understand this unruly new force in the political world, the authors use experiments that test how social media influence citizens deciding whether or not to participate. They show how different personality types react to social influences and identify which types of people are willing to participate at an early stage in a mobilization when there are few supporters or signals of viability. The authors argue that pluralism is the model of democracy that is emerging in the social media age—not the ordered, organized vision of early pluralists, but a chaotic, turbulent form of politics.

This book demonstrates how data science and experimentation with social data can provide a methodological toolkit for understanding, shaping, and perhaps even predicting the outcomes of this democratic turbulence.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
One of The Guardian's Best Politics Books of 2016, chosen by Gaby Hinsliff

"[C]ontributes an important series of creatively and rigorously researched insights into the social mechanics of Internet-based collective action, handing researchers a new toolbox of methods and techniques in the process."Science

"A comprehensive study."—Ivor Gaber, Times Higher Education

"A revelatory study."—Stuart Weir, Open Democracy UK

"Sheds interesting light on the year's great upheavals."—Gaby Hinsliff, Guardian Best Politics Books of 2016

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Princeton University Press
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Political Turbulence

How Social Media Shape Collective Action

By Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale, Taha Yasseri


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7355-5



'Everyone out against everything' ran the headline of the leading Brazilian newspaper of 21 June 2013 in response to mass protests in over one hundred cities. Starting as a demonstration against increased bus fares, the protests grew into a movement against a range of deep issues in Brazilian society: inequality, corruption, lack of public services, and spiralling expenditure on the country's commitment to host the 2016 Olympic Games as well as the 2014 World Cup. To the surprise of the world, the movement appeared to rise from the grassroots with no coordinating organization. Demonstrators refused to allow the flying of traditional political party flags in the protest marches, chanting, 'The people united don't need parties'. When the president, Dilma Rousseff, asked to meet with the leaders of the demonstration, she was told, 'there are no leaders'. This is not to say that such forms of collective action are not organized. Far from it, they are surprisingly well coordinated through the use of social media and other Internet-based platforms that allow users to generate and share content. In this way, states are being challenged by groups of citizens who have as their main weapon an ability to communicate and coordinate the resources of large numbers of people.

From wherever in the world you are reading this book, you are likely to have been touched by a mobilization that shares something with the one in Brazil; that is, having social media as a key tool of coordination. Movements like this have become a central feature of twenty-first-century politics, driving policy change, high-lighting weaknesses in public services, bringing new political forces to the fore, acting as a focal point for dissatisfaction and discontent, campaigning for social rights, and challenging both democratic and non-democratic regimes.

From 2002, when large networks of young activists proved a major force in bringing the previously unknown Roh Moo-hyun to presidential power in South Korea, there has been a continual stream of examples. In 2003 millions of people were mobilized in eight hundred cities across the world, including two million in London on 15 February, to demonstrate against their states' involvement in the Iraq War, the largest protest in human history until that time. In 2008 the United States elected its first black president, with record levels of turnout (particularly among black and first-time voters), community support, popular engagement, and large-scale fund-raising from the general public. Mass demonstrations took place in Iran in protest at allegedly rigged election results in 2009, organized and beamed across the world through digital communications.

There have been dramatic developments in political activity for democratic and social rights. On issues of gender, mobilizations have ranged from a successful petition calling for the depiction of women on banknotes in the United Kingdom to global campaigns against the practice of female genital mutilation. In the United States in 2014, large-scale protests against perceived racism in policing started after the shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer and resurfaced at each new shocking incident. In the same year, students and other protesters calling themselves the Umbrella Revolution campaigned for democratic change in Hong Kong, using social media extensively to organize and to connect in a global movement. Even where Internet usage is low or there is heavy censorship, social media have played a role in the dissemination of images of demonstrations or state violence to the outside world.

In many countries, the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent economic crisis brought social backlash, demonstrations, protests, and even riots against banks and their leaders. Protesters high-lighted state retrenchment, corruption, and public-sector cutbacks as key issues. In Spain, the 15-M (Indignados) movement carried out a series of demonstrations from May 2011, campaigning against unemployment, welfare cuts, and Spanish politicians as well as the general political system, capitalism, and political corruption. Between 6.5 and 8 million people participated, with the support of over 500 associations, but they rejected political party or labour union collaboration. Inspired in part by the Indignados, the international protest movement Occupy has campaigned against social and economic inequality, particularly the disproportionate power of large corporations, since a high-profile demonstration in New York in September 2011 (Occupy Wall Street) that quickly spread to over eighty countries and six hundred local communities in the United States. In Greece, protests, demonstrations, and riots have become common occurrences since the summer of 2011, directed against an enfeebled state and determined to overturn the deep austerity programme required by the EU in return for a succession of bailouts. These protest movements continue in their countries of origin and have spread across the world. Some have seen the rise of far-right and anti-Islamist groups, as in Germany where protests by the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) have been attended by thousands, matched by a counter-movement of anti-Nazi activists who use social media and mobile apps to find where extremists are planning protests and organize counter-protests.

Autocratic regimes have fallen into disarray and even collapsed in the face of mass demonstrations, mobilizations, protests, and generalized unrest. In Tunisia in December 2010, decades of discontent erupted when a young unemployed man, Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, was forbidden from selling vegetables in the street and set himself on fire, sparking off the Arab Spring of 2011. President El Abidine Ali fled from Tunisia in January; a month later the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had also gone. Protests spread across the region to twenty countries including Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and Syria. Social media were heavily implicated in much of this activity, particularly in the so-called Facebook Revolution of Egypt. The movements and uprisings that characterized the Arab Spring have proved unstable and often unsustainable, some dissipating almost as soon as they began in the face of brutal suppression, some erupting into civil war and chaos, others reverting back to regimes as autocratic and repressive as those they sought to depose. But these movements changed the practice of politics by illustrating starkly both the potential and the risks of large-scale mobilization without formal organization. Across the region, such mobilizations — or the possibility that such mobilizations will erupt — have become a permanent feature of political life.

These are just some of the more prominent examples of a general phenomenon that ranges from global political movements to neighbourhood campaigns: the emergence of mobilization coordinated by social media as a political force. Use of social media and the nature of mobilizations may be distinct depending on the context and country, but there are common patterns too. In all there has been a surge of activity among those seen traditionally as the socioeconomic groups least likely to participate politically, such as the young and members of ethnic minorities. Such mobilizations periodically burst into public awareness and headlines. But in many ways, we know little about them, beyond the self-evident fact that the nature of collective action is continually shifting and evolving. Political movements based on digital coordination seem to gather momentum rapidly, yet many have proved to be unstable and difficult to sustain as in the Brazilian example with which we opened. The Arab Spring and the other events described above took the world by surprise, evidenced by articles by prominent commentators that predicted the mobilizations would have little lasting impact, such as 'Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted' and (even after the Tunisian president had fled) 'Why the Tunisian Revolution Won't Spread'. Each new wave of demonstrations and protests seems to rise up from nowhere and defy prediction.

These mobilizations pose a challenge to social science. We do not yet understand their ecology: How do they get started, and how do they operate? Why do some succeed in achieving sustainability and policy and regime change against high odds, while others fail, even where the contexts seem similar? Given this protean context, this book's main task is to examine the relationship between social media and contemporary collective action. We ask how the widespread and growing use of social media affects the operation and functioning of contemporary politics. We will be able to answer this question only by examining the patterns, trends, numbers, and causal mechanisms behind the mobilizations that have surprised the world during the past decade. We use new data and new methods to delve into the changed environment within which citizens make decisions whether or not to participate politically. We believe that understanding this new environment and outlining the association between social media and collective action are the most significant (and exciting) challenges facing political science today. Only by developing that understanding will we acquire any predictive capacity or avoid the bemusement that surrounds each new mobilization.


Up until this point we have used the term 'social media' liberally, but it requires definition. Basically, social media are Internet-based platforms that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content, usually using either mobile or web-based technologies. They can take many forms, including blogs and micro-blogs (such as Twitter or Weibo); social networking sites (such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Tuenti, Instagram, Snapchat, or Orkut); content-sharing sites (such as YouTube, Flickr, and Vine); social bookmarking sites (such as Digg, Reddit, or Delicious); projects to produce online goods (such as Wikipedia or Baidu Baike); and virtual worlds for gaming or socializing (such as Minecraft and Second Life). All these social media applications rely on the Internet. But as their use has grown to become the way that most users experience the Internet (discussed in Chapter 2), 'social media' is the more useful term to describe the kind of Internet-based interactions that impact upon collective action. Some of the Internet-based applications we discuss in this book are not by some definitions social media, such as the range of civic activism guided by email, apps, or websites, or government-initiated platforms that allow users to join campaigns with political goals. But they do allow the user to contribute some kind of content (such as signing a petition or sending an email to a political leader), and the boundary between these applications and social media is increasingly blurred as any mobilization (a demonstration, a petition, an email campaign) will be disseminated and shared on social media, exposing those considering whether to participate to the signals and influences that these media provide. We use the term to encapsulate these applications as well.

At this point, we should also clarify our use of the terms 'Internet' and 'web' due to the potential for confusion. The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks, while the World Wide Web, or the web for short, is a system of interlinked documents, navigated via hyperlinks and accessed via the Internet. Although for some computer science scholars the distinction is of enormous importance, these terms are frequently conflated, and indeed in some languages (such as Greek and Spanish) one word is often used for both concepts. For our purposes, we select the Internet as the more relevant and widely used term because it is possible to access social media without the web, via an application on a mobile telephone, for example, but to use the web one must use the Internet. However, we do use the term 'web' where we reference research specific to the web, such as analysing the hyperlink structure of the World Wide Web.

Most early social media platforms were used primarily on computers connected to the Internet, and Figure 1.1 shows over-time usage of the Internet. In North America, usage had started to plateau in the mid 2000s, but widespreaad use of Internet-enabled devices other than computers, such as smartphones and tablets, seems to have boosted acceleration again so that by 2013 usage was around 83 percent and is still rising. At 346 million, mobile phone subscriptions in the Arab world nearly matched the region's population by the end of 2011, and increasingly the majority of these are for Internet-enabled devices. Even in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the figures are nearing 20 percent.

Almost all major social media platforms now have native applications for mobile telephones and several newer platforms (such as Instagram and Pinterest) started on mobile devices directly. The availability of social media on mobile telephones has provided a massive injection of usage, as social media become available to users 'on-the-go', and even to new populations who do not have regular access to Internet-connected computers. At the time of writing, the number of mobile phones in the world that could access the Internet had outstripped the number of Internet-connected PCs and is contributing to the already dramatic rise in the use of social networking and micro-blogging sites. Usage of just one prominent social media platform is shown in Figure 1.2, which shows a regional breakdown of Facebook's 1.2 billion users from 2010 to 2014. While growth in North America and Europe was reasonably steady during this period, having started from a base of over 200,000 in 2010, the rise in other regions in the world has been dramatic (note that this growth has occurred despite Facebook being blocked in one of the largest Internet markets, China). For example, by May 2014 the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world was over 81 million, up from 54.5 million in May 2013, with a quarter of these users in Egypt. Other platforms showed different growth curves as they waxed and waned in popularity. By 2014, social media clearly represented the most popular part of the Internet, with Americans spending more time on social media than any other Internet-based activity and with most applications being used for social and political activity, making 'social media' the term most appropriate to use in the context of collective action.


A book about collective action also must include a working definition of this term. By 'collective action', we mean any activity undertaken by citizens with the aim of contributing to public goods: goods that are both non-excludable and non-rivalable — that is, they have benefit but cannot be sold to private buyers. Because public goods have these properties — that no individuals can be excluded from their use and use by one individual does not reduce their availability to others — they are subject to the free-rider problem, in that people not contributing to the good may still continue to use it. Because of this, any individual deciding whether to contribute to collective action may decide to free ride or face the possibility that people who will ultimately benefit may not contribute or may make negative contributions that detract from the public good itself. Much of political science is devoted to understanding what motivates people to contribute to public goods and how they may be encouraged to do so in spite of these in-built problems, so that public goods such as a sustainable environment, basic rights, a democratic society, social welfare (funded through taxes), transport, and security continue to be provided. Any individual deciding whether to participate will weigh up the costs of participating and the expected benefit to herself of accessing the public good, factoring in the likelihood of her participation making a difference.

What counts as collective action? There are some acts that uncontroversially fall within this definition, such as voting. Other political activities are also forms of collective action. Most academic commentators perceive some kind of 'ladder' of participation, all lungs of which are aspects of collective action. They range from small acts such as signing a petition, voting, attending political meetings or demonstrations, donating money to a political cause, and protesting or demonstrating, right up to political violence and armed struggle (although there has been much debate over the blurred edges at either end of the ladder). The use of the Internet across all spheres of political life means that some of these acts have moved largely to Internet-based settings (signing petitions, for example), some remain largely offline but are usually coordinated through Internet-based means (voting, boycotting products, demonstration, and political violence), and some new acts enter the repertoire. As discussed in Chapter 2, these include posting a status; supporting or 'liking' something on Facebook, Tumblr, or Pinterest; tweeting or retweeting a political message on Twitter; and disseminating a photograph or video of police or military violence on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter—all tiny acts of participation adding rungs to the bottom end of the ladder. We include all these activities in our definition of contemporary collective action.


Excerpted from Political Turbulence by Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale, Taha Yasseri. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Helen Margetts is professor of society and the Internet and director of the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford. Peter John is professor of political science and public policy at University College London. Scott Hale is a data scientist at the Oxford Internet Institute. Taha Yasseri is a research fellow in computational social science at the Oxford Internet Institute.

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