Social Network Media and Revolution

In the wake of the revolutionary changes that have (hopefully) taken place in Tunisia and Egypt, much has been made about the role of social media–particularly Facebook–in facilitating the participatory aspect of the revolutionary end-game. (A Google search of `Facebook AND Egypt revolution’ turns up over 22 million hits.) The Globe and Mail’s  Chrystia Freeland is the latest journalist to address the phenomenon, quoting economists Daron Acemoglu and Matthew Jackson.

Freeland notes that social network media have helped resolve what social scientists refer to as the collective action problem.

“It is a question of co-ordinating people’s beliefs,” said Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who, with Matthew Jackson of Stanford University in California, is working on a paper about the effect of social networks on collective action problems.

Protesting against an authoritarian regime is a prime example of this issue, Mr. Acemoglu said, because opponents of a dictator need to know that their views are widely shared and that a sufficient number of their fellow citizens are willing to join them to make opposition worthwhile.

“I need to know if other people agree with me and are willing to act,” he said. “What really stops people who are oppressed by a regime from protesting is the fear that they will be part of an unsuccessful protest. When you are living in these regimes, you have to be extremely afraid of what happens if you participate and the regime doesn’t change.”

That makes publicly protesting an oppressive regime a classic collective action problem: If everyone who wants regime change takes to the streets, the group will achieve its shared goal. But if too few protest, they will fail and be punished. Even if an overwhelming majority wants change, it is smart for individuals to speak out only if enough compatriots do, too.

To Freeland’s characterisation of the collective action problem I would add that the reason it is “smart for individuals to speak out only if enough compatriots do, too” is because each individual reasons in the following manner:

  • I am only one person; my individual marginal contribution to the probability of having a successful revolution is infinitesimally small.
  • Thus, my taking part or not will not be determinative. That is, the revolution will succeed or fail regardless with or without my participation.
  • Given the above, and given potential costs of participating, it is rational for me to not participate.

Social media, however, can help to change the calculus of participation by assuring the would-be participant that millions of others will also participate, thereby decreasing the potential costs of participation to any one individual. I do have an issue, however, with Freeland’s use of the Groupon analogy, which is based on the difference between the types of private goods Groupon specialises in and the truly public good that is a revolution.

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5 thoughts on “Social Network Media and Revolution

  1. Social media is perhaps the most prominent product of globalization’s spread in that it is increasing our exposure to not simply the fact that other cultures do indeed exist, but even further, to the very experience of other cultures. What I mean is that by interacting with those of different cultures, we are no longer observers of other cultures, but rather partakers (in a small sense) of other cultures. I am not insinuating that we somehow become integrated into these cultures in a technical sense, but rather that we are in some way connected, nonetheless. For instance, when I read about the grenade attacks in various parts of Rwanda last year, I could be concerned about the general unrest that was surrounding the electoral process. However, I was much more invested than that. I was personally worried about the well-being of my friends in Rwanda with whom I exchange emails for updates frequently. I think that this kind of relationship between countries introduces a whole new dimension of interconnectedness, wherein it goes far beyond the association of states with one another in the global network, and reaches into the micro level where individuals are pulling themselves together in mutual affinities. So that just as a tapestry is not held together by a few major threads, but instead by the aggregate of many small threads, in the same way, the international realm is being knit together through individual ties “in an inescapable network of mutuality” (Martin Luther King, Jr.). Through this, as Lila Watson said, we begin to sincerely believe our liberation to be bound up with that of others. Therein lies the continued dispersion of responsibility from the hands of the few to the hands of the many. And many hands make for much support. Much support stirs up boldness. And finally, boldness is the heart of revolutions.

    • That’s a very thoughtful comment. Thank you for that. I especially liked this line: “So that just as a tapestry is not held together by a few major threads, but instead by the aggregate of many small threads, in the same way, the international realm is being knit together through individual ties “in an inescapable network of mutuality” (Martin Luther King, Jr.).”

  2. I agree. The presence of a method for both communication and unification among citizens is perhaps one of the most threatening elements to an illegitimate government, as it is the most difficult form of media to censor. The Iranian Green Movement set the social media precedent in 2009. Although unsuccessful in its attempted revolution, for the first time the undemocratic Islamic regime was exposed to the world. (Through twitter and facebook– it’s funny that such common websites made such a huge impact.)

    In addition to allowing citizens to come together to build their strength in numbers, it enables expatriates and outsiders to show their support for such movements. Obviously it is too early for any studies to be done, but I hope there will be research in the future determining the extent of which social media allowed for pressure to be put on foreign governments (by their citizens) that in turn translated into pressure put on the illegitimate regime.

    I hope these social media-enabled revolutions continue.

    • Nice reply. Your write: “Through twitter and facebook– it’s funny that such common websites made such a huge impact.”

      Though there are some philosophers and social theorists who would argue otherwise, I’ve argued that the technological innovation is mostly ideologically neutral. Thus, we can use the technological innovation of flight to decrease the distance amongst the world’s inhabitants…or we can use it to drop bombs on each other.

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