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.