The Political Power of Social Media by Patrick Meier

Clay Shirky just published a piece in Foreign Affairs on “The Political Power of Social Media.” I’m almost done with writing my literature review of digital activism in repressive states for my dissertation so this is a timely write-up by Clay who also sits on my dissertation committee. The points he makes echo a number of my blog posts and thus provides further support to some of the arguments articulated in my dissertation. I’ll use this space to provide excerpts and commentary on his 5,000+ word piece to include in my literature review.

“Less than two hours after the [Philippine Congress voted not to impeach President Joseph Estrada], thousands of Filipinos [...] converged on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, a major crossroads in Manila. The protest was arranged, in part, by forwarded text messages reading, ‘Go 2 EDSA. Wear blk.’ The crowd quickly swelled, and in the next few days, over a million people arrived, choking traffic in downtown Manila.”

“The public’s ability to coordinate such a massive and rapid response — close to seven million text messages were sent that week — so alarmed the country’s legislators that they reversed course and allowed the evidence to be presented. Estrada’s fate was sealed; by January 20, he was gone. The event marked the first time that social media had helped force out a national leader. Estrada himself blamed ‘the text-messaging generation’ for his downfall.”

“As the communications landscape gets denser, more complex, and more participatory, the networked population is gaining greater access to information, more opportunities to engage in public speech, and an enhanced ability to undertake collective action. In the political arena [...] these increased freedoms can help loosely coordinated publics demand change.”

See this blog post on Political Change in the Digital Age: The Prospect of Smart Mobs in Authoritarian States.

“The Philippine strategy has been adopted many times since. In some cases, the protesters ultimately succeeded, as in Spain in 2004, when demonstrations organized by text messaging led to the quick ouster of Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who had inaccurately blamed the Madrid transit bombings on Basque separatists. The Communist Party lost power in Moldova in 2009 when massive protests coordinated in part by text message, Facebook, and Twitter broke out after an obviously fraudulent election.”

“There are, however, many examples of the activists failing, as in Belarus in March 2006, when street protests (arranged in part by e-mail) against President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s alleged vote rigging swelled, then faltered, leaving Lukashenko more determined than ever to control social media. During the June 2009 uprising of the Green Movement in Iran, activists used every possible technological coordinating tool to protest the miscount of votes for Mir Hossein Mousavi but were ultimately brought to heel by a violent crackdown. The Red Shirt uprising in Thailand in 2010 followed a similar but quicker path: protesters savvy with social media occupied downtown Bangkok until the Thai government dispersed the protesters, killing dozens.”

“The use of social media tools — text messaging, e-mail, photo sharing, social networking, and the like — does not have a single preordained outcome. Therefore, attempts to outline their effects on political action are too often reduced to dueling anecdotes.”

Clay picks up on some of my ongoing frustration with the “study” of digital activism. He borrows his dueling analogy from some of my earlier blog post of mine in which I chide the popular media for sensationalizing anecdotes. See for example:

“Empirical work on the subject is also hard to come by, in part because these tools are so new and in part because relevant examples are so rare. The safest characterization of recent quantitative attempts to answer the question, Do digital tools enhance democracy? (such as those by Jacob Groshek and Philip Howard) is that these tools probably do not hurt in the short run and might help in the long run — and that they have the most dramatic effects in states where a public sphere already constrains the actions of the government.”

Reading this made me realize that I need to get my own empirical results out in public in the coming weeks. As part of my dissertation research, I used econometric analysis to test whether an increase in access to mobile phones and the Internet serves as a statistically significant predictor of anti-government protests. So I’ll add this to my to-do list of blog posts and will also share my literature review in full as soon as I’m done with that dissertation chapter.

In the meantime, have a look at the Global Digital Activism Dataset (GDADS) project that both Clay and I are involved in to spur more empirical research in this space.

Although the story of Estrada’s ouster and other similar events have led observers to focus on the power of mass protests to topple governments, the potential of social media lies mainly in their support of civil society and the public sphere — change measured in years and decades rather than weeks or months. [We] should likewise assume that progress will be incremental and, unsurprisingly, slowest in the most authoritarian regimes.

I wrote up a blog post just a few weeks ago on “How to Evaluate Success in Digital Resistance: Look at Guerrilla Warfare,” which makes the same argument. Clay goes on to formulate two perspectives on the role of social media in non-permissive environments, the instrumentalist versus environmental schools of thought.

“The instrumental view is politically appealing, action-oriented, and almost certainly wrong. It overestimates the value of broadcast media while underestimating the value of media that allow citizens to communicate privately among themselves. It overestimates the value of access to information, particularly information hosted in the West, while underestimating the value of tools for local coordination. And it overestimates the importance of computers while underestimating the importance of simpler tools, such as cell phones.”

“According to [the environmental view], positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”

One aspect that I particularly enjoy about Clay’s writings is his use of past examples from history to bolster his arguments.

“One complaint about the idea of new media as a political force is that most people simply use these tools for commerce, social life, or self-distraction, but this is common to all forms of media. Far more people in the 1500s were reading erotic novels than Martin Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses,” and far more people before the American Revolution were reading Poor Richard’s Almanack than the work of the Committees of Correspondence. But those political works still had an enormous political effect.”

“Just as Luther adopted the newly practical printing press to protest against the Catholic Church, and the American revolutionaries synchronized their beliefs using the postal service that Benjamin Franklin had designed, today’s dissident movements will use any means possible to frame their views and coordinate their actions; it would be impossible to describe the Moldovan Communist Party’s loss of Parliament after the 2009 elections without discussing the use of cell phones and online tools by its opponents to mobilize. Authoritarian governments stifle communication among their citizens because they fear, correctly, that a better-coordinated populace would constrain their ability to act without oversight.”

Turning to the fall of communism, Clay juxtaposes the role of communication technologies with the inevitable structural macro-economic forces that lifted the Iron Curtain.

“Any discussion of political action in repressive regimes must take into account the astonishing fall of communism in 1989 in eastern Europe and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Throughout the Cold War, the United States invested in a variety of communications tools, including broadcasting the Voice of America radio station, hosting an American pavilion in Moscow  [...], and smuggling Xerox machines behind the Iron Curtain to aid the underground press, or samizdat.”

“Yet despite this emphasis on communications, the end of the Cold War was triggered not by a defiant uprising of Voice of America listeners but by economic change. As the price of oil fell while that of wheat spiked, the Soviet model of selling expensive oil to buy cheap wheat stopped working. As a result, the Kremlin was forced to secure loans from the West, loans that would have been put at risk had the government intervened militarily in the affairs of non-Russian states.”

“In 1989, one could argue, the ability of citizens to communicate, considered against the background of macroeconomic forces, was largely irrelevant. Communications tools during the Cold War did not cause governments to collapse, but they helped the people take power from the state when it was weak. [...]. For optimistic observers of public demonstrations, this is weak tea, but both the empirical and the theoretical work suggest that protests, when effective, are the end of a long process, rather than a replacement for it.”

Clay also emphasizes the political importance of conversation over the initial information dissemination effect:

“Opinions are first transmitted by the media, and then get echoed by friends, family members, and colleagues. It is in this second, social step that political opinions are formed. This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference. As with the printing press, the Internet spreads not just media consumption but media production as well — it allows people to privately and publicly articulate and debate a welter of conflicting views.”

 

How about the role of social media in organization and coordination?

“Disciplined and coordinated groups, whether businesses or govern-ments, have always had an advantage over undisciplined ones: they have an easier time engaging in collective action because they have an orderly way of directing the action of their members. Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination. The anti-Estrada movement in the Philippines used the ease of sending and forwarding text messages to organize a massive group with no need (and no time) for standard managerial control. As a result, larger, looser groups can now take on some kinds of coordinated action, such as protest movements and public media campaigns, that were previously reserved for formal organizations.”

I’m rather stunned by this argument: “Social media can compensate for the disadvantages of undisciplined groups by reducing the costs of coordination.” Seriously? If a group is unorganized and undisciplined, advocating that it use social media—particularly in a repressive environment—is highly inadvisable. Turning an unorganized and undisciplined mob into a flash mob thanks to social media tools does not make it a smart mob. Clay’s argument directly contradicts the  rich empirical research that exists on civil resistance in authoritarian states.

 

“For political movements, one of the main forms of coordination is what the military calls ‘shared awareness,’ the ability of each member of a group to not only understand the situation at hand but also understand that everyone else does, too. Social media increase shared awareness by propagating messages through social networks.”

I wonder what role the Ushahidi platform can play in this respect.

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