Twitter and mobilization–what mobilization?

A few people have emailed me about my last post on the 2011 England riots, arguing that I underplayed the role of social media like Twitter.

Some of them, like Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, are not just speaking on a hunch–she is the lead author of a recently published social network analysis of Twitter use during the mobilization that took place in the run-up to the 2011 Spanish local and regional elections, showing that a small group of people triggered a chain of messages that in due reached a large number of people and makes the argument digital media played an important role in the mobilization in the streets too, beyond the social media platform itself.

I did not mean to dismiss Twitter wholesale. It is always worth investigating. As the Guardian-LSE collaboration on “Reading the Riots” suggests, Twitter was used by people mobilizing to clean up after the London riots, and certain rumours about the riots spread and were quelled on Twitter.

The thing I found interesting about the Guardian-LSE analysis of the 2011 England riots was simply that it pretty clearly and convincingly dismantled the belief–seemingly widespread in some circles at the time–that social media were integral to organizing and driving the unrest. They may well have been more important for mobilizing people to clean up afterwards, so shutting them down could well have been not only unnecessary, invasive, and hugely problematic, but also, well, kinda counter-productive.

My point here is simple and in line with Sandra and her colleagues’ call for more empirical analysis of what they call “social influence” and “complex contagion” and the potential role of various social media. When strong causal claims are made about the direct relationship between for example Twitter and some large-scale mobilization, we shouldn’t accept the claim at face value, without empirical evidence for the connection (let’s avoid the phrase “Twitter Revolution”, shall we?).

Even when many different new technologies are clearly integral to different degrees and in different ways to different popular mobilizations today (such as the use of smart phones to document recent protests in Russia, while Twitter was being spammed), evidence that one particular tools was part of the mobilizing processes in one place does not necessarily mean that they worked the same way somewhere else. Mobilizing against Mubarak is not the same thing as protesting against dysfunctional politics in Spain or coordinating a looting in London or coming together to highlight election fraud in Moscow. External validity–the relevance of findings from one case for others–has to be established, not simply assumed.

As social scientists have long known, mobilization is driven by many different mechanisms and highly context-dependent. Only some of the mechanisms are directly affected by changes in our communications technologies, and many mobilizations will, I predict, even in an increasingly digital and networked age, upon closer scrutiny turn out to be organized by people who rely mostly on at-hand general purpose technologies and inherited organizing practices–despite the fact that glitzier technologies and newer tools often tend to catch our eyes and make for better headlines.

This does not mean that new technologies do not matter for activism and popular mobilizations–they do. But it means we sometimes misjudge which technologies matter and how–as was the case when people cast Twitter as central to the 2011 England riots. When faced with claims about the link between social media and mobilization, we always need to ask, “what mobilization?” And then go have a closer look.

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