Category Archives: digital protest

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.


Good read – 12 11 11

For those really interested in understanding the Occupy Movement, check out Occupy Research, where people involved are trying to make sense of themselves and provide a counterweight to the ceaseless and often distant commentary. Here’s a brief piece about the effort from Shareable.

Sticking it to the man with the tool at hand

The Guardian and the LSE have partnered up on an impressive journalistic-cum-sociological analysis called “reading the riots”, examining the unrest that rocked England this summer on the basis of interviews with people involved, massive social media datasets, and various forms of secondary sources. This is a very laudable attempt to make sense of what happened why in August, important questions at the heart of both journalism and social science.

The collaboration examines many different themes, today the role of different “social media” (and more generally, digital networked media) in the riots. The material released provides both qualitative and quantitative evidence for dismissing the claims—frequent in August, and spread by for example by an  Associated Press story still up on thousands of websites—that social media like Facebook and Twitter were central organizing tools for those involved. (The Huffington Post headline on the wire story was “Facebook, Twitter, used to spread London’s Riots”.)

It turns our they weren’t, really. But that the concerns over Facebook and Twitter were clearly overblown (Prime Minister David Cameron at the time considered “restricting” social media services) does not mean that digital technologies played no role—they are, after all, integral to much of what we do, legally or otherwise, today. Only, as it turns out, people who are sticking it to the man rely on the tools at hand, their cell phones, in particular Blackberries (what I’ve called “mundane tools” in a piece on political activism), as well as on, well, good old mass media, especially television.

Here is Professor Rob Procter, one of the Guardian’s academic collaborators on the project, in a University of Manchester press release:

Politicians and commentators were quick to claim that social media played an important role in inciting and organising riots, calling for sites such as Twitter to be closed should events of this nature happen again. But our study has found no evidence of significance in the available data that would justify such a course of action in respect to Twitter.

(Too bad for Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe, both serving four-year jail terms for “encouraging disorder” on Facebook, that this only comes out now…)

One rioter quoted in a Guardian article clearly has a more practical understanding of new media tools than many commentators, politicians, and judges:

The internet and that is a bit too bait, so no one really broadcasts it on the internet […] Like in Twitter there’s like a hashtag innit, like if someone hashtags riots you can go to that certain page and see what everyone has been saying about the riots. Police could easily go to that page there and see who’s been setting up or organising groups to come.

Wise man, that–organizing illegal action on public platforms might not be the smarest move in the world.

Another rioter quoted had a intuitively understood how what Andy Chadwick calls the “political information cycle” is not contained within any one media platform, but cross between offline communications, social media, and legacy media organizations:

I saw people well on Twitter following journalists’ reports,” he said. “So not even of their friends’ reports, they were following journalists’ reports to find out where to go.

The collaborative analysis of 2.6 million tweets suggests that six of the ten most retweeted accounts belonged to mainstream media organizations and personalities (and one to the greater Manchester police). (See some good data visualizations here of individual rumours spreading and/or being knocked down on Twitter.)

“Reading the riots” is an inspiring and important collaboration between journalists and researchers showing how, together and, incidentially, using new tools and publishing platforms, the two professions can help us understand the world–in this case, the role of new digital, networked technologies in collective action.

The data and analysis already published as a result of this collaboration (and much more is surely to come) represents a major step beyond the artificially polarized, polemical, and overtly moralizing debate between supposed techno-utopians and techno-pessimists and into a more nuanced substantial understanding of how people do things with things–including rebel and riot, when that is what they are up to.

(Cross-posted on Politics in Spires)

(Photo from Flickr, taken by Sabrina S)

Internet and politics research, what next?

Just back from the European Consortium for Political Research conference in Reykjavik, where the internet and politics standing group, through the good offices of Anastasia Kavada and Andrea Calderaro, offered a string of interesting papers and generated good discussions. The incredibly industrious Axel Bruns live-blogged many of the presentations here.

Looking at the good quality of work on theorizing “connective action”, new forms of political communication mixing “old” and “new” media, and ten-year attempts to map out closely the changing (and variable) impact of new media use on various forms of political participation, it is clear we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the connections between internet and politics.

Some areas that I, on the basis of what I saw at this conference and what I’ve seen at others over the summer (IAMCR, ICA), think would merit more attention from researchers in the future are then—

  • The use of new ICTs by political actors beyond electoral parties and social movements—a bit of work has been done on various forms of interest groups, but this is a wide open field, and one that deserves much more scrutiny than it has received so far (my friend Dave Karpf has a book forthcoming on this, focused on the U.S., comparative work would make a great supplement to it).
  • The implications that new ICTs have for political practice and participation outside of electoral campaigns and social movement mobilization—we have a growing body of solid, cross-country work on campaigns etc, but less work has been done on how candidates, citizens, and organizes use internet tools in “peacetime”, so to speak.
  •  The ICTs themselves—there is a bit of a tendency to (and my own paper, co-authored with Cristian Vaccari, is an example of this) to focus on publicly manifest tools like campaign websites, social media, and perhaps email communications. This is important. But there is a whole other side to be examined, which is the story of the adoption of tools, of development, innovation, of trials and errors as political actors try to leverage the potential of tools that have to be mastered in practice and aren’t necessarily “just there” but have to be furnished first. (As it happens, another friend, Daniel Kreiss, has a book forthcoming on this—again, comparative work would be a great complement to his work on the Democratic Party in the U.S.)