Home > All, Politics > The role of social networks in political unrest

The role of social networks in political unrest

December 31, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Two things caught my eye over the last few days. Firstly, a paper produced by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) and published in Scientific Reports on 15 December 2011: The Dynamics of Protest Recruitment through an Online Network. And secondly, an article by Clay Claiborne: The Year in Review: They should have left that street vendor alone!

The first is an academic study on the role of social media (specifically Twitter) in the dynamics of an evolving social protest – specifically in this case the Spanish riots of May 2011.

We study recruitment patterns in the Twitter network and find evidence of social influence and complex contagion… We find that early participants cannot be characterized by a typical topological position but spreaders tend to be more central in the network. These findings shed light on the connection between online networks, social contagion, and collective dynamics, and offer an empirical test to the recruitment mechanisms theorized in formal models of collective action.

Key to the spread of social contagion would seem to be the involvement of central figures in each network, and that the speed of contagion is linked to the number of different exposures received:

The existence of recruitment bursts indicates that the effects of complex contagion are boosted by accelerated exposure, that is, by multiple stimuli received from different sources that take place within a small time window… [providing] empirical evidence of what scholars of social movements have called, metaphorically, collective effervescence.

One interesting conclusion is that traditional media publicity has little effect on the spread of unrest. Depending upon personal prejudice, of course, this could be a good or bad thing: either that traditional media merely reports the news without exhortations one way or the other, or that traditional media is in the pocket of the Establishment.

But the paper does conclude with the rider that recent “events, like the riots in London in August 2011, suggest that different online platforms are being used to mobilize different populations. The question that future research should consider is if the same recruitment patterns apply regardless of the technology being used, or if the affordances of the technology (i.e. public/private by default) shape the collective dynamics that they help coordinate.”

I can’t help wondering, however, if we are already moving beyond the study of individual social networks. The growth of social media apps that automatically post your tweet to Facebook and LinkedIn and all the other social networks you inhabit would suggest that all networks need to be considered together.

Which brings us to the second article, which I simply recommend as an excellent read on the evolution of the Arab Spring, involving Twitter, Anonymous, Wikileaks and more. For example, it highlights Google stepping in to bypass Mubarrak’s block on Twitter by providing the Speech-to-Tweet service. “We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time. Our thoughts are with everyone there,” said Google on 31 January 2011.

Social evolution, or revolution if you like, is already a complex issue involving all aspects of the internet. It’s another reason for not letting our own governments get control of our internet via the pretence of doing so to protect intellectual property and copyright.

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