Social Media for Collective Action

Social Media for Collective Action

Climbing aboard the social media train ... I’ve been thinking about the special role of social media and collective action under authoritarian regimes since I caught a talk by Zeynep Tufecki at the Berkman Center last week. Tufekci’s research considers the question: how does an unpopular regime stay in power for so long? and how does social media play a role in how these regimes fall? Part of the answer is by solving the collective action problem.

So what is a collective action problem, and how does one solve it? Collective action problems are situations that require wide participation to solve, have high participation costs, and high costs of failure. This triple-threat makes collective action problems especially tricky to organize and solve. Authoritarian regimes often pose collective action problems, as there are few ways of organizing and the cost of failing often results in torture or being thrown in jail. Whenever dissidence appears, governments quarantine and isolate the hubs to ensure that protests don’t spread.

Factor in the challenge of misinformation - as a measure of self-protection, citizens who might privately oppose the regime publicly claim to support it. This in turn creates a false perception (or pluralistic ignorance) that friends, neighbors, and other potential collaborators are content with the status quo, although their views are different in private.

While these dynamics have dominated closed societies for decades, the rise of new media has shifted this paradigm. A couple of features of this new media ecology include:

  • Al Jazeera has a force that unites and focuses our attention on particular issues
  • Picture and video enabled mobile devices have become ubiquitous allowing citizens to easily document events
  • Social media sites that allow people to congregate in one place. Thus when political conversations start taking place on these platforms, citizens are already there rather than having to go elsewhere

These changes have made it harder to isolate protesters and easier to overcome collective ignorance of popular opinion. New media also moves faster - if protests are quickly spreading, where should governments go first? Like other governments, authoritarians do not have unlimited resources and must allocate them carefully, so the increased pace of social media allows dissidents to build movements faster than governments can shut them down.

These are all good signs - yet before claiming victory and declaring social media to be the punch that takes down authoritarian regimes, its important to realize that increased participation does not equal democracy; in fact, it may increase polarization or segmentation, or amplify other dynamics on the ground. As we develop ICT programs for citizen participation, NDI considers how to design better communication between governments and constituents instead of magnifying partisan messages or creating filter bubbles that cut off small segments of the population from broader debate. How to design in ways that also build trust and overcome the costs of joining in collective action? That's the next challenge...