Political turbulence and social media

Professor Helen Margetts from Oxford Internet Institute spoke to the OECD this week about her recent research (see her new book.)

Looking at political movements around Europe, why is everything kicking off everywhere? Is this due to use of social media? There is little hard evidence, but lots of anecdotes. However, new sources of data are becoming available, and new ways of analysing it. (See her blog.)

Her book argues that, as more people spend more time on social media, they make ‘tiny acts’ of participation (eg like, retweet a political posting) and that this draws lots of new people in to a tiny commitments. Sometimes this scales up to something very big, and leads to people going out on the streets. BUT almost all these attempts at mobilisation fail, and we only see the ones that succeed. On petition platforms like the UK government platform or the House Of Commons platform, 95% of petitions get less than 500 votes. Most tweets are never retweeted or shared.

Why petitions or causes do succeed is very difficult to say. There are no obvious patterns related to issues or timing. The ones which do succeed, do so very quickly; there is a steep curve almost at once.

This may partly because more information is available: you can see how many people have signed the petition as you consider whether to sign it. If a petition is obviously popular (or unpopular) this influences decision. (This is the power law effect – in effect, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.)

Social theory says you identify with a cause first, and then act. Digital media reverse this: you act first (a ‘tiny act’ – retweet etc) then identify with the cause later as you get drawn in by social media. People who have done a little often go on to do more, and some organistions are very good at capturing that ‘tiny act’ and developing it. (It may be significant that I tweeted an image of ‘Nuits debout’ demonstrators the day before I heard Prof Margett’s talk. This was promptly retweeted by someone calling himself ‘Ulyss’, and describing himself as “quelqu’un, et comme chacun, plusieurs”, who seems to have done little else but tweet and retweet about the disorder all week. Someone else picked up my tweet and commented “maintenant ils mettent des bâches, comme ça on voit pas qu’ils sont 4…”, which I think means that the activists use the tarpaulins so it isn’t obvious three are only four of them. Several other tweets I made on the same day, on other subjects, have been completely ignored.)

Some political parties are good at harnessing these ‘tiny acts’. Governments are not, and don’t do anything further to engage people, beyond basic petitions platforms. (An audience member who had worked on President Obama’s election campaigns and later in the White House said this was because there are greater legal controls on governments, eg privacy, data security, and also on what activity governments can undertake without becoming party political.) It was suggested that Governments should allow us to provide feedback on their own sites (like Trip Adviser). Perhaps one day we will be able to rank our representatives, rather than elect them!

Prof Margetts argues that this sort of political participation is turbulent, and similar to the mathematics of other turbulent systems, eg weather forecasting: it is sensitive to initial conditions, non-linear, has high interconnectivity, is chaotic, and largely unpredictable. However, as we have got better at forecasting the weather, so we may get better at forecasting political turbulence.

In answer to questions, she said that big issues often started under many hashtags and then come together: for example US police racial shooting tweets started with a whole list of local hashtags for each incident, and then coalesced around #blacklivesmatter.

When movements are successful, they often morph into old style political parties (eg Podemos)

Given short attention spans, are social media decisions (‘tiny acts’) rational or just based on emotion? This is not necessarily a ‘race to the bottom’: social media expose people to a wider range of sources. An early idea of a ‘daily me‘ newspaper, carrying only stories I would like, has not taken off. Such a news source would only confirm my existing biases. As it is, it is more difficult for propagandists to monopolise the media: social media provide a sort of insurance, as there is so much going on. But serious political participants will always be in a minority: as in many other things, it will be ‘rule by those who show up’.

A UK MP in audience (I did not get his name) said he was fed up of getting multiple petitions from 38 degrees: “mindless repetitive nonsense” as he called them; he said that, irrespective of party, most MPs just ignore 38 degrees these days.

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