Drowning Out the Noise: Mediated Lines of Protest Communication

// CGCS Media Wire presents insight and analysis by Dr. Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, a research fellow from the Oxford Internet Institute, at the University of Oxford.  In this piece, Gonzalez-Bailon discusses protest organization through network effects, user type and the potential hangups seen from heavy reliance on social networking platforms as tools for mobilization and revolution. Edited by Media Wire Fellow Corey H. Abramson.

// Join us in welcoming Dr. Gonzalez-Bailon this coming Friday, November 9th for a noontime seminar on Networks of Political Mobilization: How Digital Media Channels Communication and Triggers Participation.

After the chain of Arab Spring protests that unfolded in 2011, it is difficult to claim (without sounding prosaic) that online technologies have directly helped advance the cause and momentum of protesters. Popular accounts and media reports claiming that online networks help fuel revolution were repeated so often, that social networks’ role in the uprisings has taken root in the collective mind.

Conversely, we also see ingrained the skepticism that online networks were just one piece in the assembly of events triggering the protests, and while important, not necessarily the most relevant of triggers. Identifying the reasons why online networks may or may not have helped in the coordination of mass protests is anything but easy: it requires looking at the events through a lens of complex, multilingual and often noisy data across different levels of analysis to make sense of the mechanisms that lead to the diffusion of protest activity.

To determine how social media encourage participation, researchers need to dive into the digital trails left by protesters themselves and, in hindsight, reconstruct the growth of their political action. Much in the same way as landscape patterns are recognizable only from the air (even though they are carved by forces that act on land), understanding mass mobilization requires looking at the bigger picture of collective dynamics without losing track of what happens at the level of individual participants. The advantage of analyzing digital trails (of the sort left by Twitter communication for example) is that they provide the raw material to undertake such analyses.

Reduced costs of online communication, the efficient diffusion of information, unnecessary co-presence, and the blurred boundaries between private and public spaces are the usual suspects when explaining digitally-coordinated collective action. But many questions remain unanswered about how social media intervene in a process where decisions are sequential and interdependent:

How are online networks activated in the process of organizing a collective protest? What does online communication tell us about how protests emerge and grow? Who are the most relevant actors, and what makes them so relevant?

Understanding the Hierarchy

Networks have often been used metaphorically to designate horizontal forms of association (to capture the idea of ‘organizing without organizations’). Metaphors, however, can sometimes cloud the reality they intend to approximate, and in this case confuse the way in which networks operate.

There is nothing horizontal about the structure of online networks – specifically in how they allow for the flow of information. Operating on the basis of a rather hierarchical arrangement in which a small minority of users concentrate the most connections, social networks allow these users a disproportionate reach.

While some may assume this sort of structure might hamper organizational process for protesters, those using social networks to gather support tend to capitalize on the system instead, as data from the Spanish ‘indignados’ (or outraged) movement suggests.

Protests might start at the fringes of online networks, with common or peripheral users lighting initial sparks, but communication about the movement explodes when the fire reaches a percolating core group of users, that is, the minority of the super-connected.

The dynamics of protest recruitment, initiated by normal users, are reinforced by the dynamics of information diffusion – which rely on interactions with core users and their participation in the spread of information.

Online networks offer one of the many layers through which politically-relevant communication takes place, especially in the context of mass mobilizations. These can draw thousands of people to the streets (thus gaining the attention of the public through both the mass media and face-to-face interactions). One of the unintended consequences of social network use, is the chance to see how people organize themselves without official organizations, that is to say, from the bottom-up.

After the Protests

A completely different matter is understanding what happens next, once all the noise of the protests dies down and a more sustainable form of political expression shines in its absence.

Online networks amplify, but they can also silence, the voice of protesters – either way, close observation is improving our understanding of how interpersonal communication shapes political behavior. At the very least, researching social media sheds light into the power of chain reactions. This is especially true now, as every single action counts. We can see cumulative effects end up bringing, if not the axiomatic revolution, at least some welcome political change.

 // Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon is a sociologist interested in the internet, social networks, and political engagement. Her research uses large-scale data to analyze the structure and content of political discussions, and how interactions evolve over time.

Featured Photo Credit: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Gwenaël Piaser

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