More on Social Media, England, and Collective Action

To follow up on Erik’s post, I wanted to offer a few quick observations about what recent events in London can teach us about the relationship between social media and collective action.

First, those of us who study protest I think originally focused on the potential for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to help citizens in authoritarian societies to outmaneuver authorities bent on repression. This story was first told in regard to Moldova’s Twitter Revolution (although eventually there would be a lot of debate about whether the use of social media among the opposition was actually overstated), and then even more so in Iran in 2009 and Egypt earlier this year. What we have learned the last few days in London, however, is that these same tools can be applied by people in open, democratic societies who want to commit unlawful acts that require collective action. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising: after all, the name of the game in both cases is to continue doing what you are doing while avoiding punishment from security services. Nevertheless, it is interesting that less attention was previously paid to the “negative” potential for social media in coordinating mass action (although I am happy to stand corrected if others know of commentary/research in this regard). I also fear that this is a genie that is now out of the box – it is hard to imagine that others won’t follow the lead of the British rioters in using these kinds of tools in the future. (Although as Erik has noted, #riotcleanup shows that Twitter can just as easily be used to mobilize counter-veiling forces in society as well!)

Second, I think it is important to note that not all social media are created equally. I emailed a colleague in London about the riots, and he first wrote to tell me that this was a story about Twitter. But then he shortly thereafter wrote back to note that actually what was going on was that people were using Blackberry Messengers, which are not public in the way that Twitter is. This point was driven home when I noticed the following quote in a BBC story about rioting in Birmingham, England:

Police said they had been aware of “Twitter intelligence” from lunchtime on Monday, suggesting there would be trouble in the city during the evening.

So this is also something that struck me as new – the fact that authorities could use Twitter to try to anticipate the actions of the masses. Again, in the London context this is from the perspective of maintaining law and order, but I can’t imagine why this isn’t something that could be replicated in the case of peaceful protest against authoritarian regimes as well.

Finally, there is an important lesson from Mancur Olson that is worth reiterating here: collective action is always easier with small groups than with large groups. I am struck by the continued references in all the stories regarding the riots in England to the sizes of the groups involved: numbers between 100-200 seem to keep coming up. Twitter, Blackberry Messengers, and Facebook may make real time collaboration among potential collaborators easier regardless of the size of the group, but it is possible that they may have more of an impact among groups of particular sizes. Perhaps in the future we may come to realize that this range of 100-200 people represents a kind of “social media sweet spot”, whereby the group is too big to function without the social media, but small enough that social media can actually facilitate tight and effective coordination. This would certainly be a very interesting question for future research.

9 Responses to More on Social Media, England, and Collective Action

  1. Scott Monje August 9, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    “So this is also something that struck me as new – the fact that authorities could use Twitter to try to anticipate the actions of the masses. Again, in the London context this is from the perspective of maintaining law and order, but I can’t imagine why this isn’t something that could be replicated in the case of peaceful protest against authoritarian regimes as well.”

    I believe this was the case in Iran in 2009.

  2. Graeme Robertson August 9, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Quick response to a couple of questions you raise Josh. First, while it is probably true that most of the literature on social media and protest has focused on protest in authoritarian contexts, there has been considerable discussion looking at how police use social media too as a tool for identifying those they want to arrest. In Iran, for instance, Facebook posts, tweets, and emails were used as evidence against protesters in the wake of the failed Green Revolution. The most prominent author about this side of social media is certainly (the not uncontroversial) Evgeny Morozov.

    Second, I think that the general discussion one finds of the history of social media and collective action is distorted. To my mind, the use of social media differs little from the use of cell phones to organize flash mobs back in the early 2000s. While not social media in the current sense, coordinating the actions of large numbers of people by cellphone is pretty similar and a crucial precursor to what we see in authoritarian regimes and in London. If we accept flash mobbing as part of the story then it is not at all surprising to see things take the turn they have in London. After all, flash mobs began apolitically. The tactic is believed to have first appeared in New York in 2003 and was about surrealist performance art rather than anything explicitly political, and originally, participants would simultaneously carry out quite meaningless actions. In fact the Social Issues Research Council website ( ash_mob.shtml) quotes Sean Savage, who claims to have invented the term, as saying, “If anyone tells you they know what the point is, they either don’t know what they’re talking about or they’re lying.” Nor is London the first place to witness violent flash mobs — the police in Philadelphia have seen flashmobs as a major public security issue for some time now (

  3. Joshua Tucker August 9, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    @Scott: Thanks – didn’t know that. Do you know of any literature (academic or media) that make reference to this?

  4. Babak August 9, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    You drew a contrast between freedom-loving citizens in autocratic regimes and “people in open, democratic societies who want to commit unlawful acts that require collective action”. I’m not necessarily defending the riots in London but rather playing devil’s advocate when I ask this:

    Is a classic democracy enough? What if the majority had acted unfairly towards the minority… think extreme examples like slavery. Would you still have the same position and describe the effect of social media as “negative”? If not, who judges whether the protestors are hooligans or “freedom fighters”?

  5. andrew August 9, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    Is there any research on the 2005 riots in France that this can be compared to? That was just before the widespread adoption of easy-to-use social media, while cellphones were obviously nothing new at that point.

  6. Mike August 9, 2011 at 10:58 pm #

    The first case I know of (albeit I mainly follow Africa) was the Kenya elections violence with SMSes. While Ushahidi and people using SMS technology for good were among the big positive news stories, the fact is that SMSes were used to coordinate violence too – and send incendiary rumors and hate. This predated the ‘flash mob’ phenomenon’s spread to this part of the world; they were just ‘mobs’.

    Here is a link, for example, though both constructive and destructive examples are amply available through google .

    USIP’s “New Media in Contentious Politics” is the biggest of the research groups looking into this seriously.

  7. Sam Greene August 10, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Social media were also apparently important in organizing the nationalist protests in Moscow in December 2010 (though there is some debate on the precise role it played: At the very least, official media reported at the time that the authorities were monitoring on-line traffic to predict and prevent protest events and track down lynchpins (in Russian: Similar things were also reported during the Twitter revolution in Moldova, if I’m not mistaken.

    Picking up on Graeme’s point, though, froma classical media studies standpoint there’s nothing fundamentally different from a mobilizational standpoint between social media and cell phones or, for that matter, fax machines before that (and the role they played in late Perestroika, for example), except perhaps speed.

    There are two other perspectives that might be added, however. First, there is an argument that social media create communities of interest that generate higher levels of implicit trust among their members than would have otherwise existed between the individuals in question, thus increasing the likelihood that people will actually come out to the protest/riot/flash mob. In other words, Twitter or Facebook are more socially meaningful than, say, a fax machine, because they draw together more aspects of our lives. The flipside of this, however, is Morozov’s argument, suggesting that this difference in the social endowments of media actually favors the authorities, who can use the interconnectedness of information on the Net to learn considerably more about people than they could by simply tracing phone or fax numbers.

  8. Scott Monje August 10, 2011 at 9:32 am #

    In addition to the after-the-fact uses that Graeme Robertson mentions, I know that the Iranian authorities posted photos of demonstrators on the Internet and asked the general public to help identify them. I suppose as long as you have a social base, you can engage in “crowd-sourced repression.” (The demonstrators were doing much the same thing, posting photos of Basiji militiamen and asking people to help identify them. Another aspect of crowd-sourced intimidation.) Face-recognition technology may bring “advances” there. There were also allegations that the regime used equipment purchased from Siemens and Nokia to analyze the content of Internet traffic.

    As noted above, Evgeny Morozov stresses the negative aspects of the Internet. See The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (PublicAffairs, 2011) and Also check the April 2011 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

    And just for the sake of logical completion, in addition to people with valid grievances in democracies, there are certainly people who want to commit unlawful acts in authoritarian countries.

  9. Vincent August 21, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    The information era that we live in today is so beneficial for society, that it is also a detriment to it as well. Because social media is able to be travel at a rapid speed, many governments, socialist, dictatorial, whatever it may be, are utilizing their power to prevent such information spread. Egypt and their shutting down of the internet is an example, while China’s policy on ‘no Google’ is another. The cause of all this is is the fact that many people are using social mediums to collaborate and “plan their next move,” basically what Joshua stated in his post. Actions by these governments draw up the question of whether it is even right to violate and prohibit the access of information in the cyber world. Another major debate added to the list, I’m sure.