For those skeptical about whether on-line communities offer the same level of social capital as in person friendships, this cartoon is for you.
Background: Marshall Van Alstyne predicted 15 years earlier that users would self-segregate on the net and choose to get exposed to ever more narrow communities of interest.
We’re now onto the “The Daily Me” 2.0. Some news sites originally let users click on their interests a user could limit his/her news to say sports and entertainment news. Cass Sunstein and Nicholas Negroponte predicted that it would lead to stronger news blinders and expose us to less and less common information, what they called “The Daily Me”.
Well, it turns out that users actually choose to subject themselves to more diversity in opinions and networks on the net than people predicted.
But the latest onslaught, what Eli Pariser calls “The Filter Bubble”, is more invidious. More and more user sites (Facebook, Google Search, Yahoo News, Huffington Post, the Washington Post) now automatically tailor your stream of results, facebook feed, and news feed based on your past clicks, where you are sitting, what type of computer you use, what web browser you use, etc.
Unlike in the past, this is not “opt in” cyberbalkanization but automatic. And since it happens behind-the-scenes, you can’t know what you’re not seeing. One’s search of Tunisia on Google might not even tell you about the political uprising if you haven’t expressed interest in politics in the past. Eric Schmidt of Google said “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”
Pariser notes that we all have internal battles between our aspirational selves (who want greater diversity) and our current selves (who often want something easy to consume). In most of our lives or Netflix queues we continually play out these battles with sometimes our aspirational selves winning out. These filter bubbles edit out our aspirational selves when we need a mix of vegetables and dessert. Pariser believes that the algorithmic gatekeepers need to show us things that are not only junk food but also things that are challenging, important and uncomfortable and present competing points of view. We need Internet ethics in the way that journalistic ethics were introduced in 1915 with transparency and a sense of civic responsibility and room for user control.
It’s an interesting talk and I clearly agree with Pariser that gatekeepers should be more transparent and allow user input to tweak our ratio of dessert to vegetables, to use his analogy. But I think Pariser, in forecasting the degree of our Filter Bubble, misses out the fact that there are other sources of finding about news articles. Take Twitter retweets. Even if my friends are not that diverse — and many of us will choose to “follow” people we don’t agree with — as long as one of the people I’m following has diverse views in his/her circle of followers and retweets their interesting posts, I get exposed to them. Ditto with e-mail alerts by friends of interesting articles or social searches using Google. We live in far more of a social world where information leads come from many other sources than Google searches or Yahoo News. So let’s work on the automatic filters, but the sky is not falling just yet.
See “The Filter Bubble.” (Feb. 2011 TED talk)
Democracy has finally come to parts of the mid-East and Northern Africa. What has been the role of social media and the Internet in these uprisings?
First the facts and then some discussion of the role of social media:
Background: The “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Mid-East heavily relied on the Internet, social media and technologies like Twitter, TwitPic, Facebook and YouTube in the early stages to accelerate social protest. There are even allegations that the CIA was blindsided about the Egypt uprising by failing to follow developments on Twitter. There is less evidence that social media played a strong a role in places like Yemen (where Internet penetration is low) or Libya (where the government controlled Internet means of distribution and cracked down more effectively).
In Syria, where the “Arab Fall” and “Second Arab Spring” is still underway and the fighting has intensified and spread to Damascus’ suburbs. The role of social media was originally more limited in Syria, out of fear that the government is monitoring online behavior and because the government learned from Egypt and Tunisia and cracked down heavily on social media, but there is some evidence that activists was starting to figure out how to use social media more when the Syrian government temporarily shut down the Internet on May 7, 2013. The Free Syrian Army [Arabic FSA actual site is here] is threatening civil war in Syria and claims to represent 10,000 defected soldiers operating in small bands across Syria; FSA has posted a YouTube video and claimed responsibility on Facebook for the 11/16/11 assault on the Air Force Intelligence building. Disappointingly, Twitter and Google have also agreed to help the Syrian government and other oppressive regimes by enforcing rules that censor tweets or blog posts in Syria by blocking them out within-country. There have not been large-scale protests in Syria, making it hard to gauge the level of anti-government support, since large number of critics of the Assad regime may be refusing to demonstrate out of fear of being injured or killed. Because of the media blackout, it is hard to assess the role of social media currently in Syria, but this Google Hangout hosted by the Syrian American Council in DC held a conference video with activists in and outside the country, discusses their use of social media like Facebook, Skype or YouTube.
The first domino was Tunisia where the underlying source of the uprising lay in government corruption, inequality, censorship and joblessness (even among the well educated youth). The protests began in December 2010 with a college-educated street vendor’s (Mohamed Bouazizi’s) self-immolation in the coastal town of Sidi Bouzid in despair at the corruption and joblessness. He died from the burns, but his protest, despite Tunisia’s strict web censorship laws, was rapidly fanned by online Internet tools.
“Because the protests came together largely through informal online networks, their success has also raised questions about whether a new opposition movement has formed that could challenge whatever new government takes shape.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close ally from the president’s hometown, announced on state television that he was taking power as interim president. But that step violated the Tunisian Constitution, which provides for a succession by the head of Parliament, something that Mr. Ghannouchi tried to gloss over by describing Mr. Ben Ali as “temporarily” unable to serve.
Yet by late Friday night [1/7/11], Tunisian Facebook pages previously emblazoned with the revolt’s slogan, “Ben Ali, Out,” had made way for the name of the interim president. “Ghannouchi Out,” they declared…. And the protesters relied heavily on social media Web sites like Facebook and Twitter to circulate videos of each demonstration and issue calls for the next one. ["President of Tunisia Flees", NY Times, 1/14/11)
"By many accounts, the new arsenal of social networking helped accelerate Tunisia’s revolution, driving the country’s ruler of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, into ignominious exile and igniting a conflagration that has spread across the Arab world at breathtaking speed. It was an apt symbol that a dissident blogger with thousands of followers on Twitter, Slim Amamou, was catapulted in a matter of days from the interrogation chambers of Mr. Ben Ali’s regime to a new government post as minister for youth and sports. It was a marker of the uncertainty in Tunis that he had stepped down from the government by Thursday." [New York Times 1/30/11 article]
“Other social media aspects of the revolution included Twitter updates with stories of state oppression, police brutality and unrest, and tweet feeds of imminent street protests…. Over 30,000 videos have now been placed on YouTube tagged “Sidi Bouzid.” [Online Social Media, 1/18/11 story]
Emboldened by the overthrow of Tunisia’s Ben Ali, the protests spread to Egypt on January 25, 2011 where opposition leaders declared it a “Day of Rage” on which protesters would take to the street against President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The protesters included secularists, Islamists and Communists/ultra-left-wingers–a veritable who’s who of the Egyptian opposition.
While exact numbers of protesters could not be estimated, a flood of internet photographs and videos showed a massive presence in Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities. These protests lasted 18 days and Internet-savvy protesters used Twitpic, Facebook and YouTube to disseminate videos and photographs and called on Egyptians to protest. Protesters provided minute-by-minute tweets concerning where to assemble in an effort to outwit police.
“More than 90,000 people signed up on a Facebook page for the Tuesday [Jan. 25] protests, framed by the organizers as a stand against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment. But the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful opposition movement, said it would not officially participate, though some of its members joined the protesters in Cairo.” (NY Times, “Broad Protests Across Egypt Focus Fury on Mubarak“, 1/25/11)
The Egyptian government originally engaged in episodic censorship. One video posted to YouTube and then shared on Facebook claimed to show Egyptian riot police being assaulted and seriously injured by protesters. However, the video was taken offline for a Terms of Service violation. There were also reports of YouTube censorship of protest videos. “[D]uring protests on Tuesday [Jan. 25, 2011] and again on Wednesday [Jan. 26], many reported trouble accessing Facebook and Twitter, the social networking sites that helped organize and spread news of the protests.” [NY Times]
The Internet crackdown began in earnest on January 28 when the government, amidst extremely large-scale demonstrations moved to fully restrict the Internet and cellular forms of mobilizing demonstrators. “Internet and cellphone connections had been disrupted or restricted in Cairo, Alexandria and other places, cutting off social-media Web sites that had been used to organize protests and complicating efforts by news media to report on events on the ground. Some reports said journalists had been singled out by police who used batons to beat and charge protesters. One cell phone operator, Vodafone, said on Friday that Egypt had told all mobile operators to suspend services in selected areas of the country The British company said it would comply with the order, Reuters reported.” [New York Times, "Clashes in Cairo Extend Arab World's Days of Unrest", 1/28/2011]
Slate has a brief description of how, despite the Internet and cellphone limits, some one million protesters were mobilized for the 2/1/11 protest in Tahrir Square using old-school tactics:
“Three young men from the ElBaradei Association for Change, a group that had been working to mobilize people and have them sign a petition to reform constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007 that prevented an independent candidate from running for president, decided to take matters into their own hands. They would go into other neighborhoods and convince people to come to the square. “We’re going to go out on the streets and start screaming, ‘Down with Mubarak,’ and asking people to join us. Once we get about 1,000 or 2,000, we will move toward downtown,” Tawfik Gamal told me, as we walked briskly toward the subway.
A little while after we set out, word came that other activists had the same idea, so Tawfik and his friends headed to a different neighborhood. I decided to stick with our original meeting point. As I waited in front of a major Cairo mosque in a wealthy neighborhood, I watched about 100 people walk by.
In front of the mosque, carrying home-made banners and bottles of soda, a small group of friends had congregated. They were the affluent upper-middle-class on the march. One of them is Ahmed El-Diwany. An IT manager at the American University in Cairo, he had moved back into his parents’ home to be closer to the protests. He’s not sure when Mubarak will fall, but he is sure that he will. “Mubarak is a Taurus, and so he is stubborn. He doesn’t like looking weak—and he’s a general. Put it all in a blender, and it’s a lethal combination,” he tells me, totally serious.” [Slate]
Mubarak’s unsubtle crackdown on the Internet and cellphones, not only imposed great cost on the economy, but had the ironic consequence of actually radicalizing many rural Egyptians into opposing the Mubarak regime. In any event, Mubarak’s countermove occurred after the dissension genie had already escaped the bottle and the revolution successfully ousted Mubarak.
“[With the internet crackdown,] President Hosni Mubarak betrayed his own fear — that Facebook, Twitter, laptops and smartphones could empower his opponents, expose his weakness to the world and topple his regime. There was reason for Mr. Mubarak to be shaken. ” [New York Times 1/30/11 article]
On February 10, amidst unrelenting protests, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak had ceded power. Egyptians have now voted meaningfully for the first time ever, although doubts remain about whether the protesters’ gains are being eroded. And on May 23, 2012, Egyptians, in a historic election, for the first time voted for a replacement for Mubarak (one year after his departure).
Libya: In Libya, while the revolution was ultimately successful in ousting Muammar Gaddafi, social media played a minor role. Libya’s government maintained strong control of the Internet infrastructure, and Gaddafi as an ego-maniacal autocrat responded only to insurgent militia, once they were aided by NATO.
Syria/Jordan/Yemen/others: Other middle-Eastern nations fear the shadow of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and fear that youth uprisings spurred by social networking mobilization or more traditional mobilization are taking hold. On Monday, January 31, 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unsuccessfully announced efforts to try to get ahead of a possible revolution there (in a WSJ interview). Jordan pre-emptively tried to avoid the Tunisian or Egyptian result with somewhat limited success. (AP) The Yemeni leader agreed not to run again or hand the reins to his son. [Here is a great graphic showing the spread of the Tunisian uprising to at least 18 other middle East countries (through April 11, 2011), with four other countries having overthrown their leader (Egypt, Libya, Ivory Coast and Yemen[?]) and another (Syria) at a tipping point. And this is the current state of play by country.]
Although the role of social media is much lower in Syria’s protest actions than countries like Tunisia or Egypt, individuals have risked their lives to use cellphones and small cameras to film atrocities of President Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown on the protesters and upload these images to Facebook or YouTube, fanning international pressure on Assad to back down. Assad has also used propogandistic websites like Bashar al-Assad and used social media to assert that protest videos are fake and that he has hundreds of thousands of loyal supporters. Although only 15% of Syrians are online, activist LeShaque claims that without social media, the Syrian revolution would have been successfully repressed at an earlier stage, and notes that the government complains more about the media than the protests.
What was the role of social media?
Social media must work hand-in-hand with an ability to mobilize citizens. It is far too easy to simply “Friend” or “Like” a movement on Facebook and a retweet is never enough. The challenge is to put boots on the street, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya know only too well.
Everyone agrees that social media add new arrows to the quivers of social activists. These social media can be helpful in: a) mobilizing protesters rapidly; b) undermining a regime’s legitimacy; or c) increasing national and international exposure to a regime’s atrocities. Any use of these social media is likely to be more successful in a country that has some form of democracy; so far, the exit of Tunisia’s Ben Ali is the only example we have of social media non-violently ousting an autocrat.
Malcolm Gladwell observes in “The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted” that successful social movements long pre-dated social media. In an May 2011 interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN’s GPS (Global Public Square), he disputes the importance of social media in the mid-east uprisings and asserts that protesters could have organized in other ways, noting that East Germany overturned a government when only 13% had landline phones. Moreover, Arab Spring uprisings are occurring in places like Yemen with low rates of Internet penetration. Journalist Anthony Shadid comments on Syria that: “It’s not a Twitter or Facebook revolution. The revolution is in the streets, and it smells of blood.”
Advocates of the new technology point out that the fact that there were successful revolutions before the telephone, doesn’t mean that the telephone (or social media) might not enhance social protest or enable some protests to succeed where otherwise they would not have.
Malcolm Gladwell and Clay Shirky, “From Innovation to Revolution”, Foreign Affairs, Response, March/April 2011 have an interesting brief exchange of their differing thoughts on the role of social media in revolutions. Zeynep Tufekci, Why the ‘how’ of social organizing matters and how Gladwell’s latest contrarian missive falls short and David Weinberger, Joho the Blog, “Gladwell proves too much” had quite thoughtful blog posts on this topic, criticizing Gladwell for his dismissal of the importance of social media.
Philip N. Howard, assoc. professor of communication at the Univ. of Washington, and other scholars have analyzed the millions of tweets, YouTube videos and blog posts and concluded that “social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring…[The evidence] suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising. People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”
Wael Abbas (a prominent Egyptian blogger), when questioned on the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution, said: “Social media is a tool. But revolution is the decision of many people. Once we decided to have a revolution, once people decided to stay in the square, social media was a helpful tool to call for support, ask lawyers for help. I will not give social media all the credit, nor will I take away all the credit from social media.” He noted that the revolution is not yet over: “We’re not beyond the revolution. We now have a military junta, and people are being shot by armed officers, defending their interests. The army is protecting American, Israeli, Saudi interests in the country. They are protecting their own interests: the military aid from the US. The army is building factories and roads, and they’re not paying taxes, electricity or water. The labor for these projects are soldiers acting as slave labor.”
Wael Ghonim, who anonymously founded the Facebook site Kullena Khaled Said (“We Are All Khaled Said”) in sympathy with a 28-year old brutalized by police and called for the critical Tahrir Square Jan. 25, 2011 day of protest, wrote Revolution 2.0 to chronicle the role of social media in Egypt’s uprising and the suspenseful tale of trying to stay ahead of the police. Hear Wael, a 30-year old Google marketing executive, talk with Terri Gross of Fresh Air here about the power of social media. [Interestingly, he made real efforts with his Facebook site to make this interactive and build individual investments and commitment in this, by asking those who affiliated electronically with the website to post videos of them carrying placards reading "We Are All Khaled Said" and answer electronic surveys about their thoughts, and by indicating that if 100,000 took to the streets to protest on Jan. 25, they couldn't be stopped.]
It’s very hard to prove whether a revolution would or would not have happened barring the existence of social media [countries rarely offer themselves up for experimentation], but there may be some learnable lessons about some important dimensions in understanding how successful social media may be.
1) The underlying strength of civil society: Clay Shirky has an interesting piece “The Political Power of Social Media” in the January/February 2011 Foreign Affairs journal where he acknowledges the key role of civil society:
“The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the environmental view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.”
2) Whether government is a democracy or autocracy. Thus far in the Middle East, Tunisia is the one example where a social-media-tinged uprising has successfully ousted an autocrat. This doesn’t mean that social media can’t be useful in bringing democracy, but if an autocratic leader is willing to brutally suppress dissent (as in Syria) and if outside countries don’t intervene (as they did in Libya), social media may have less impact than one would expect in bringing democracy to the Middle East.
3) The degree of Internet penetration and whether government controls the Internet infrastructure: Obviously in countries with low internet penetration it is far more difficult to use the Internet to mobilize local masses, although it may still be a tool to garner international support. In Libya, where the state controlled the Internet and telephony, it was far easier to block use of these social media than in a country where telecommunications were privatized. In Egypt, the government secured Vodaphone’s cooperation in blocking mobile communications, but foreign companies in the future may be less cooperative.
4) Sophistication in Internet censorship or misinformation campaigns: We are in the early stages of social media and the cat-and-mouse interplay between protesters and repressive regimes. In second-generation revolutions, the state is becoming more sophisticated about Internet controls, making it look like the Internet is active, but slowing speeds dramatically so video is ineffective or blocking certain words from appearing on trending lists or in search queries. Repressive governments have alas learned from Egypt’s inept full-frontal blocking of the Internet. Regarding the use of misinformation, Gaddafi’s attempt to claim that a protest rally video circulating was actually a pro-government rally looked foolish. Would other more sophisticated misinformation campaigns succeed? Will there be fake groups that form in an effort to flush out activists for persecution? Will government become more active in the Internet to try to direct protesters to incorrect locations where police are waiting?
5) Unintended consequences from state action: Related to point #4, we are also in the early days of understanding what types of government crackdowns succeed and which backfire and wind up bolstering the opposition (as Mubarak did in his shutting down of the Internet). Until we have a better handle on those dynamics we will be unsure of what the net-net impact of social media will be.
6) How intertwined social media is in everyday life: To the extent that a society uses social media mundanely but deeply in everyday commerce and social interaction, it will be much harder for countries to effectively dismantle these without huge economic and social costs.
Beyond any initial revolution, Thomas Friedman pointed out in the NY Times on April 13 that starting the revolution may be the easier part. “In the Arab world, almost all these countries are Yugoslavia-like assemblages of ethnic, religious and tribal groups put together by colonial powers — except Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, which have big homogeneous majorities. So removing the lid off these countries may potentially unleash civil war, not civil society.
Friedman concludes: “That is why, for now, the relatively peaceful Arab democracy revolutions are probably over. They [first] happened in the two countries where they were most able to happen because the whole society in Tunisia and Egypt could pull together as a family and oust the evil ‘dad’ — the dictator. From here forward, we have to hope for ‘Arab evolutions’ or we’re going to get Arab civil wars.”
Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in terms of social media.
- “Tunisia Protesters Use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Organize And Report” (LA Times Blog, 1/14/11).
- See New Yorker, “Letter from Tunis: The Casbah Coalition” (4/4/11 by Steve Coll)
- See earlier Social Capital Blog post on role of Facebook in earlier Egyptian uprising.
- As noted under the Tunisia section, Philip Howard and Muzammil Hussain, “The Role of Digital Media”, Journal of Democracy 22(3):35-48(2011) has good background of what happened in Egypt in terms of social media.
- Fast Company urged those interested in monitoring events to follow Egyptian journalist Mona el-Tahawy’s Twitter feed and the wall of the Egyptian opposition el-Shaheed’s Facebook account, which posted minute-by-minute updates from hundreds of Egyptian Facebook users including photos and news of the latest events. They also commended Blogsofwar’s Egypt Twitter aggregator for those who can read Arabic.
- See “How Social Media Accelerated the Uprising in Egypt“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.
- Read also “Facebook treads carefully after its vital role in Egypt’s anti-Mubarak protests” (Wash. Post, 2/2/2011).
- see, “Twitter’s Role in Arab Spring exaggerated, experts find” (The National, 5/1/12) [Citing Arab Media Outlook Study (2011-2015), commissioned by the Dubai Press Club.]
See “Will Syria’s Revolution be Organized… on Facebook?“, Fast Company, 2/3/11.
Radwan Ziadeh explains why use of social media is much lower in Syria in “The Double-Edged Sword of Social Media” (7/11/2011)
“Social Media and Syria’s Revolution” by Namo Abdulla (12/20/11)
Arab Spring generally:
- Clay Shirky did an interesting short interview for the Annenberg “Eye on the Middle East” program (Nov. 10, 2011) on the use of social media in the Arab Spring.
For a broader description of just how game-changing the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East may be, see Thomas Friedman’s “B.E., Before Egypt, A.E., After Egypt” (2/1/11 NYT Op-Ed) [likening the impact to Israel as being similar to the impact on the U.S. if Canada and Mexico were both going through revolutions at the moment]
- See also “Five Reasons why Arab regimes are falling” (Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2011 Op-Ed by Moataz Fattah) citing the fact that countries like Egypt have not leveraged physical capital (i.e., oil) into social capital for its residents.
- See also, Rory O’Connor (Huffington Post, 1/26/12), “#january25 One Year Later: Social Media & Politics 3.0″
- See “Libya: How authorities have blocked the story” (BBC, 2/25/2011)
- See Deborah Amos (NPR) talking about the role of social media: “Revolution in the Age of Social Media, Deborah Amos“
- Doug Saunders has a very interesting Op-Ed in the Globe and Mail discussing social networks in Libya and Egypt in 2004 and 2011 and contrasting the difference. Excerpt:
Certainly, the Libya I visited in 2004 was low on social capital. It was the only Arab country I’ve ever visited where men didn’t gather in large crowds at street-side cafés to smoke and talk politics. This was illegal, and dangerous. Next door in Egypt, life for many was (and remains) a lonely oscillation between home, mosque and workplace, with nothing to bind people in a way that could change the country or its society.
Or so it seemed. But on that visit seven years ago, I noticed something else: Everyone I met under 20, even in fairly poor communities, spent their spare time at the Internet café. In the freedom of those places, in detailed conversations, I found teenagers forming intimate communities online, discussing cars and rap lyrics and sex and especially restrictions on Internet freedoms in neighbouring countries (Libya’s Net was wide open then), and often coalescing in physical meet-ups. And that was Libya, one of the least free countries in the region.
Those teens are now around 24 – and half of all Egyptians and Libyans are 24 or under. In the past months, we have seen them form extraordinarily resilient and tightly linked voluntary communities using those Internet connections.
A fifth of Egyptians and more than a third of Tunisians have broadband at home, and the Internet cafés and cellphone web services mean that almost everyone under 24 has daily access.
Dictators and Islamists also use the Internet. But the young opponents keep showing that their social capital is more robust than we’d ever imagined: In the past seven weeks, we have seen Facebook-organized rallies drive out the old-regime prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt and replace them with movement-associated figures. The towns and villages of Tunisia and Egypt, as I reported this week, are being transformed by local democracy committees, which have become an unstoppable force.
That’s not to say that the Arab world’s connected generation are going to have an easy time building a democratic society. But they certainly aren’t bowling alone.
I was quoted last month in a Philadelphia Inquirer piece on “slacktivism”.
“The easier it is to show support for the cause, the more easily [the action] is dismissed,” says Harvard University’s Tom Sander, who studies civic engagement as executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
When Sander worked in Washington for Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, it was common lore among legislative staffers that e-petitions “signed” online were not taken as seriously as ones that bore actual signatures. The same was true for letters in which writers cut and pasted their messages from a master copy on the Internet, he says.
Obviously the label “slacktivism” already has the conclusion embedded within: i.e., that slacktivism is lazy activism that implicitly can’t work. I noted, which Davis did not quote me on, that social change typically is fighting against self-interests that are deeply vested for a reason — those individuals are benefiting strongly financially from the status quo, they care passionately about the status quo, etc. It’s hard to fathom that anything as important as civil rights or women’s suffrage could have been obtained by Americans’ signaling on their Facebook face that they liked civil rights or liked the idea of women voting. I noted that typically social change, as Weber noted, requires “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”
I think the interesting question is when can change occur without serious effort and how can technology be used in that process. There are examples, like the Jody Williams’ initial work on the International Land Mine Ban, or Kate Hanni’s electronic organizing for the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, that were organized without large-scale public marches or rallies (things that typically signify just how importantly people care about an issue because it takes a lot of people’s time and expense to come, say to Washington, to rally). I think the electronic phase of a movement may be helpful in identifying at some level how widespread support is for an issue and help leaders who are willing to devote serious time to lobbying Congress or organizing a boycott, whether “there is a there there.” But in the case of the land mine or the passengers’ bill of rights, it still took tireless advocacy on the part of Jody Williams or Kate Hanni, although internet organizing was a useful tool in informing their followers and rallying them.
Certainly groups like MoveOn and more recent political campaigns are also testament that the internet is a ripe source for raising money that may be critical to sustaining an organized campaign. [While I certainly differ from what I see as Clay Shirky's over-optimistic tone in Here Comes Everybody, the book is instructive in helping us to rethink ways in which technology might enable new forms of civic engagement and new forms of protest.]
In any event, I don’t want to be categorized in the group that believes that internet activism can’t play an important role (for sure it has and will), but I think the danger is to think that cheap action (e.g., putting a cartoon character on your Facebook page to show opposition to animal cruelty) is sufficient in and of itself to bring about meaningful change.
As I noted to Carolyn Davis, it’s a similar danger to corporate volunteer days where individuals may feel at the end of the day that they’ve satisfied their yearly dose of volunteering rather than spurring them to deepen their civic and social engagement during the rest of the year.
I welcome your thoughts.
See “Slacktivism emerges as questionable online way to support causes” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 27, 2010, Carolyn Davis).
Yahoo is trying to spark random acts of kindness around the world through the 600 million people who are part of the Yahoo “community.”
They ask people to visit kindness.yahoo.com and post online status messages describing their good deeds, inspiring others to reciprocate and amplify their actions.
They call their effort “You In?” since they encourage those doing good deeds to add this to the end of their posts. For example, “I just dropped off a coat from my closet at a homeless shelter, You In?” or “I paid the toll fee for the car behind me, You In?” The messages appear in that poster’s Yahoo! status and can be shared via social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. Visitors can also see an interactive global map on the campaign’s website at kindness.yahoo.com.
Given that the effort encourages altruism, it is ironic that Yahoo! seeded the program by giving $100 to early participants.
Nick Christakis and James Fowler in their book Connected have an interesting experiment to test altruism and the “pay it forward” concept. But for example, in an experiment they conducted of “paying it forward”, 120 individuals who didn’t know each other were paired off for five rounds of cooperation games involving groups of 4 people each. They never encountered the same individuals. Individuals could decide how how much to share of an initial pile of money and then all groups were told what others had done, the individuals were reshuffled into new groups 4 more times and this process was repeated. They found that for every extra dollar that a person (call him/her A) gave in round one to members of A’s group (call them B), those Bs gave twenty cents more in round 2 to their new groups (we’ll call these individuals C). Then the C individuals each gave five cents more in round three. This was true even though it was not reciprocity since B’s generosity was to new strangers as was C’s, since the groups were reshuffled. Since each B individual and C joined three new individuals in the next round, there was a multiplicative impact of A’s generosity of $1.00 to generate an additional $1.05 of generosity in future rounds. Here the multiplier was restrained by the survey design that had groups of 4, but in principle it is possible that a higher multiplier might be found depending on the group size.
Notable Acts of Kindness under the Yahoo! effort:
- “I traded in a $100 bill for 100 one-dollar bills and wrote a note on each that read: ‘Please take this dollar bill, add one dollar bill, and pass it on.’”
- “I helped an 85-year-old neighbor bring her Xmas decorations down from the rafters — all 12 boxes!”
- “I helped an elderly lady carry her groceries to her car.”
- “I am baking Christmas cakes to share with friends in need of help.”
- “I dropped off supplies at the local Humane Society and at the local women’s shelter.”
As many of you know, the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team (part of the MIT Media Lab) won the race to locate the DARPA Red Weather Balloon Challenge. Their system was a reverse Ponzi scheme where those finding the balloon got $2000, and those progressively farther back the invite chain in finding those people got progressively lower payouts; the surplus got donated to charity. (Because the payoffs were cut in 1/2 with every additional degree of separation from the balloon finder, there is no way that MIT could owe more than $4000 per balloon, even if path links to MIT were very long, and MIT assumed that many of the path lengths would be short.)
MIT team members reported that they sent out 2 million SMS messages as one of their strategies but that was a complete bust as far as finding the balloons. Twitter and Facebook on the other hand were far more effective. They are going to be subsequently distilling their findings on effective viral communication and sharing it at an appropriate venue.
Their victory was a victory of human connections (“social capital“) over number crunching. A Google Team was racing them using number crunching and image recognition techniques (e.g., crawling the web in real time for images of red balloons) and had spotted 9 of the 10 balloons when the MIT Team found 10. The MIT Team noted that the balloon finders were using Google Map to determine the coordinates of their balloon sighting (to report to the MIT team) and Google could have captured that information and used it for their own proprietary team but didn’t.
See a blog post about the basic architecture of the MIT reward structure. DARPA’s network challenge obviously has implications for how to effectively and rapidly spread information in the event of an attack, although clearly the task here (spotting a red balloon) is infinitely easier than other possible challenges which are less observable to the the naked eye (infectious diseases or biological attacks) or actions who cause is less clear (a plane crashing for instance).
DARPA noted how the challenge explored “how broad-scope problems can be tackled using social networking tools. The Challenge explores basic research issues such as mobilization, collaboration, and trust in diverse social networking constructs and could serve to fuel innovation across a wide spectrum of applications.”
I commend Thomas Friedman’s Op-Ed today, “The Virtual Mosque”, where he wonders whether Facebook can play the same role for Iranian moderates that the mosque played for more extremist Iranians in mobilizing voters.
Social capital (or social connections) have always played a strong role in politics worldwide. Experiments in the U.S. show that that face-to-face mobilization is far more effective than phone mobilization, and churches have always played a strong role in political mobilization (especially in black churches, as American Grace, the new book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell will show [among many other interesting findings]).
These facts, in addition to the fact that the Iranian police state has guns (as Friedman points out) and is trying hard, and perhaps effectively to block and filter the internet, make me more skeptical of whether Facebook or Twitter can be as effective a tool in mobilizing Iranian moderates as the F2F connections at the mosque. But for sure these e-connections are way more useful than not being able to mobilize social networks. [And mark this as another example of how what appeared to be trivial technologies can be used as pro-democratic forces in repressive countries.] If you’re curious for a live and compelling updating of situation in Iran, see Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Note: the U.S. State Department even asked Twitter to defer maintenance for fear that this might adversely impact the protests!
Moreover, various news pieces have pointed out that the Guardian Council, which previously had maintained their infallability now looks a lot more fallable (after Khamanei initially immediately certified the results and now claims that there should be at least a partial recount). That’s a hard genie to put back in the bottle. It’s reminiscent of a conversation with a mother-friend of mine. When her kids misbehaved, she was constantly counting to five and telling her sons, “you better do it by the time I count to 5, or you’ll be subjected to the wrath of Mom.” I asked her what happened if her sons didn’t do something by 5 and realized that the consequences weren’t as dangerous as they feared. She smiled sheepishly and noted, “I’m hoping we don’t get to that point…” If people believe that the Guardian Council has no clothes, Iranian politics could change dramatically.
See Thomas Friedman’s “The Virtual Mosque” (NYT, 6/17/09)
See also the very interesting “Twitter on the Barricades: Six Lessons Learned” (NYT, 6/21/09, Noam Cohen)
Despite the online fundraising success of the Obama campaign, the Washington Post reports that Facebook Causes, “hugely popular among nonprofit organizations seeking to raise money online, has been largely ineffective in its first two years, trailing direct mail, fundraising events and other more traditional methods of soliciting contributions.” Only the Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet have raised more than $100,000 on Facebook Causes, and most of the 179,000 non-profits listed on Facebook don’t even make $1,000 from the site. This is more depressing when you realize that Facebook usage has swelled to over 200 million. Twenty five million Facebook users show their affinity through Facebook Causes and their belief in the environment or women’s rights or freedom of choice, but fewer than 1% of such users actually donate.
Other experiments have shown that 1-3% of a nonprofit group’s e-mail list donate money when solicited, at an average of about $80 per person. That is more than 44 times the rate at which such users are donating online through Facebook Causes.
Note: one reader, Will Coley, brought to my attention two blog postings contesting the Washington Post report. See Fine Blog and Beth’s Blog. I don’t find these refutations all that persuasive; sure there are lot of Facebook Causes that are not NPOs (so the donation/cause is not the right statistic) and Facebook has a lot of young users (who are not big donors), but the original motivation of Facebook Causes was to help harness social networks to raise a lot for non-profits, and this has largely been a failure, although maybe it helps Facebook users to identify themselves with other users that share their values.
The more hopeful finding about Facebook comes from a recent paper “Social Capital, Self Esteem and the Use of Online Social Networks”. [This is a longitudinal follow-up paper to an earlier paper by Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe in 2007 called “The Benefits of Facebook Friends: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.“] Ellison et al. found in panel survey data they gathered at Michigan State University (MSU) stronger evidence that Facebook usage predicted later increased levels of “bridging social capital” than that “bridging social capital” caused increased Facebook use. [Note: see below on their strange measure of bridging social capital.]
It’s an intriguing finding, although one should note that the size of the panel is quite small (92 students completed the earlier and later survey) and there was attrition both in whom they originally asked to do the survey (where only 277 out of 800 students contacted responded) and then secondary attrition when only a third of those 277 students then filled out the follow-up survey. [Ellison et al. note that the 92 seemed demographically representative of the 277 students, but one can never know about hidden attributes that might have explained why people would stick with the survey and also explained why these same people would have made more friends.]
Moreover, one would suppose that the power of Facebook to build social capital and bridging social capital is probably higher at a university setting where most of the e-friendships are in the same town, and one is thus more likely to encounter budding Facebook friends in real life. (Almost all research shows that it is easier to build trust and stronger ties face-to-face, so having a strong geographic concentration of Facebook friends and ‘near friends’, in an environment where new students are establish friends, should provide Facebook with the strongest dynamic for friend-building.)
The paper, as I noted in a blog post on the earlier study, uses weird measures of bridging social capital. Bridging social capital is supposed to measure the degree to which one has social friendships to people of a different religion, or social class, or race or ethnicity. Their “bridging” measures are more about attachment to MSU as a community and include: “I feel I am part of the MSU community”, “I am interested in what goes on at MSU”, “MSU is a good place to be”, “I would be willing to contribute money to MSU after graduation”, “Interacting with people at MSU makes me want to try new things”, etc. I definitely had loyalty to my college when I was there, but I don’t know that this necessarily says a whit about how diverse my friendships were there.
With this unusual measure of “bridging social capital”, the researchers found that both higher-esteem and lower-esteem students were likely to benefit by increased “bridging social capital” (i.e., have a stronger attachment to MSU) from Facebook use, although this effect was highest for students with low self-esteem at the beginning of the study. And they found that Facebook produced greater attachment to MSU even after controlling for general Internet use and measures of psychological well-being.
While their survey doesn’t directly get at this question, it seems somewhat different than the common findings with technology that the socially-rich get richer, and, rather than leveling the playing field, it may fuerther tilt it. Ellison et al. don’t directly measure level of social capital at the outset, but in their finding that those low in self-esteem may benefit the most (at least in attachment to MSU), it suggests that at least in this domain the socially unattached may benefit more.
For more information, see :
Charles Steinfield, Nicole B. Ellison, Cliff Lampe. Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology 29 (2008) 434–445
To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn’t So Green: Though Popular, ‘Causes’ Ineffective for Fundraising by Kim Hart and Megan Greenwell (Wash Post, 4/22/09)