Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest? Notes.

In the New York Times today, there's a piece about a conference paper by Navid Hassanpour, "Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest: Evidence from Mubarak's Natural Experiment" {link}. I took a look: here's some immediate reactions.

The theoretical part of the paper is yet another cascade model of protest, a kind of Granovetter++, which comes down to this:

  • Individuals are nodes in a network, and face a decision of protesting or not. Each has a personal threshold for action (in terms of the activity of their neighbours) and some small portion have a zero threshold, acting as seeds for the dynamics.
  • Individuals update their threshold based on the level of activity among their neighbours; the more their neighbours are protesting, the more likely they are to join in.

The dynamics of the model is the spread of action through the network, a cascade caused by each actor becoming first more prone to action as those around them take up action, and then joining in themselves.

A "media disruption" reshapes the network – different media lend themselves to different network structures – and the dynamics of this reshaped network will be different, leading to different regions of activity and inactivity.

For many networks, one equilibrium is for almost everyone to be inactive, as each actor has a high threshold for action absorbed from their inactive neighbours. A set of dense connections can freeze regions of a network in states of inactivity: each individual may come in contact with active individuals, but the numerous connections to inactive individuals keeps them mute.

Individuals in a less dense network have a greater possibility of becoming active in response to a population of activists because they are less restrained by the inactive people around them, and this is the basic mechanism for the "media disruption exacerbates unrest" thesis.

So it's a bit like an Ising model of magnetism with ferromagnetic coupling: ions can be spin Up or Down, and their orientation depends on the orientation of their neighbours. One difference: ions don't come with different tendencies to choose Spin Up. It's a simple model – it doesn't try to model the availability of information itself, or have anything to say about political preferences or economic situation beyond the threshold for action. But it does bring in the relationship between network structure and outcome.

There is an empirical part to the paper as well. There is a survey of past revolutions and their relationship to media penetration, which does not convince one way or another (it seems to me there is a conflation of social media and mass media that extends throughout the paper). More interestingly, Hassanpour looks at the progress of the Egyptian uprising and contends that when the government shut down the Internet and phone networks on January 28 it produced, instead of the single gathering at Tahrir Square that had been in progress for several days, eight separate protests in different parts of Cairo. He quotes Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch: "It's clear that the very extensive police force in Egypt is no longer able to control these crowds. There are too many protests in too many places." In the absence of a broadly unifying social media that focused attention on the single winner-take-all protest at Tahrir, people were driven out onto the street to see what was happening and generated local protests instead.

Hassanpour suggests three effects of the disruption of the Internet and of the more widely used cell phone networks:

  • it upset apolitical citizens, turning them against the government;
  • it forced more face-to-face contact;
  • it decentralized the rebellion.

The facts on the ground are open to many interpretations, of which Hassanpour's is one. He doesn't convince me  (I don't have the expertise to judge his empirical evidence) but it's a possibility, and I found it a valuable read.

Despite the title, the main interest is not whether social media increases or decreases the net level of activity, but that it reshapes it. There is overlap with Kieran Healy's just-posted work-in-progress, The Performativity of Networks, {link} where he argues that network algorithms, when implemented in social media products, "reorganize the phenomena they purport to describe" (social networks in this case). Facebook is a performance of a theory of friendship.

Digital technologies have been given credit for an almost endless list of roles in uprisings in authoritarian states. Digital technologies help activist circles to better communicate (blogs, IRC chat, and encrypted communications of various levels of security). They build a broader and deeper public sphere by being a space for open discussion (Facebook and Twitter). They give voice to citizens to speak to the outside world and witness the actions of their government (YouTube videos, Twitter, and blogs). They are a stark contrast to mass media. But they also complement Al Jazeera, who can draw from citizen videos. And they complement offline collaboration and offline organizing as well. Hassanpour points out that digital organizing activities are mainly Internet based while SMS is a medium more suited for on-the-fly information (SMS). In short, there is little that can't be attributed to social media in one form or another.

Hassanpour at least makes a specific claim, that a disruption of digital technologies produced an immediate and tangible reshaping of political activity, and he has a mechanism for his claim. I'm sure others will interrogate the evidence. There have been many calls to go beyond "duelling anecdotes" in looking at the role of social media, and this paper is an attempt to do that. It's flawed, but if you ask me it's going in the right direction.

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  1. I don’t buy the underlying premise and the use of the term “evidence” in the title of the paper bugs me. The East German data mentioned in the NYTimes article is interesting, that is, exposure to West German television did not enhance East German attitudes towards the west. I don’t think you can decouple individual psychology from the system/model like the author of the paper does. If you did then it wouldn’t matter whether the protesters used violence vs. civil disobedience and anyone driving by a protest would automagically stop and join (as long as their car radio wasn’t on/working). I think it far more likely that East German’s did not identify with West German television programming and found it frivolous and self indulgent.
    I think a model based on individual/group identity and communication as a mechanism of what Steven Pinker calls “mutual knowledge” is a more likely explanation. Yes this is a purely subjective claim but I don’t think building a mathematical model on top of a purely subjective claim makes it more objective.

  2. I do share some of your scepticism, but I think the theory part is valuable nonetheless. A lot has been made of the information cascade work of Timur Kuran and Suzanne Lohmann who were looking at pre-Internet uprisings. The basic, very abstract idea in their models is that falsified preferences (Kuran) or limited information about how others view the regime (Lohmann) has been taken as a general framework to make this case:
    social media
    => more connections
    => quicker diffusion
    => easier revelation of true opinions
    => quicker uprising.
    Hassanpour is noting that another possibility is that
    social media
    => more connections
    => slower diffusion.
    We should avoid the temptation to restrict the conclusions we don’t like to “special case” and generalize the conclusions we do like to “general phenomenon” and I don’t think the social media crowd have always done this.
    Oh yes, and I’ll send you my work in progress on identity cascades and popular uprisings.

  3. Thanks for the summary of the article. I saw all of the news about it yesterday, but hadn’t had time to review myself. I am now interested in the empirical work more than the modeling. The idea that an absence of social media may decrease centralization is particularly intriguing. I wonder how “centralization” is defined… (ie: what are authors claiming is centralized and decentralized?)
    I am also now curious about “Performativity of Networks.” It strikes me that Facebook may be about a “performance theory of friendship,” but perhaps more significantly it might be a performance theory of privacy/publicity. Yet, it’s one powerful folk theory competing against many other folk theories of privacy by its users (and various legal theories implemented by states).

  4. Just a passing thought, but is there a signalling element here? Perhaps the switching off of social networks acted as a signal from the regime that they were in trouble. So people knew there were others protesting out there too.

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