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The Effects of Information Cascades and Technology on Protests, Revolutions, and Riots

An information cascade occurs when people observe the actions of others and follow their decisions regardless of their own private information.  Although this often has effects on everyday things like fashion, technology, and choosing a book or a movie, it can also have important political implications.  These effects of information cascades have been increased by technology.  There are a variety of very recent examples – these include the Arab Spring of 2011, the summer riots in London, and the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement.  Although information cascades can occur without current technology, such as the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, technologies such as Facebook and Twitter can accelerate information cascades in cases where this might not have happened otherwise.

In a recent paper, John Ellis and Chris Fender have used the idea of information cascades to develop a theory of political regime change brought about by the threat of revolution.  They suggest that workers make their decisions on whether or not to rebel to based on several factors – their own individual signals about the state of the regime and more importantly, whether or not other workers are rebelling.  This is because the success of a protest or a rebellion almost completely depends on how many people show up.  For example, if only a few people show up, the rebellion fails or the protest gets very little media attention.  On the other hand, if a lot of people show up, it can lead to positive change or substantial media attention, leading to a spread of the protests.  A recent and very relevant example of this is the Occupy Wall Street protest.  It started as a fairly small protest in New York City to protest against social and economic inequality.  However, the use of Twitter and other websites caused more people to learn about the protests and get involved, which in turn led to even more people protesting – this is an example of technology accelerating an information cascade.  After more people started protesting, it led to more media attention.  This media attention led to other “Occupy” movements in various parts of the world.  We even had some protests in Ithaca, including “Occupy Cornell” and “Occupy Ithaca.”  Without Twitter and other sites on the Internet, the protest might have stayed small in New York City and never taken off.  Another good example of this is the Arab Spring – without Twitter and Facebook, the revolution would have either taken much longer to succeed or it might have actually failed.

Acceleration of information cascades by technology is not always a good thing.  The authors of the paper discuss how information cascades might have played a role in the summer riots in London and other English cities.  Fender and Ellis suggest that information transmission such as that on Twitter and Facebook allowed rioters to coordinate their activities and allowed the riots to spread to other cities.  These technologies were once again accelerating information cascades, but with a very negative effect.  There was also a behavioral effect – once a certain number of people joined the rioting, the chance of punishment was greatly reduced so even more people started rioting.  However, after a certain amount of time, the chance of punishment was raised again and the riots stopped.  I believe that these accelerating effects of technology and information cascades on protests and revolutions are just beginning.  As more people use the Internet and join websites like Facebook and Twitter, the effects of information cascades will become even greater.

http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/ISN-Insights/Detail?lng=en&id=133669&contextid734=133669&contextid735=133668&tabid=133668&dynrel=4888caa0-b3db-1461-98b9-e20e7b9c13d4,0c54e3b3-1e9c-be1e-2c24-a6a8c7060233,40db1b50-7439-887d-706e-8ec00590bdb9

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/10/mass-movements

 

 

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