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Information Cascade, Tipping Points, and How Social Networking Has Effected Arab Spring

In this day and age, the effects of online social networking are a hot topic. People are eager to discuss the social and economic implications of social networking as it pertains to shaping the way people make friends and decide what products to buy and services to use, but social networking has more extreme effects as well. For example, many academics are looking into the involvement of social networking and other communicative technologies in helping to precipitate the “Arab Spring” revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere.

Aaron Swartz, a blogger and “open data” advocate, believes that social networking is very important in starting revolutions in modern times. He feels that social networking enables radicals to find each other and form a core group, which can then begin to gain support from more moderate people who are still sympathetic to the cause. After the seed has been planted, the revolution can then actually take off because information cascade will allow the revolutionary fraction of society to grow and surpass the tipping point. Zeynep Tufeci, a social-media researcher at the University of North Carolina and a fellow of the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and society, examines the issue from a more academic point of view. She believes that social networking is crucial in explaining why “durable authoritarianism” (30-40 year autocracies), are facing larger and more effective protests in recent times. She believes that when individuals act out alone in such a society, there is a high cost of failure, but this can be lowered if the number of people protesting increases. Authoritarian states are resource constrained and cannot effectively repress all of their citizens and are therefore forced into playing “whack a protest” to ensure their survival. Authoritarian regimes also address the problem of not being able to repress everyone by creating conditions where people avoid sharing their preferences out of fear and a lack of information about other people’s views. Social networking does a lot to help revolutions start in these types of societies by making it harder to censor the citizens, making it easier for people to share their views with each other, and allowing the protestors to coordinate protests and pass along information.

From the standpoint of the class, social networking allows several interesting things to happen. It makes information cascade possible, and this allows movements to grow by providing people with information about others’ decisions, which can override what an individual thinks is the right choice. If a person is interested in protesting, but thinks it is a bad idea, their decision can still be influenced by the knowledge that other people believe protesting is worthwhile. Information cascade can give a movement enough momentum to cross a tipping point and turn into a full on revolution. This tipping point only becomes possible when individuals are given information about how other people feel, allowing network effects to come into play. With network effects influencing people’s decisions, it is possible to reach a tipping point because network effects can make protesting more attractive to individuals. Before social networking, people in authoritarian regimes had little way of knowing how popular or unpopular the idea of revolution was and had no easy means of spreading their ideas. Social networking allows the revolutionary movement to spread to a large fraction of society through information cascade and gives people enough information about the views of others to create network effects that make it possible to reach a tipping point and start a revolution.


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