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Information Cascades and Rebellion:

In the article “Riots, Revolution, Democratization, and Information Cascades,” Chris Ellis and John Fisher assert that the basic root of all political uprising is information cascades. The article beings by portraying a stylized version of this theory: workers decide whether or not to rebel based on other workers behavior as well as the presence of “signals” of the regime’s’ weakness. The two are actually inextricably linked. If a worker observes other workers rebelling, they will take the government’s inability to quell the uprising as a sign of weakness, and they will likely join in the rebellion. The ruler’s possible actions are varied. They may choose to institute democracy rather than face being overthrown. They may recognize that the flow of information is essential to an uprising. In this case, the ruler may choose to institute laws that prevent gathering and the circulation of information. The ruler may simply ignore the threat. These rules underestimate the power of information cascades and view the threat as minimal. However, these rulers who do not take the threat seriously are often faced with rebellion.

The article briefly touches on the relevance of this theory to the “Arab Spring,” but it mainly focuses on the riots that occurred in London in 2011. They attest that the root of the violence and looting was not a “moral deficit,” rather a real life occurrence of information cascade. A small number of people (who are arguably morally deficit) are tempted to commit crimes and weigh the pros and cons of committing that crime. If they are people without concern of the morality of crime, they will weigh the severity of the possible punishment and the likelihood of that punishment. If they believe both of these factors to be low enough they will commit the crime. Prior to the rebellions, London was at a “low crime” equilibrium. When the morally deficit people committed crimes, the masses observed the police force was ill equipped at catching and punishing the criminals. Without the perceived deterrent of punishment, regular people began committing crimes as well. London then reached a “high crime” equilibrium. The London authorities were able to build up the force of their response and lower the crime equilibrium once again.

The article briefly touches upon a final point: the involvement of new technologies in information cascades and rebellion. The instantaneous aspects of twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets have allowed rebellion to spread not only much more rapidly, but also over a much larger distance. The London riots spread to the rest of the city in the blink of an eye; the riots of the “Arab Spring” expanded across several counties.


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November 2014