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Information Cascades in Revolutions

Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites have become an increasingly powerful tool for those facing oppression.  These social media outlets are tools of an information cascade, in which protesters increase their ranks following a successful protest or rally.  When a bystander observes a successful demonstration, he is more likely to join the protesters at the next one.  A protest can be considered successful if it does not incite a strong reaction by the authoritarian regime.  This is because a non-reaction by the regime shows non-participants the benefit of participation.  In the Iranian protests that occurred in 2009, the information cascade through social media was so strong that the government was forced to shut down cellular communications networks so their opposition would not increase so quickly.  However, this action actually results in a net positive for protesters; shutting down communications damages the insurgents, but overall affects the regime more negatively.  This is because the regime loses communications between themselves, but the word about the protests is already out.  Every day that the protests are not met with a strong reaction by the government, the information cascade increases the number of active protesters.

Unfortunately for protesters, the use of social media as a means of information cascade does not always result in a successful uprising.  Countries of importance in the geopolitical network are much more likely to see an authoritarian regime replaced with a democratic institution, regardless of whether or not social media influences the information cascade.  Additionally, regimes that respond early in the insurrection – before information has cascaded extensively – are more likely to keep their power.



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November 2014