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How Social Media Sites and Information Cascades Fuel Revolutions

Information cascades are very prevalent in the human society and play an important role in a wide range of people’s  social, economic, and political behaviors. Even a momentous social phenomenon such as a revolution can be analyzed by determining the presence and effect of an information cascade. Suppose, in a simple hypothetical example, some working class individuals decide to stage a protest against a dictatorship in their country. When they begin the protest, more people may join, thinking that the event of the rebellion is a sign of the regime’s weakness. So people decide whether or not to rebel by observing others’ behavior as well as signals they receive about the state of the regime. If enough of them rebel, the revolution is successful and the dictator is overthrown. In this example, the role of the information cascade is crucial because there may be many people who are dissatisfied with the regime but do not believe that it can change, so they would not rebel if they did not see many other people rebelling. When they do see that other people are rebelling, they infer that those people believe differently and join the rebellion too, ignoring their own belief that the regime is strong and cannot be changed and putting trust into the belief of the more numerous rebels that the regime is not as strong and can be changed. Thus, many individuals are attracted to the rebellion through the effect of the information cascade, making the number of the rebels grow and increasing the chance of the rebellion being successful. Of course, in reality, the process of a revolution is not as simple and involves many factors, but the general pattern remains.

In the present time, with many efficient means of transporting information such as television, phones, and social media sites, the effect of information cascades on the development of a revolution is greater than ever. Some revolutions, such as the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009 and the Ukrainian Euromaidan Revolution of 2013, have even been dubbed as “Twitter Revolutions” because of the prevalent use of Twitter by the revolutionaries in coordinating protests and sharing information with people worldwide.  Let’s examine the Euromaidan Revolution more closely. When the President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych chose to sign a treaty with Russia instead of an association agreement with the European Union, a few thousand people, mostly college students, came to the Independence Square in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, to protest his decision. The protesters used various social media sites to draw attention to their actions and their cause. For instance, opposition party “Batkivschina” (Fatherland) faction leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk called for protests on the Independence Square via Twitter. The riots and protests continued to attract more people over the span of a few days before, on the night of November 30, 2013, special police units attacked to disperse the rebels. However, despite the violent attack, the protests continued. Moreover, documentation of  this incident went viral on social media and drew even more people to came express their disapproval of the brutal way the riots were handled by the government. Within the next few months, the number of protesters grew to hundreds of thousands on some days and smaller protests took place in other cities of Ukraine, eventually leading to the overthrow of the government.  Over the course of the revolution, massive amount of photos and texts have been tweeted with the hashtags #Euromaidan, #Kiev, and #Ukraine. News about the revolution spread to Western countries, which supported the rebels and recognized the ouster of Yanukovych as legitimate. Many artists and photographers created patriotic pictures, paintings, and even graffiti in support of the Euromaidan Revolution. These positive responses further strengthened the protesters’ resolve that their cause was right.

Though not the most decisive factor, a large part of the success of this revolution can be attributed to information cascades passed through social networks and information networks in social media sites. The beginning of the protests was facilitated by posts on social media sites as well as the existing social network of relatives and friends. Then, the media coverage transmitted the information to people from different social backgrounds across the country. When the initial group of protesters did not disperse even after being attacked by police, it was a sign to other people that maybe the government is not as good or as strong as they previously thought. So many individuals ignored their signal in favor of the opinion of the people in the Independence Square and came to support the revolution. Many also left their jobs and studies to go to Kiev and stand with the protesters for a chance at a better government with less corruption. Therefore, this is exactly an information cascade where people disregarded their own signal in order to join the larger group’s behavior.

Evidently, social media sites and other efficient means of transmitting information greatly helped enlarge the power of the cascade because more people were able to access the information, and thus more people were recruited in this way to join the revolution. However, there are some skeptics who question the magnitude of the impact of social media sites especially on the success of a revolution. One of these people is Malcolm Gladwell. In his article for the New York Times “Small Change”, Gladwell seeks to discredit the role of social media in protests by comparing activism practiced by African Americans in the U.S. in the 1960s to protest segregation and social media activism that exists today. He states that today’s activism is based on weak ties that exist in social media and network structure whereas activism in the 60s involved people with strong ties and organized hierarchical structures. He proceeds to argue that real revolutionary events that change the status quo or the current regime occur in the latter case rather than the former because social media networks are dominated by weak ties which do not affect the motivation of a person to act like strong ties do. Moreover, all a person needs to do today to feel like she participated is retweet, like, comment, or share something on her social media site whereas in the past people had to actually go out and do things like sit at an all-white table during lunch, an activity that involves much more risk rather than a few clicks of a mouse in front on one’s computer at home. As Gladwell puts it, social media is “effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation” and effort that participation requires. To add to that, network structure itself is much less efficient than a hierarchical one in organizing people for a certain cause. Gladwell cites international-relations scholars Mette Eilstrup-Sangiovanni and Calvert Jones who argue in an essay in International Security that the cause for the trouble that the Palestine Liberation Organization ran into as it grew is: “Structural features typical of networks—the absence of central authority, the unchecked autonomy of rival groups, and the inability to arbitrate quarrels through formal mechanisms”, which “made the P.L.O. excessively vulnerable to outside manipulation and internal strife.” Therefore, Gladwell concludes, “the instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.”

Some of Gladwell’s statements are rather questionable given that I’ve just provided an example of a revolution where social media sites helped at least to some extent. Really all social media sites are is a tool for people to share information. Of course it is not inherently a pro or anti status quo tool because all depends on what types of people use it and how they use it! In fact, people can use social media to organize into groups and then each group can choose to create a hierarchy within it or groups can also get together and create hierarchies between them, but if there is no social media, it is harder for certain groups of people to form in the first place because there may be difficulties with transfer of information between them. As for weak ties, their number does not decrease the number of strong ones, and at least there’s some tie whereas, without sites like Facebook or Twitter, that tie would reduce to almost nonexistent, so overall a person would be less connected and would have less outlets and sources for information. The more connected people are, the more information can reach more people in network, thus strengthening any information cascade that is occurring.  Also, the very fact that government officials care so much about social media sites means that they are pretty dangerous for the regime. Why else would the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan ban Twitter after its users spread corruption allegations with him involved? Why else would Putin order to create a huge monster of a propaganda machine in Russia that convinces its citizens that the revolution in Ukraine was staged by America so NATO can take over Ukraine and build military bases by Russia’s border?  If the politicians are so worried about the kind of information people receive through social media, it must be pretty important and potentially dangerous for the status quo.  Maybe in the 60’s if people suddenly had social media sites during the African American struggle for equality, it would not have helped much, but now, in an increasingly globalized world, social media sites are important.



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