Friday, October 1, 2010

Social Media and Political Mobilization

Writing in the New Yorker recently, Malcom Gladwell questioned the fashionable belief that the proliferation of online social media has profound implications for social movements that should concern authoritarian governments. He notes that historically, hierarchical organizations characterized by strong interpersonal ties among members have been most effective at mobilizing in the face of potential violence. That is, when the risks associated with action are high, the willingness of a small number of deeply committed individuals to bear high costs is more significant than the willingness of large numbers of loosely connected individuals to bear low costs.

If the spread of social media are so politically inconsequential , how are we to explain the mis-allocation of resources on the part of authoritarian regimes that seek to limit access to these media? Are the regimes stupid? Is the cost of this monitoring so low that it is undertaken as a hedge against the (perhaps) small risk that social media might lead to ant-regime social movements? I would not characterize these expenses as low, owing to both the required manpower (60,000 web monitors in China) and the international reputation costs of engaging in censorship. Nor do I think they perceive the risks as so inconsequential. The thousands of protests that occur in China each year are localized, and no doubt the ringleaders of these protests share personal connections. Despite the proliferation of these protests, they are characterized by local concerns and share no uniting vocabulary of critique. Government control of social media is designed to keep it that way. Groups with high levels of solidarity and grievances abound, but modern social media provide low-cost means of aggregating these groups into an organization of geographic breadth.

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