Investigating the structure and connectivity of online global protest networks

How have online technologies reconfigured collective action? It is often assumed that the rise of social networking tools, accompanied by the mass adoption of mobile devices, have strengthened the impact and broadened the reach of today’s political protests. Enabling massive self-communication allows protesters to write their own interpretation of events – free from a mass media often seen as adversarial – and emerging protests may also benefit from the cheaper, faster transmission of information and more effective mobilization made possible by online tools such as Twitter.

The new networks of political protest, which harness these new online technologies are often described in theoretical terms as being ‘fluid’ and ‘horizontal’, in contrast to the rigid and hierarchical structure of earlier protest organization. Yet such theoretical assumptions have seldom been tested empirically. This new language of networks may be useful as a shorthand to describe protest dynamics, but does it accurately reflect how protest networks mediate communication and coordinate support?

The global protests against austerity and inequality which took place on May 12, 2012 provide an interesting case study to test the structure and strength of a transnational online protest movement. The ‘indignados’ movement emerged as a response to the Spanish government’s politics of austerity in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The movement flared in May 2011, when hundreds of thousands of protesters marched in Spanish cities, and many set up camps ahead of municipal elections a week later.

These protests contributed to the emergence of the worldwide Occupy movement. After the original plan to occupy New York City’s financial district mobilised thousands of protesters in September 2011, the movement spread to other cities in the US and worldwide, including London and Frankfurt, before winding down as the camp sites were dismantled weeks later. Interest in these movements was revived, however, as the first anniversary of the ‘indignados’ protests approached in May 2012.

To test whether the fluidity, horizontality and connectivity often claimed for online protest networks holds true in reality, tweets referencing these protest movements during May 2012 were collected. These tweets were then classified as relating either to the ‘indignados’ or Occupy movement, using hashtags as a proxy for content. Many tweets, however, contained hashtags relevant for the two movements, creating bridges across the two streams of information. The users behind those bridges acted as  information ‘brokers’, and are fundamentally important to the global connectivity of the two movements: they joined the two streams of information and their audiences on Twitter. Once all the tweets were classified by content and author, it emerged that around 6.5% of all users posted at least one message relevant for the two movements by using hashtags from both sides jointly.

Analysis of the Twitter data shows that this small minority of ‘brokers’ play an important role connecting users to a network that would otherwise be disconnected. Brokers are significantly more active in the contribution of messages and more visible in the stream of information, being re-tweeted and mentioned more often than other users. The analysis also shows that these brokers play an important role in the global network, by helping to keep the network together and improving global connectivity. In a simulation, the removal of brokers fragmented the network faster than the removal of random users at the same rate.

What does this tell us about global networks of protest? Firstly, it is clear that global networks are more vulnerable and fragile than is often assumed. Only a small percentage of users disseminate information across transnational divides, and if any of these users cease to perform this role, they are difficult to immediately replace, thus limiting the assumed fluidity of such networks. The decentralized nature of online networks, with no central authority imposing order or even suggesting a common strategy, make the role of ‘brokers’ all the more vital to the survival of networks which cross national borders.

Secondly, the central role performed by brokers suggests that global networks of online protest lack the ‘horizontal’ structure that is often described in the literature. Talking about horizontal structures can be useful as shorthand to refer to decentralised organisations, but not to analyse the process by which these organisations materialise in communication networks. The distribution of users in those networks reveals a strong hierarchy in terms of connections and the ability to communicate effectively.

Future research into online networks, then, should keep in mind that the language of protest networks in the digital age, particularly terms like horizontality and fluidity, do not necessarily stand up to empirical scrutiny. The study of contentious politics in the digital age should be evaluated, first and foremost, through the lens of what protesters actually reveal through their actions.

Read the paper: Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon and Ning Wang (2013) The Bridges and Brokers of Global Campaigns in the Context of Social Media.

Why do (some) political protest mobilisations succeed?

The communication technologies once used by rebels and protesters to gain global visibility now look burdensome and dated: much separates the once-futuristic-looking image of Subcomandante Marcos posing in the Chiapas jungle draped in electronic gear (1994) from the uprisings of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. While the only practical platform for amplifying a message was once provided by organisations, the rise of the Internet means that cross-national networks are now reachable by individuals—who are able to bypass organisations, ditch membership dues, and embrace self-organization. As social media and mobile applications increasingly blur the distinction between public and private, ordinary citizens are becoming crucial nodes in the contemporary protest network.

The personal networks that are the main channels of information flow in sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn mean that we don’t need to actively seek out particular information; it can be served to us with no more effort than that of maintaining a connection with our contacts. News, opinions, and calls for justice are now shared and forwarded by our friends—and their friends—in a constant churn of information, all attached to familiar names and faces. Given we are more likely to pass on information if the source belongs to our social circle, this has had an important impact on the information environment within which protest movements are initiated and develop.

Mobile connectivity is also important for understanding contemporary protest, given that the ubiquitous streams of synchronous information we access anywhere are shortening our reaction times. This is important, as the evolution of mass recruitments—whether they result in flash mobilisations, slow burns, or simply damp squibs—can only be properly understood if we have a handle on the distribution of reaction times within a population. The increasing integration of the mainstream media into our personal networks is also important, given that online networks (and independent platforms like Indymedia) are not the clear-cut alternative to corporate media they once were. We can now write on the walls or feeds of mainstream media outlets, creating two-way communication channels and public discussion.

Online petitions have also transformed political protest; lower information diffusion costs mean that support (and signatures) can be scaled up much faster. These petitions provide a mine of information for researchers interested in what makes protests succeed or fail. The study of cascading behaviour in online networks suggests that most chain reactions fail quickly, and most petitions don’t gather that much attention anyway. While large cascades tend to start at the core of networks, network centrality is not always a guarantor of success.

So what does a successful cascade look like? Work by Duncan Watts has shown that the vast majority of cascades are small and simple, terminating within one degree of an initial adopting ‘seed.’ Research has also shown that adoptions resulting from chains of referrals are extremely rare; even for the largest cascades observed, the bulk of adoptions often took place within one degree of a few dominant individuals. Conversely, research on the spreading dynamics of a petition organised in opposition to the 2002-2003 Iraq war showed a narrow but very deep tree-like distribution, progressing through many steps and complex paths. The deepness and narrowness of the observed diffusion tree meant that it was fragile—and easily broken at any of the levels required for further distribution. Chain reactions are only successful with the right alignment of factors, and this becomes more likely as more attempts are launched. The rise of social media means that there are now more attempts.

One consequence of these—very recent—developments is the blurring of the public and the private. A significant portion of political information shared online travels through networks that are not necessarily political, but that can be activated for political purposes as circumstances arise. Online protest networks are decentralised structures that pull together local sources of information and create efficient channels for a potentially global diffusion, but they replicate the recruitment dynamics that operated in social networks prior to the emergence of the Internet.

The wave of protests seen in 2011—including the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados, and the Global Occupy Campaign—reflects this global interdependence of localised, personal networks, with protest movements emerging spontaneously from the individual actions of many thousands (or millions) of networked users. Political protest movements are seldom stable and fixed organisational structures, and online networks are inherently suited to channeling this fluid commitment and identity. However, systematic research to uncover the bridges and precise network mechanisms that facilitate cross-border diffusion is still lacking. Decentralized networks facilitate mobilisations of unprecedented reach and speed—but are actually not very good at maintaining momentum, or creating particularly stable structures. For this, traditional organisations are still relevant, even while they struggle to maintain a critical mass.

The general failure of traditional organisations to harness the power of these personal networks results from their complex structure, which complicates any attempts at prediction, planning, and engineering. Mobilization paths are difficult to predict because they depend on the right alignment of conditions on different levels—from the local information contexts of individuals who initiate or sustain diffusion chains, to the global assembly of separate diffusion branches. The networked chain reactions that result as people jump onto bandwagons follow complex paths; furthermore, the cumulative effects of these individual actions within the network are not linear, due to feedback mechanisms that can cause sudden changes and flips in mobilisation dynamics, such as exponential growth.

Of course, protest movements are not created by social media technologies; they provide just one mechanism by which a movement can emerge, given the right social, economic, and historical circumstances. We therefore need to focus less on the specific technologies and more on how they are used if we are to explain why most mobilisations fail, but some succeed. Technology is just a part of the story—and today’s Twitter accounts will soon look as dated as the electronic gizmos used by the Zapatistas in the Chiapas jungle.

Slicing digital data: methodological challenges in computational social science

One of the big social science questions is how our individual actions aggregate into collective patterns of behaviour (think crowds, riots, and revolutions). This question has so far been difficult to tackle due to a lack of appropriate data, and the complexity of the relationship between the individual and the collective. Digital trails are allowing Social Scientists to understand this relationship better.

Small changes in individual actions can have large effects at the aggregate level; this opens up the potential for drawing incorrect conclusions about generative mechanisms when only aggregated patterns are analysed, as Schelling aimed to show in his classic example of racial segregation.  Continue reading “Slicing digital data: methodological challenges in computational social science”