Controlling the crowd? Government and citizen interaction on emergency-response platforms

There is a great deal of interest in the use of crowdsourcing tools and practices in emergency situations. Gregory Asmolov‘s article Vertical Crowdsourcing in Russia: Balancing Governance of Crowds and State–Citizen Partnership in Emergency Situations (Policy and Internet 7,3) examines crowdsourcing of emergency response in Russia in the wake of the devastating forest fires of 2010. Interestingly, he argues that government involvement in these crowdsourcing efforts can actually be used to control and regulate volunteers from the top down — not just to “mobilize them”.

RUSSIA, NEAR RYAZAN - 8 MAY 2011: Piled up woords in the forest one winter after a terribly huge forest fires in Russia in year 2010. Image: Max Mayorov.
RUSSIA, NEAR RYAZAN – 8 MAY 2011: Piled up wood in the forest one winter after a terribly huge forest fire in Russia in year 2010. Image: Max Mayorov (Flickr).
My interest in the role of crowdsourcing tools and practices in emergency situations was triggered by my personal experience. In 2010 I was one of the co-founders of the Russian “Help Map” project, which facilitated volunteer-based response to wildfires in central Russia. When I was working on this project, I realized that a crowdsourcing platform can bring the participation of the citizen to a new level and transform sporadic initiatives by single citizens and groups into large-scale, relatively well coordinated operations. What was also important was that both the needs and the forms of participation required in order to address these needs be defined by the users themselves.

To some extent the citizen-based response filled the gap left by the lack of a sufficient response from the traditional institutions.[1] This suggests that the role of ICTs in disaster response should be examined within the political context of the power relationship between members of the public who use digital tools and the traditional institutions. My experience in 2010 was the first time I was able to see that, while we would expect that in a case of natural disaster both the authorities and the citizens would be mostly concerned about the emergency, the actual situation might be different.

Apparently the emergence of independent, citizen-based collective action in response to a disaster was considered as some type of threat by the institutional actors. First, it was a threat to the image of these institutions, which didn’t want citizens to be portrayed as the leading responding actors. Second, any type of citizen-based collective action, even if not purely political, may be an issue of concern in authoritarian countries in particular. Accordingly, one can argue that, while citizens are struggling against a disaster, in some cases the traditional institutions may make substantial efforts to restrain and contain the action of citizens. In this light, the role of information technologies can include not only enhancing citizen engagement and increasing the efficiency of the response, but also controlling the digital crowd of potential volunteers.

The purpose of this paper was to conceptualize the tension between the role of ICTs in the engagement of the crowd and its resources, and the role of ICTs in controlling the resources of the crowd. The research suggests a theoretical and methodological framework that allows us to explore this tension. The paper focuses on an analysis of specific platforms and suggests empirical data about the structure of the platforms, and interviews with developers and administrators of the platforms. This data is used in order to identify how tools of engagement are transformed into tools of control, and what major differences there are between platforms that seek to achieve these two goals. That said, obviously any platform can have properties of control and properties of engagement at the same time; however the proportion of these two types of elements can differ significantly.

One of the core issues for my research is how traditional actors respond to fast, bottom-up innovation by citizens.[2]. On the one hand, the authorities try to restrict the empowerment of citizens by the new tools. On the other hand, the institutional actors also seek to innovate and develop new tools that can restore the balance of power that has been challenged by citizen-based innovation. The tension between using digital tools for the engagement of the crowd and for control of the crowd can be considered as one of the aspects of this dynamic.

That doesn’t mean that all state-backed platforms are created solely for the purpose of control. One can argue, however, that the development of digital tools that offer a mechanism of command and control over the resources of the crowd is prevalent among the projects that are supported by the authorities. This can also be approached as a means of using information technologies in order to include the digital crowd within the “vertical of power”, which is a top-down strategy of governance. That is why this paper seeks to conceptualize this phenomenon as “vertical crowdsourcing”.

The question of whether using a digital tool as a mechanism of control is intentional is to some extent secondary. What is important is that the analysis of platform structures relying on activity theory identifies a number of properties that allow us to argue that these tools are primarily tools of control. The conceptual framework introduced in the paper is used in order to follow the transformation of tools for the engagement of the crowd into tools of control over the crowd. That said, some of the interviews with the developers and administrators of the platforms may suggest the intentional nature of the development of tools of control, while crowd engagement is secondary.

[1] Asmolov G. “Natural Disasters and Alternative Modes of Governance: The Role of Social Networks and Crowdsourcing Platforms in Russia”, in Bits and Atoms Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood, edited by Steven Livingston and Gregor Walter-Drop, Oxford University Press, 2013.

[2] Asmolov G., “Dynamics of innovation and the balance of power in Russia”, in State Power 2.0 Authoritarian Entrenchment and Political Engagement Worldwide, edited by Muzammil M. Hussain and Philip N. Howard, Ashgate, 2013.

Read the full article: Asmolov, G. (2015) Vertical Crowdsourcing in Russia: Balancing Governance of Crowds and State–Citizen Partnership in Emergency Situations. Policy and Internet 7,3: 292–318.

asmolovGregory Asmolov is a PhD student at the LSE, where he is studying crowdsourcing and emergence of spontaneous order in situations of limited statehood. He is examining the emerging collaborative power of ICT-enabled crowds in crisis situations, and aiming to investigate the topic drawing on evolutionary theories concerned with spontaneous action and the sustainability of voluntary networked organizations. He analyzes whether crowdsourcing practices can lead to development of bottom-up online networked institutions and “peer-to-peer” governance.

Does crowdsourcing citizen initiatives affect attitudes towards democracy?

Crowdsourcing legislation is an example of a democratic innovation that gives citizens a say in the legislative process. In their Policy and Internet journal article ‘Does Crowdsourcing Legislation Increase Political Legitimacy? The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland’, Henrik Serup Christensen, Maija Karjalainen and Laura Nurminen explore how involvement in the citizen initiatives affects attitudes towards democracy. They find that crowdsourcing citizen initiatives can potentially strengthen political legitimacy, but both outcomes and procedures matter for the effects.

Crowdsourcing is a recent buzzword that describes efforts to use the Internet to mobilize online communities to achieve specific organizational goals. While crowdsourcing serves several purposes, the most interesting potential from a democratic perspective is the ability to crowdsource legislation. By giving citizens the means to affect the legislative process more directly, crowdsourcing legislation is an example of a democratic innovation that gives citizens a say in the legislative process. Recent years have witnessed a scholarly debate on whether such new forms of participatory governance can help cure democratic deficits such as a declining political legitimacy of the political system in the eyes of the citizenry. However, it is still not clear how taking part in crowdsourcing affects the political attitudes of the participants, and the potential impact of such democratic innovations therefore remain unclear.

In our study, we contribute to this research agenda by exploring how crowdsourcing citizens’ initiatives affected political attitudes in Finland. The non-binding Citizens’ Initiative instrument in Finland was introduced in spring 2012 to give citizens the chance to influence the agenda of the political decision making. In particular, we zoom in on people active on the Internet website Avoin Ministeriö (Open Ministry), which is a site based on the idea of crowdsourcing where users can draft citizens’ initiatives and deliberate on their contents. As is frequently the case for studies of crowdsourcing, we find that only a small portion of the users are actively involved in the crowdsourcing process. The option to deliberate on the website was used by about 7% of the users; the rest were only passive readers or supported initiatives made by others. Nevertheless, Avoin Ministeriö has been instrumental in creating support for several of the most successful initiatives during the period, showing that the website has been a key actor during the introductory phase of the Citizens’ initiative in Finland.

We study how developments in political attitudes were affected by outcome satisfaction and process satisfaction. Outcome satisfaction concerns whether the participants get their preferred outcome through their involvement, and this has been emphasized by proponents of direct democracy. Since citizens get involved to achieve a specific outcome, their evaluation of the experience hinges on whether or not they achieve this outcome. Process satisfaction, on the other hand, is more concerned with the perceived quality of decision making. According to this perspective, what matters is that participants find that their concerns are given due consideration. When people find the decision making to be fair and balanced, they may even accept not getting their preferred outcome. The relative importance of these two perspectives remains disputed in the literature.

The research design consisted of two surveys administered to the users of Avoin Ministeriö before and after the decision of the Finnish Parliament on the first citizens’ initiative in concerning a ban on the fur-farming industry in Finland. This allowed us to observe how involvement in the crowdsourcing process shaped developments in central political attitudes among the users of Avoin Ministeriö and what factors determined the developments in subjective political legitimacy. The first survey was conducted in fall 2012, when the initiators were gathering signatures in support of the initiative to ban fur-farming, while the second survey was conducted in summer 2013 when Parliament rejected the initiative. Altogether 421 persons filled in both surveys, and thus comprised the sample for the analyses.

The study yielded a number of interesting findings. First of all, those who were dissatisfied with Parliament rejecting the initiative experienced a significantly more negative development in political trust compared to those who did not explicitly support the initiative. This shows that the crowdsourcing process had a negative impact on political legitimacy among the initiative’s supporters, which is in line with previous contributions emphasizing the importance of outcome legitimacy. It is worth noting that this also affected trust in the Finnish President, even if he has no formal powers in relation to the Citizens’ initiative in Finland. This shows that negative effects on political legitimacy could be more severe than just a temporary dissatisfaction with the political actors responsible for the decision.

Nevertheless, the outcome may not be the most important factor for determining developments in political legitimacy. Our second major finding indicated that those who were dissatisfied with the way Parliament handled the initiative also experienced more negative developments in political legitimacy compared to those who were satisfied. Furthermore, this effect was more pervasive than the effect for outcome satisfaction. This implies that the procedures for handling non-binding initiatives may play a strong role in citizens’ perceptions of representative institutions, which is in line with previous findings emphasising the importance of procedural aspects and evaluations for judging political authorities.

We conclude that there is a beneficial impact on political legitimacy if crowdsourced citizens’ initiatives have broad appeal so they can be passed in Parliament. However, it is important to note that positive effects on political legitimacy do not hinge on Parliament approving citizens’ initiatives. If the MPs invest time and resources in the careful, transparent and publicly justified handling of initiatives, possible negative effects of rejecting initiatives can be diminished. Citizens and activists may accept an unfavourable decision if the procedure by which it was reached seems fair and just. Finally, the results give reason to be hopeful about the role of crowdsourcing in restoring political legitimacy, since a majority of our respondents felt that the possibility of crowdsourcing citizens’ initiatives clearly improved Finnish democracy.

While all hopes may not have been fulfilled so far, crowdsourcing legislation therefore still has potential to help rebuild political legitimacy.

Read the full article: Christensen, H., Karjalainen, M., and Nurminen, L., (2015) Does Crowdsourcing Legislation Increase Political Legitimacy? The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland. Policy and Internet 7 (1) 25–45.

Henrik Serup Christensen is Academy Research Fellow at SAMFORSK, Åbo Akademi University.

Maija Karjalainen is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Political Science and Contemporary History in the University of Turku, Finland.

Laura Nurminen is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at Helsinki University, Finland.

Presenting the moral imperative: effective storytelling strategies by online campaigning organisations

Online campaigning organisations are on the rise. They have captured the imagination of citizens and scholars alike with their ability to use rapid response tactics to engage with public policy debate and mobilize citizens. Early on Andrew Chadwick (2007) labeled these new campaign organisations as ‘hybrids’: using both online and offline political action strategies, as well as intentionally switching repertoires to sometimes act like a mass mobilisation social movement, and other times like an insider interest group.

These online campaigning organisations run multi-issue agendas, are geographically decentralized, and run sophisticated media strategies. The best known of these are MoveOn in the US, internationally focused Avaaz, and GetUp! in Australia. However, new online campaigning organisations are emerging all the time that more often than not have direct lineage through former staff and similar tactics to this first wave. These newer organisations include the UK-based 38 Degrees, SumOfUs that works on consumer issues to hold corporations accountable, and Change.Org, a for-profit organisation that hosts and develops petitions for grassroots groups.

Existing civil society focused organisations are also being challenged to fundamentally change their approach, to move political tactics and communications online, and to grow their member lists. David Karpf (2012) has branded this “MoveOn Effect”, where the success of online campaigning organisations like MoveOn has fundamentally changed and disrupted the advocacy organisation scene. But how has this shift occurred? How have these new organisations succeeded in being both innovative and politically successful?

One increasingly common answer is to focus on how they have developed low threshold online tactics where the risk to participants is reduced. This includes issue and campaign specific online petitions, letter writing, emails, donating money, and boycotts. The other answer is to focus more closely on the discursive tactics these organisations use in their campaigns, based on a shared commitment to a storytelling strategy, and the practical realisation of a ‘theory of change’. That is, to ask how campaigns produce successful stories that follow a concrete theory of why taking action inevitably leads to a desired result.

Storytelling is a device for explaining politics and a campaign via “cause and effect relations, through its sequencing of events, rather than by appeals to standards of logic and proof” (Polletta et al. 2011, 111). These campaign stories characteristically have a plot and identifiable characters, a beginning and middle to the story, but the recipient of the story can create, or rather act out, the end. Framing is important to understanding social movement action but a narrative or storytelling driven analysis focuses more on how language or rhetoric is used, and reveals the underlying “common sense” and emotional frames used in online campaigns’ delivery of messages (Polletta 2009). Polletta et al. (2011, 122) suggest that activists have been successful against better resourced and influential opponents and elites when they “sometimes but not always, have been able to exploit popular associations of narrative with people over power, and moral urgency over technical rationality”.

We have identified four stages of storytelling that need to occur for a campaign to be successful:

  1. An emotional identification with the issue by the story recipient, to mobilize participation
  2. A shared sense of community on the issue, to build solidarity (‘people over power’)
  3. Moral urgency for action (rather than technical persuasion), to resolve the issue and create social change
  4. Securing of public and political support by neutralising counter-movements.

The new online campaigning organisations all prioritise a storytelling approach in their campaigns, using it to build their own autobiographical story and to differentiate what they do from ‘politics as usual’, characterised as party-based, adversarial politics. Harvard scholar and organising practitioner Marshall Ganz’s ideas on the practice of storytelling underpin the philosophy of the New Organizing Institute, which provides training for increasing numbers of online activists. Having received training, these professional campaigners informally join the network of established and emerging ‘theory of change’ organisations such as MoveOn, AVAAZ, Organising for America, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, SumOfUs, and so on.

GetUp! is a member of this network, has over 600,000 members in Australia, and has conducted high-profile public policy campaigns on issues as diverse as mental health, electoral law, same-sex marriage, and climate change. GetUp!’s communications strategy tries to use storytelling to reorient Australian political debate — and the nature of politics itself — in an affective way. And underpinning all their political tactics is the construction of effective online campaign stories. GetUp! has used stories to help citizens, and to a lesser extent, decision-makers, identify with an issue, build community, and act in recognition of the moral urgency for political change.

Yet despite GetUp!’s commitment to a storytelling technique, it does not always work — these organisations rarely publicise their failed campaigns, or those that do not even get past the initial email ‘ask’. It is important to look at how campaigns unfold to see how storytelling develops, and also to judge whether it is a success or not. This moves the analysis onto an organisation’s whole campaign, rather than studying only decontextualised emails or online petitions. In contrasting two campaigns in-depth we judged one on mental health policy to be a success in meeting the four storytelling criteria; and the other on climate change policy (which was promoted externally as a success) to actually be a storytelling failure.

The mental health story was able to build solidarity and emotional identification around families and friends of those with illness (not sufferers themselves) after celebrity experts launched the campaign to bring awareness to and increase funding for mental health. Mental health was presented by GetUp! as a purely moral dilemma, with very little mention by any opponents of the economic implications of policy reform. In the end the policy was changed, an extra $2.2 billion of funding for mental health was announced in the 2011 Federal Budget, and the Australian Prime Minister appeared with GetUp! in an online video to make the funding announcement.

GetUp’s climate change storytelling, however, failed on all four criteria. Despite national policy change taking place similar to what they had advocated, GetUp!’s climate change campaign did not achieve the level of member or public mobilisation achieved by their mental health campaign. GetUp! used partisan, adversarial tactics that can be partly attributed to climate change becoming an increasingly polarised issue in Australian political debate. This was particularly the case as the oppositional counter-movement successfully reframed climate change as solely an economic issue, focusing on the imposition of an expensive new tax. This story defeated GetUp’s moral urgency story, and their attempt to create ‘people-power’ mobilised for a shared environmental concern.

Why is thinking about this important? For a few reasons. It helps us to see online tactics within the context of a broader political campaign, and challenges us to think about how to judge both successful mobilisation and political influence of hybrid online campaign organisations. Yet it also points to the limitations of an affective approach based on moral urgency alone. Technical persuasion and, more often than not, economic reality still matter for both mobilisation and political change.


Chadwick, Andrew (2007) “Digital Network Repertoires and Organizational Hybridity” Political Communication, 24 (3): 283-301.

Karpf, David (2012) The MoveOn Effect: The unexpected transformation of American political advocacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polletta, Francesca (2009) “Storytelling in social movements” in Culture, Social Movements and Protest ed. Hank Johnston Surrey: Ashgate, 33-54.

Polletta, Francesca, Pang Ching, Bobby Chen, Beth Gharrity Gardner, and Alice Motes (2011) “The sociology of storytelling” Annual Review of Sociology, 37: 109–30.

Read the full paper: Vromen, A. and Coleman, W. (2013) Online Campaigning Organizations and Storytelling Strategies: GetUp! in Australia. Policy and Internet 5 (1).

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.

Online collective action and policy change: shifting contentious politics in policy processes

Research has disproved the notion held by political elites — and some researchers — that collective action resides outside of policy-making processes, and is limited in generating a response from government. The Internet can facilitate the involvement of social movements in policymaking processes, but also constitute in itself the object of contentious politics. Most research on online mobilisations focuses on the Internet as a tool for campaigning and for challenging decision-makers at the national and international level.

Meanwhile, less attention is paid on the fact that the Internet has raised new issues for the policy making agenda around which activists are mobilising, such as issues related to internet governance, online freedom of expression, digital privacy or copyright. Contemporary social movements serve as indicators of new core challenges within society, and can thus constitute an enriching resource for the policy debate arena, particularly with regards to the urgent issues raised by the fast development of the Internet. The literature on social movements is rich in examples of campaigns that have successfully influenced public policy. Classic works have proved how major reforms can start as a consequence of civic mobilisations, and the history provides evidence of the influence of collective action within policy debates on environmental, national security, and peace issues.

However, as mentioned above and argued by Giugni (2004), social movement research has traditionally paid more attention to the process rather than the outcomes of mobilisations. The difficulty of identifying the consequences of collective action and the factors that contribute to its success may lie behind this tendency. As Gamson (1975) argues, the notion of success is elusive and can be most usefully defined with reference to a set of outcomes; these may include the new advantages gained by the group’s beneficiaries after a challenge with targets, or they may refer to the status of the challenging group and its legitimacy.

As for the factors determining success, some scholars believe that collective action is likely to succeed when its claims are close to the aims of political elites. Others, like Kriesi (1995), note that government responses depend on the forms and tactics of contentious politics. Activists occupy different positions on the spectrum between radical and reformist, which in turn affects their willingness to engage with policy-makers. For instance, movements pursuing a type of ‘prefigurative’ politics tend to avoid direct contact with policy-makers, focusing instead on building alternatives which ‘prefigure’ the values that they would like to see on a grander scale.

The Internet has raised new questions around the outcomes of collective action and its interface with policy making. Internet governance, for instance, constitutes a new source of contentious politics, while the use of the Internet for the organisation of protest influences the forms of contemporary collective action. As a tool of collective action, the Internet facilitates the rapid organisation of protests around issues of public concern. Mobilizations can be organised without a formal hierarchy in place, and spread easily as online networking helps the creation of flexible ‘opt-in/opt-out’ coalitions. Information about protest can diffuse through online interpersonal networks and alternative media, and can capture the attention of mainstream news outlets. In addition, the Internet has expanded the ‘repertoire of contention’ of current movements. Petitions, direct action, and occupations now have their online counterparts with tactics such as email bombings, DDoS attacks, and e-petitions.

The affordances of online tools are thought to be affecting the characteristics of collective action and thus its capacities for policy change. Compared to past mobilisations, current movements tend to be more decentralised and flexible, constituted by loose coalitions between a plurality of actors. They are also more inclusive, addressing a diverse and at times incongruent combination of issues. As Della Porta (2005) points out, online mobilisations tend to have a more temporary and fleeting character as they can emerge and dissolve with equal speed; they are also more global in nature, since they can scale up easily and at a low cost.

At the same time, the Internet has facilitated the rise of a what Chadwick defines as new ‘hybrid’ type of civil society actor who combines traditional tactics, such as petitioning, with the more flexible forms of organising favoured by less institutional groups. Organizations like MoveOn in the U.S., Avaaz on the transnational level, and GetUp! in Australia use the power of the Internet to influence policy makers. The Internet helps such organisations to operate at a very low cost, which in turn allows them to be flexible and easily switch the focus of campaigns around issues that capture the public interest.

However, the Internet has become in itself an object of policy and further attention must be paid in considering its implications as a source of new contentious politics. Melucci (1996) argues that research on collective action should pay attention to the new types of inequality that generate contentious politics, rather than restricting its focus to the forms of mobilisations. Studies of online collective action should thus consider the Internet not only as a tool for practicing politics but also as a new “dominant discourse” which produces new claims and inequalities.

Current inequalities in governing digital mediated communication generate what Kriesi (1995) calls ‘windows of opportunities’ for collective action to play an important role in policy making on Internet-related issues. Within this framework, an increasing body of research is addressing collective action around the governance of the Internet, the regulation of free and open software, privacy and data retention, file sharing and copyright issues, and online freedom of expression as a fundamental human right.

Whether and to what extent these new types of actors and mobilisations organised through and around the Internet can have an effect on policy making is an issue requiring further research. For instance, the decentralised and temporary character of some movements , together with their lack of clearly identified leaders and spokespersons can make it difficult in establishing themselves as legitimate representatives of public opinion. New types of ‘hybrid’ actors may encounter problems in establishing themselves as legitimate representatives of public opinion. In addition, new online tactics like e-petitions, which require limited time and commitment from participants, tend to have a weaker impact on policy makers. At the same time, the technical nature of Internet regulation complicates efforts to influence public opinion due to the degree of knowledge necessary for the lay public to understand the issues at stake.

Despite these potential limitations, collective action through and around the internet can enrich policy making. It can help to connect local voices with policy makers and facilitate their involvement in policy-making processes. It can also contribute to new policy debates around urgent issues concerning the Internet. As the Policy and Internet special issue on ‘Online Collective Action and Policy Change’ explores, online collective action can thus constitute an important resource and participant in policy debates with whom policy makers should create new lines of dialogue.

Read the full article at: Calderaro, A. and Kavada A., (2013) “Challenges and Opportunities of Online Collective Action for Policy Change“, Policy and Internet 5(1).

Twitter: @andreacalderaro / @AnastasiaKavada
Web: Andrea’s Personal Page / Anastasia’s Personal Page


Giugni, Marco. 2004. Social Protest and Policy Change : Ecology, Antinuclear, and Peace Movements in Comparative Perspective. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gamson, William A. 1975. The Strategy of Social Protest. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.

Kriesi, Hanspeter. 1995. “The Political Opportunity Structure of New Social Movements: its Impact on their Mobilization.” In The Politics of Social Protest, eds. J. Jenkins and B. Dermans. London: UCL Press, pp. 167–198.

Della Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani. 2006. Social Movements: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Melucci, Alberto. 1996. Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Did Libyan crisis mapping create usable military intelligence?

The Middle East has recently witnessed a series of popular uprisings against autocratic rulers. In mid-January 2011, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled his country, and just four weeks later, protesters overthrew the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Yemen’s government was also overthrown in 2011, and Morocco, Jordan, and Oman saw significant governmental reforms leading, if only modestly, toward the implementation of additional civil liberties.

Protesters in Libya called for their own ‘day of rage’ on February 17, 2011, marked by violent protests in several major cities, including the capitol Tripoli. As they transformed from ‘protestors’ to ‘Opposition forces’ they began pushing information onto Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, reporting their firsthand experiences of what had turned into a civil war virtually overnight. The evolving humanitarian crisis prompted the United Nations to request the creation of the Libya Crisis Map, which was made public on March 6, 2011. Other, more focused crisis maps followed, and were widely distributed on Twitter.

While the map was initially populated with humanitarian information pulled from the media and online social networks, as the imposition of an internationally enforced No Fly Zone (NFZ) over Libya became imminent, information began to appear on it that appeared to be of a tactical military nature. While many people continued to contribute conventional humanitarian information to the map, the sudden shift toward information that could aid international military intervention was unmistakable.

How useful was this information, though? Agencies in the U.S. Intelligence Community convert raw data into useable information (incorporated into finished intelligence) by utilizing some form of the Intelligence Process. As outlined in the U.S. military’s joint intelligence manual, this consists of six interrelated steps all centered on a specific mission. It is interesting that many Twitter users, though perhaps unaware of the intelligence process, replicated each step during the Libyan civil war; producing finished intelligence adequate for consumption by NATO commanders and rebel leadership.

It was clear from the beginning of the Libyan civil war that very few people knew exactly what was happening on the ground. Even NATO, according to one of the organization’s spokesmen, lacked the ground-level informants necessary to get a full picture of the situation in Libya. There is no public information about the extent to which military commanders used information from crisis maps during the Libyan civil war. According to one NATO official, “Any military campaign relies on something that we call ‘fused information’. So we will take information from every source we can… We’ll get information from open source on the internet, we’ll get Twitter, you name any source of media and our fusion centre will deliver all of that into useable intelligence.”

The data in these crisis maps came from a variety of sources, including journalists, official press releases, and civilians on the ground who updated blogs and/or maintaining telephone contact. The @feb17voices Twitter feed (translated into English and used to support the creation of The Guardian’s and the UN’s Libya Crisis Map) included accounts of live phone calls from people on the ground in areas where the Internet was blocked, and where there was little or no media coverage. Twitter users began compiling data and information; they tweeted and retweeted data they collected, information they filtered and processed, and their own requests for specific data and clarifications.

Information from various Twitter feeds was then published in detailed maps of major events that contained information pertinent to military and humanitarian operations. For example, as fighting intensified, @LibyaMap’s updates began to provide a general picture of the battlefield, including specific, sourced intelligence about the progress of fighting, humanitarian and supply needs, and the success of some NATO missions. Although it did not explicitly state its purpose as spreading mission-relevant intelligence, the nature of the information renders alternative motivations highly unlikely.

Interestingly, the Twitter users featured in a June 2011 article by the Guardian had already explicitly expressed their intention of affecting military outcomes in Libya by providing NATO forces with specific geographical coordinates to target Qadhafi regime forces. We could speculate at this point about the extent to which the Intelligence Community might have guided Twitter users to participate in the intelligence process; while NATO and the Libyan Opposition issued no explicit intelligence requirements to the public, they tweeted stories about social network users trying to help NATO, likely leading their online supporters to draw their own conclusions.

It appears from similar maps created during the ongoing uprisings in Syria that the creation of finished intelligence products by crisis mappers may become a regular occurrence. Future study should focus on determining the motivations of mappers for collecting, processing, and distributing intelligence, particularly as a better understanding of their motivations could inform research on the ethics of crisis mapping. It is reasonable to believe that some (or possibly many) crisis mappers would be averse to their efforts being used by military commanders to target “enemy” forces and infrastructure.

Indeed, some are already questioning the direction of crisis mapping in the absence of professional oversight (Global Brief 2011): “[If] crisis mappers do not develop a set of best practices and shared ethical standards, they will not only lose the trust of the populations that they seek to serve and the policymakers that they seek to influence, but (…) they could unwittingly increase the number of civilians being hurt, arrested or even killed without knowing that they are in fact doing so.”

Read the full paper: Stottlemyre, S., and Stottlemyre, S. (2012) Crisis Mapping Intelligence Information During the Libyan Civil War: An Exploratory Case Study. Policy and Internet 4 (3-4).

Preserving the digital record of major natural disasters: the CEISMIC Canterbury Earthquakes Digital Archive project

The 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the centre of Christchurch on 22 February 2011 claimed 185 lives, damaged 80% of the central city beyond repair, and forced the abandonment of 6000 homes. It was the third costliest insurance event in history. The CEISMIC archive developed at the University of Canterbury will soon have collected almost 100,000 digital objects documenting the experiences of the people and communities affected by the earthquake, all of it available for study.

The Internet can be hugely useful to coordinate disaster relief efforts, or to help rebuild affected communities. Paul Millar came to the OII on 21 May 2012 to discuss the CEISMIC archive project and the role of digital humanities after a major disaster (below). We talked to him afterwards.

Continue reading “Preserving the digital record of major natural disasters: the CEISMIC Canterbury Earthquakes Digital Archive project”

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”