political turbulence

We should appreciate how social media can provide a wealth of valuable data to understand the anger and despair that the polls missed, and to analyse political behaviour and opinion in the times ahead.

Young activists gather at Lafayette Park in protest at the presidential campaign of presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump. By Stephen Melkisethian (Flickr).

Commentators have been quick to ‘blame social media’ for ‘ruining’ the 2016 election in putting Mr Donald Trump in the White House. Just as was the case in the campaign for Brexit, people argue that social media has driven us to a ‘post-truth’ world of polarisation and echo chambers. Is this really the case? At first glance, the ingredients of the Trump victory — as for Brexit — seem remarkably traditional. The Trump campaign spent more on physical souvenirs than on field data, more on Make America Great Again hats (made in China) than on polling. The Daily Mail characterisation of judges as Enemies of the People after their ruling that the triggering of Article 50 must be discussed in parliament seemed reminiscent of the 1930s. Likewise, US crowds chanting ‘Lock her up’, like lynch mobs, seemed like ghastly reminders of a pre-democratic era. Clearly social media were a big part of the 2016 election, used heavily by the candidates themselves, and generating 8.8 billion posts, likes and commentson Facebook alone. Social media also make visible what in an earlier era could remain a country’s dark secret — hatred of women (through death and rape threats and trolling of female politicians in both the UK and US), and rampant racism. This visibility, society’s new self-awareness, brings change to political behaviour. Social media provide social information about what other people are doing: viewing, following, liking, sharing, tweeting, joining, supporting and so on. This social information is the driver behind the political turbulence that characterises politics today. Those rustbelt Democrats feeling abandoned by the system saw on social media that they were not alone — that other people felt the same way, and that Trump was viable as a candidate. For a woman drawn towards the Trump agenda but feeling tentative, the hashtag #WomenForTrump could reassure her that there were like-minded people she could identify with. Decades of social science research shows information about the behaviour of others influences how groups behave and now it is driving the unpredictability of politics,…

Explaining why many political mobilisations of our times seem to come from nowhere.

Cross-posted from the Princeton University Press blog. The authors of Political Turbulence discuss how the explosive rise, non-normal distribution and lack of organisation that characterises contemporary politics as a chaotic system, can explain why many political mobilisations of our times seem to come from nowhere.

On 23rd June 2016, a majority of the British public voted in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union. The Leave or so-called #Brexit option was victorious, with a margin of 52% to 48% across the country, although Scotland, Northern Ireland, London and some towns voted to remain. The result was a shock to both leave and remain supporters alike. US readers might note that when the polls closed, the odds on futures markets of Brexit (15%) were longer than those of Trump being elected President. Political scientists are reeling with the sheer volume of politics that has been packed into the month after the result. From the Prime Minister’s morning-after resignation on 24th June the country was mired in political chaos, with almost every political institution challenged and under question in the aftermath of the vote, including both Conservative and Labour parties and the existence of the United Kingdom itself, given Scotland’s resistance to leaving the EU. The eventual formation of a government under a new prime minister, Teresa May, has brought some stability. But she was not elected and her government has a tiny majority of only 12 Members of Parliament. A cartoon by Matt in the Telegraph on July 2nd (which would work for almost any day) showed two students, one of them saying ‘I’m studying politics. The course covers the period from 8am on Thursday to lunchtime on Friday.’ All these events—the campaigns to remain or leave, the post-referendum turmoil, resignations, sackings and appointments—were played out on social media; the speed of change and the unpredictability of events being far too great for conventional media to keep pace. So our book, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, can provide a way to think about the past weeks. The book focuses on how social media allow new, ‘tiny acts’ of political participation (liking, tweeting, viewing, following, signing petitions and so on), which turn social movement theory…