9 December 2013
Twitter, Texting and Street Demonstrations
Has the spread of social media made it easier for groups to mobilize for political purposes? According to Jana Bridwell, there is a connection between the two phenomena. However, its impact is limited to those states where barriers to collective action remain high.
By Jana Bridwell for Emory University
Popular protest is a problem for all types of rulers, whether democratically elected or otherwise. For non-democrat leaders, however, popular protest can be particularly dangerous, leading, as it did in 2011 for several nations, to the fall of the regime, exile, or death. When almost a dozen authoritarian governments in North Africa and the Middle East came under extreme pressure from massive popular demonstrations, the discussions of those observing continually returned to the role of social media. Regional experts explained how these massive protests derived from underlying factors of national economies, internal politics, societies, and region dynamics, yet as journalists, policymakers and academics watched the mass-based revolutions unfold, everyone wondered - Did social media make a difference?
The possibility that social media could empower citizens relative to their regimes had long before been embraced by the “cyber-utopians,” to use Morozov's (2010) term . A year prior to the Arab Spring, Secretary of State Clinton inaugurated the State Department's new “Internet Freedom Agenda” at the Newseum, declaring that “the Internet can help humanity push back against those who promote violence and crime and extremism” (Clinton 2010). Internet-empowered citizens, she argued, have greater organizing potential: “The freedom to connect is like the freedom of assembly, only in cyberspace. It allows individuals to get online, come together, and hopefully cooperate.”
Clinton's remarks formalized the popularly accepted but largely untested conclusions of journalists and policymakers arising from episodes like Philippines, 2001; Spain, 2004; Moldova, 2009; and most recently, North Africa. In each case, observers highlighted the role of cell phones and the Internet as integral to coordinating the demonstrations that forced accountability on government offcials. Clinton's claim that “online organizing has been a critical tool for advancing democracy” echoes statements increasingly made by journalists, policymakers, and some academics (e.g. Robbels 2001, Kruegar 2002, Benkler 2006, Kasajoo 2006, Shirky 2010 and the Human Development Reports). Yet their claims are not without equally strong detractors, who have argued that their optimism is naive at best (Kalathil and Boas 2003, O'Harrow 2005, Morozov 2010) and Western triumphalism at worst (Rich 2011).
While individual cases have excited observers and seem to offer anecdotal evidence, and it is intuitive that any tool which facilitates political mobilizing has empowering properties for citizens relative to their regimes, too little systematic attention has assessed and tested the cross-national relationship between social media use and mobilization. This paper is intended to address this gap.
I argue that existing ideas about how social media facilitate or hinder mobilization are valid, but to understand their likely real-world effects we must appreciate the importance of political context. Social media does facilitate mobilization, chiefly by reducing barriers to collective action - which means the greatest effects are expected where high barriers exist.
Social media should matter most in non-democracies because it overcomes disadvantages that individuals and non-regime groups face in this context. The advantages of social media discussed below are especially well-suited to mobilizing in non-democracies.
This is much less true for democratic contexts, in which barriers to mobilization are already low. In a democracy, the particular advantages of social media are more redundant, even if its tools offer improvements for mobilizers. Moreover, the negative qualities of social media cited by skeptics are more likely to hold in a democratic context. Concisely, I argue that social media should have a differential effect on citizen participation depending on the nature of the political regime.
I test this effect using data on political mobilization in African democracies and non-democracies. As expected, I find that Internet use is consistently associated with greater mobilization in non-democracies, but not in democracies. Interestingly, this effect is not present for cell phone use, suggesting that the two types of media play different roles for protest. The effects are robust across several different model specifications, and provide empirical validation of enthusiasm about social media in non-democracies - while also validating skepticism elsewhere.
This paper is organized into five sections. The first and second sections review and analyze relevant literature on political behavior and social media, respectively, providing the foundation for my argument, and testable implications on the likely effect of social media, in the third section. The fourth section introduces and explains the data and models chosen for my empirical test, before discussing the results and potential critiques. The fifth section concludes with a view to policy implications and areas of future research inspired by these results.
Read the full paper in the ISN Digital Library.
 Original speech transcript available directly from the State Department at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/01/135519.htm
 An important recent exception to this trend is Pierskalla and Hollenbach's (2013) study on the link between cell phone coverage and organized violence.
This article was previously published at the SSRN in August 2013.