Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, by Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri

Organising and agitating online can be a powerful mover of change, Ivor Gaber finds

January 21, 2016
Social media icons hanging from blue string

“Chaotic pluralism…a new kind of pluralism, highly decentred and chaotic” is what we’re living through, if we are to believe the authors of Political Turbulence. The authors, whose disciplinary backgrounds range across political science, computational science and physics, argue that this new status quo has resulted from the intrusion, if that’s the right word, of social media into the political sphere, an intrusion that they describe as “unstable, unpredictable and often unsustainable”.

This is a comprehensive study. It starts with a review of a very wide range of relevant literature, which leads into a number of online experiments that are then combined with an exploration of the relationship between personality types and political mobilisation, in order to throw light on our new digital political landscape.

That this landscape is shifting is undeniable. The Arab Spring, the Gezi Park protests in Turkey and the riots in Brazil ahead of the 2014 Fifa World Cup are given as examples of social media-driven protests. But Helen Margetts and her co-authors also note how, in all three cases, the existing political structures reasserted themselves in the wake of these protests and left the world wondering whether social media did anything other than simply persuade people to go out on the streets to get their heads cracked open.

The authors rebut this reading, just as they take on the frequent claim that such protests are mere “slacktivism” – that is, political activism that involves no more than the click of a mouse. They point to the ability of social media to mobilise thousands and sometimes millions of people to declare their support for, and to give money to, political causes that can and do have an impact. For example, the recent decision by the UK government to withdraw from a contract to provide consultancy services for Saudi Arabian prisons was almost certainly influenced by social media-led campaigns, despite the almost inevitable denials from Westminster.

As the authors show, for an online mobilisation of this kind to succeed, a tipping point needs to be reached before it goes viral. They also demonstrate how different personality types require different levels of support and information to induce them to sign up to a movement or initiative – a one-size-fits-all strategy it ain’t.

Perhaps the most recent, and potentially significant, intervention by social media into British politics was not the May 2015 general election, when the role of social media was in essence to act as a highly effective direct mail advertising medium, but rather the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. Certainly there was much online “slacktivism” involved during the campaign. But it was the halls filled literally to overflowing, the mass payment of party affiliation fees and then the actual votes that produced the political earthquake that Corbyn represents. Social media certainly helped to facilitate “Corbynmania”. But, just as in the Arab Spring, although social media were not the cause of the change, they did make change more likely – “political turbulence”, you could say.

Ivor Gaber is professor of journalism, University of Sussex. He has been researching the impact of Twitter on the UK general election in 2015.

Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action
By Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri
Princeton University Press, 304pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691159225 and 9781400873555 (e-book)
Published 6 January 2016

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