Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Digital Activism Research Project

Few of years ago during the Arab Spring, Malcolm Gladwell rightly observed that the revolution will not be tweeted:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Now Digital Activism Research Project has some great insights:
  • Digital activism has a demonstrated, positive impact, especially when civil society groups use digital tools and focus on the goal of changing government policy. If they have this objective, they can succeed with only modest street protests and a few digital tools. And this seems to be true regardless of regime type. By contrast, if groups are not united on which policy they want to change, success is more elusive.
  • In our research, we found no clear associations between particular tools and specific campaign outcomes. Although Facebook and Twitter often dominate across movements, most groups use a mix of platforms rather than relying on just one.
  • We also found that digital activism is an overwhelmingly non-violent undertaking. There were only rare cases when mobilizing groups used digital tools to encourage violence against their opponents. Moreover, hacking and other forms of “technical violence” are rare. 
  • Digital activism campaigns are most successful at drawing public demonstrations of protest when the government is the target. In addition, they are most successful when the regime is more authoritarian or when the campaign has employed multiple digital tools. Together, these two “recipes” cover 40 percent of our cases with a high degree of consistency.
Methodology used in this project:
We used the tool of “fuzzy-set logic” statistical modeling – basically, an approach that measures cases according to their degree of membership (usually set between 0.0 and 1.0) in qualitative categories. For example, rather than say a policy goal is achieved (1.0) or not achieved (0.0), we can assign varying degrees of success, say, 0.50 or 0.75. The benefit of this technique is that it can set aside irrelevant variation on either far end of the scale, and it helps us use variables that are “nearly necessary” or “nearly sufficient” and still teach us about the causes and consequences of digital activism. 

This way, we could look for plausible patterns of shared causal conditions and diverse outcomes by reducing the important features of hundreds of cases to a few variables. And to identify the key factors behind the success of digital activism, we also had to study the failures. Perhaps most important, this technique was useful because it was grounded in the observed, real-world experience of hundreds of digital activism campaigns.

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