A recent book, Political Turbulence, uses data to uncover the effect social media has on politics.
Let’s say you have a pendulum. You give it a bit of a nudge, and it oscillates peacefully. You know exactly how this simple system works.
What’s better than a nice, calming pendulum? Two nice, calming pendulums. So you tie another pendulum to the first one. And you give it a nudge. But from the confluence of two simple, predictable systems, chaos ensues.
Over the last few years, chaos and turbulence have become ever-more apparent parts of our daily lives. Apparently small effects can be magnified to produce dizzyingly large and unpredictable effects. Social media has moved from being peripheral to integral to politics, and those who have understood and exploited it have reaped massive electoral rewards.
A meme or a WhatsApp forward can cause riots; concerted barrages of fake news can elect candidates who have never held national office. This is all possible because of the degree to which systems of human behaviour and political action have become interconnected and intertwined, leading to ever more turbulent and complex behaviour.
In Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, Helen Margets and her co-writers seek to uncover the dynamics of these complex systems. How has social media, which has eroded many of the limits that were previously imposed on human networks, changed how we communicate and convince each other to act? What are the mathematical rules, if any, that explain the turbulence of modern politics?
Tiny Acts of Political Participation
Why do people engage in collective action? In my own work on radically networked societies, I’ve touched upon the importance of social signalling. People do not always do things because they want to – often, it’s because they are concerned about the reputational effects of doing what their group isn’t.
The information environment that people live in is key to determining what those signals are. Through most of the 20th century, the cost of collecting and sharing political information was high, requiring door-to-door canvassing, physical rallies, and so on. The advent of the Internet marked a sea change, drastically reducing the cost of signalling. But social media proved to be an absolute revolution.
In the new cacophony of competing information sources, social media allowed people to choose which ones received their attention – which is to say, friends, groups, and pages that they were interested in. Each user was allowed to create their own information environment at practically no cost. In this environment, they could “like” and “share” information that they found appealing, engaging in political action (again) at practically no cost. It was also easier to publicise their own actions, receiving social approval, and signalling what was politically “desirable” to other people.
As can be expected, political activity exploded, guided by the signals that each individual’s information environment exposed them to. “As rising numbers of citizens spend increasing amounts of time in an information environment that provides them with a continuous stream of consciousness,” argue the authors, “They are susceptible to different types of social influence on their decision to participate: network structure effects, social information, and visibility.” This is a keen insight, and just one of many in this deeply fascinating work.
The sheer breadth of sources that are drawn on to support the conclusions of Political Turbulence is surprising. From the election campaign of Barack Obama – possibly the first politician to leverage the power of social media to crowdsource small donations (“tiny acts of political participation”) – to Twitter hashtags and petitions to the UK Parliament, Political Turbulence has it all. A commanding grasp of the underlying mechanisms of social media helps make the conclusions drawn all the more compelling.
However, the sheer depth of the analysis presented is also one of the book’s weaknesses. The authors of Political Turbulence are researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, and the book overall has a very data and methodology-heavy approach, often reading more as a set of interrelated research papers than anything else. An understanding of the social sciences, statistics, and network science is a prerequisite to unpacking its arguments. This is a pity, as they are deeply interesting and insightful, though the average reader may find them somewhat difficult to engage with.
Of course, this is not to denigrate the excellent work done by the researchers – in fact, it’s thrilling to see more empirical and data-centric work in the social sciences. Hopefully, Political Turbulence will inspire a broader trend of research that seeks to understand the increasingly interconnected and turbulent world that we live in using the data that we now generate in prodigious amounts on a daily basis.
(Readers can help contribute to this trend by sharing this article, which might, through the complex mechanisms of networks and signalling, someday end up with me elected as the President of Mars. On that day, I promise to fund more research in the social sciences.)