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Web of collective action

A tweet alone might go unnoticed, but a swarm of them can make quite a buzz. Take the examples of movements such as Black Lives Matter, or online petitions like the one in favour of women on banknotes in the UK, or demonstrations in the Middle East and elsewhere organised on social media. Collective action made up of individuals microdonating effort, time and money on social media to political and social causes is characteristic of our turbulent times. Political Turbulence shows how social media activism works, who is involved and what consequences it might have. 

The “Save Our Bees” campaign demonstrated how every voice contributes to the success of a movement. Even ordinary people with modest following on social media played a role in scaling it up, with bees being mentioned in over 15,000 tweets on certain days at the beginning of 2013. Together, they succeeded in effecting policy change: the European Commission decided to restrict the use of insecticides harmful to bees in May 2013.

What kinds of people take part in these actions? Experiments show that personality matters. Agreeable and individualistic people are more likely to contribute when their actions are visible on social media, whereas pro-social individuals prefer not to make their actions visible. How do such movements develop? According to research, extroversion is linked to the launch of collective actions, while agreeable people are more likely to wait until a cause gets sufficient support before joining it. This new form of collective action creates what the authors call “chaotic pluralism”. This improves the access of disadvantaged people to political action and affords more latitude to challengers of established agendas. However, chaotic pluralism can also undermine mutual accommodation and the value of compromise. Governments should take social media seriously and use it both to understand citizens’ needs and concerns, and for achieving collective goals. Research is key, and to make sense of the swarm of tweets, social and natural sciences will have to join forces.

Margetts, Helen, et al (2015), Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action, Princeton University Press, Princeton. http://press.princeton.edu/ titles/10582.html

©OECD Observer No 310 Q2 2017