Is Political Mobilization Affected by a Collective Action Problem?

In this post, I seek to address two points. First, I analyze the theoretical problems that have arisen when Shirky and Rheinegold focus on how social media can reduce the cost element which they regard as being critical in inhibiting political mobilization. I propose another variable with which one can use to understand political behaviour. Second, I analyze the problems inherent in depending on social media to bring about a revolution. I argue that social media alone cannot bring about a successful revolution leading to regime change (in non-democracies).

Theoretical Concerns

The collective action problem, theoretically epitomized by the example of the Prisoners’ Dilemma that both Shirky and Rheingold discussed, underscores how uncoordinated actions of players often result in individuals failing to achieve an optimal outcome. However, Shirky argues that social media can address the collective action problem, and hence, help rectify political iniquities. He cites an example of the role that social media has played in serving as a platform on which an individual organized a flash mob of ice cream eaters and smilers, and have them show up on the streets of Belarus in opposition to the government. Rheingold provides a hazy theoretical explanation for the ability of social media to address the collective action problem by arguing, in essence, that social media reduces the individual costs in participating, hence, this allows people to pool resources together.

Before reading any further, I urge you to watch this video of a flash mob, and mull about how such coordinated action can bring about regime change, against a government with a powerful coercive apparatus. Keyword *how?

While the collective action problem is a genuine social problem, is it a genuine problem that is affecting political mobilization (in opposition to the government) in the first place?

I argue that the collective action problem (that these scholars propose social media can help address) is limited when it comes to explaining actual political behaviour. According to the equations laid out by Rheingold, social media helps reduce the costs of participation, leading to collective action. While that might be true, I argue that Rheingold’s emphasis on the variable, cost, is problematic because:

The literature on the economic costs of collective action (that is underpinned by rationalistic game theory) cannot adequately explain political behaviour for the simple reason that political behaviour is not always rational. Simply put, people turn up at political events, or vote, not solely because the costs are low. There seems to be other extraneous variables affecting their political behaviours. As such, an argument that attempts to use a cost-benefit analysis to propose how social media can reduce cost in order to spur political mobilization is problematic. I expound on this below.

Couching an understanding of political turnouts in terms of a collective action problem based on economic costs is limited in explaining political behaviour. For example, it fails to explain why individuals would want to vote in elections. Given that a single vote cast is unlikely to make a critical difference in electoral outcomes, and the costs involved (time and money spent to get to the election booth and wait in line, instead of doing something more productive) is high, why should anyone vote? There are no penalties for not voting. Given that the costs incurred in voting is high and the unlikelihood that your vote will be the one that counts,  surely the act of voting is clearly irrational? Yet people still queue in line, and subject themselves to the ‘irrational chore’ that is to vote. As such, it does seem that the economic explanation for the collective action problem, an approach that Rheingold endorses, cannot fully explain political behaviour, and political turnouts. While an understanding of the logical rationale for collective action problems can explain many social problems, it is arguable that social media’s abilities to affect political turnouts has happened not because social media can help address the collective action problem, which might not even be a problem affecting political turnouts in the first place!

Social media –> (Unknown variable) –> Political turnout and mobilization

Given that voters are willing to incur such high costs in order to cast a vote that is unlikely to make a critical difference in electoral outcomes, I argue that the key variable affecting political behaviour is not economic costs per se. Rather, political behaviour, can perhaps, be better explained by assessing one’s motivations. Following this line of reasoning, one key question I have is: How do social media affect one’s political motivations? And is social cost a key factor affecting political behaviour?

My hypothesis:

Social media –> Motivations –> Political turnout and mobilization

Can Social Media be the critical platform that brings about a meaningful difference that lead to political regime change?

Another problem that has arisen seems to be Shirky’s over-optimism as to how social media can lead to effective political mobilization that brings about regime change.

Shirky argues that mobs can be effectively organized (and pose a political threat) because the state had no way to keep track of who has seen the plan of action, and no way to break up plot because there is no plot. As such, I argue that the strengths of using social media as an organizational tool are also its critical weakness. It is arguable that the reason why despite social media serving as platforms that can rally like-minded individuals, the inabilities for one to effectively coordinate a plan for concerted action is because:

a)    There is a risk in devising an action plan and making it publicly available to people whose identities one cannot be certain of.

b)   One cannot be certain of the actual turnout, and it would be hard to assign roles of importance to people whom one has never met, and one cannot be certain will actually turn up.

If, assuming the reason that social media have helped in mass mobilization yet not led to any meaningful political change that topples dictators, is due to the fact that there is inadequate technological developments that allows effective coordination (Shirky’s point), the pertinent second question is:

Even if social media, by way of future technological advances, allows one to draw up an action plan that will translate mass mobilization into an effective coordinated movement, won’t the public nature of the action plan render it more susceptible to governmental intervention?

Finally, I wish to point out that Rheingold’s emphasis on how social media can help reduce the cost of collective action and thus make political mobilization more likely does not mean that the uncoordinated masses will be effective against repressive governments. It should be noted that those who have access to social media are, according to most demographic surveys, predominantly middle-class, upper-middle class teenagers. These teenagers (with a privileged future) have the most to lose (relative to the lower classes who lack access to computers) by risking their lives and opposing tyrannical governments who are likely to resort to force to put down any uprisings. As such, it is unlikely that these privileged classes will do anything to jeopardize their lives as have been evidenced when political protestors in Iran quickly dispersed when the military arrived. As such, I argue, the jury is still out on whether social media can genuinely help in marshaling a force that can bring about meaningful political change.

To conclude, here’s an informative video of a skeptic discussing the democratizing potential of the Internet:

Video taken from:

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1 Response to Is Political Mobilization Affected by a Collective Action Problem?

  1. Just for the record, I only just realized that the protagonist in the second video is Morozov, the author of our assigned reading for next week. All opinions, insights, and thoughts are wholly my own.

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