Opinion: The net effect

Internet search democracy - largeBy Helen Margetts, Professor of Society and the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

1 March 2011

2011 is bringing dramatic political developments in a growing list of Arab states, including Iran, Tunisia, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Egypt, where mass demonstrations are challenging authoritarian regimes. The media has associated the internet with all these protests but in Egypt the internet was cut off for six days on day three of the 18-day protest leading to the unseating of President Mubarak. So is the internet really vital to contemporary protest, or is the 'net effect' insignificant?

The scale, sustainability and success of the Egyptian protests raise questions for political science, which draws on Olson’s argument that the 'logic of collective action' works against mass demonstrations. Large-scale mobilisation will be paralysed by 'free-riders', people who still receive the benefits of collective action without incurring the costs, which in Egypt were tragically high for many. Some argue that mobilisations can be rescued by a critical mass of activists who undertake the bulk of the costs. But this work doesn't quantify critical mass, or provide tools to predict when mobilisations will attain it.

Enter the internet. Although commentators have long predicted the potential of technology to empower citizens and subvert bureaucratic power, mainstream political science has tended to minimise the effect of the internet on collective action.

Some recent research identifies internet use and skills as being significantly associated with political activity, as much as interest in politics. Other researchers dismiss this 'aimless surfing' as mere 'slacktivism'. The author Malcolm Gladwell argued in the New Yorker on 4 October 2010 ('Why the Revolution won't be tweeted') that the 'weak ties' accumulated on the internet could never bring about the type of organised protest that sparked off the civil rights movement.

Perhaps the best clue to how the internet mobilises protestors comes from economics. In Micromotives and Macrobehaviour Schelling argues that people differ in their threshold for joining a mobilisation. This variation can lead to a 'tipping point' at around 45 per cent of the number needed for success; when they perceive that this is reached, most potential joiners will join.

So what was the number of protestors needed to act collectively to unseat Mubarak? We don't know, but in the minds of protestors, one million was highly significant. On 1 February, the first 'march of millions', involving between one and two million protestors in Cairo alone (Al Jazeera), was clearly a turning point for both the protestors and the regime.

The first protest in Egypt took place on 25 January. We don't know how many protestors gathered on the first days but it seems there were tens of thousands rather than Schelling's tipping point, 45 per cent of one million.

On 27 January, the Egyptian government shut down access to the internet through the main Egyptian ISPs. But by this time, the internet had given three important signals to potential protestors that the tipping point had been reached. First, it had publicised plans for the demonstrations of 28 January via Facebook, Twitter and SMS, which had been used by the early protestors (with low joining thresholds) for many months.

Second, the Google executive Wael Ghonim's Facebook page (We Are All Khaled Said) showing images of a young man brutally killed by Egyptian police, had collected 473,000 supporters. It was a weak signal, yet important for the five million Egyptian Facebook users in a newly impoverished information environment, with little coverage of the protests by the state-controlled media and events on the ground making it impossible to judge numbers.

Third, the very act of cutting off the internet sent a 'nice fat public signal' (see the economist Jeff Ely’s blog) to the protestors that the regime considered the protest a real threat. It also minimised the likelihood of potential protestors being put off by news of pro-government violence.

On 28 January, the number of demonstrators reached 'hundreds of thousands' in most reports and continued to grow into the ‘march of millions’. Malcolm Gladwell might like to revisit his own book - the Tipping Point - before dismissing the potential of internet-based protest to topple governments.

Professor Helen Margetts has been awarded an ESRC Professorial Fellowship to study citizen-government interactions in the context of digital communications (RES-051-27-0331: The internet, political science and public policy: re-examining collective action, governance and citizen-government interactions in the digital era).

This article will appear in the spring 2011 issue of Society Now.