24 February, 2011

Popular revolt and the digital conversation

Sergio Abranches

The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East are unprecedented in many ways. There are no sufficiently comparable historical cases to help explaining them. They show a degree of spontaneous mobilization that can seldom be detected in social movements and political rebellions. Often political movements are characterized by high levels of militancy and the mediation of political organizations such as political parties and unions. Instead of a well defined political agenda, they have a clear, yet loosely articulated, set of primary demands: freedom; respect for human rights; jobs; income.These uprisings have no resemblance to national liberation movements (no foreign occupation), nor to the movements to establish conventional democratic governance in countries under authoritarian regimes, in the 1970‘s and 1980‘s, especially in South America. The re-democratization of South American countries then under military rule, was clearly organized around political parties and unions. The protesters don’t seem to have a common and clear notion about the kind of democratic governance they’re looking for. They want the new government to be honest, effective and non-repressive. This is not necessarily the same as demanding a conventional democratic regime.

The way a surge of student and youth protest turns into a mass movement strongly suggests a new form of social contagion.  Students and young people go to the streets to shout their discontent, they gain adherents continuously, the crowd on the streets starts to grow exponentially, and it turns into a mass movement in a matter of days. What leads the new waves of people to join the first-comers to the street protests? Contagion, through virtual connection at first, then reinforced by physical and emotional contact when they get together on the squares.

Social contagion is no knew phenomenon to sociologists. It started to be studied at the end of the 19th century. The pioneer studies were Mark Baldwin’s on imitation; Gustave Lebon’s on the behavior of crowds; and  the very important work by Gabriel Tarde on public opinion. Tarde established communication as a central element in the formation of social movements. In his seminal “L’Opinion et la Foule”, (Opinion and the Crowd), Tarde differentiated opinion – a collective outcome – from individual perception. The major source of opinion formation was what he called “conversation”, exchange of information. He foresaw the media as the main vehicle for information diffusion, as the means for this conversation. Opinion was more than the sum of individual standpoints: it was a consciously shared view.

How do a mass movement emerge from contagion? There are several ways for contagion to lead to crowd formation. But what has happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and has been spreading to several other countries in the region has some quite distinctive elements when compared to those already identified by the conventional theories of social contagion. Anyway, no available explanation covers the whole process we are witnessing through the social media and the global TV and radio networks. This is a very complex social process. We might even been looking at a case of social emergence.

Contagion requires at least four basic elements to happen: people, context (environment), a contagious idea or sentiment – a “viral” element, or a meme – and contact. It begins with a group of pioneers displaying some unexpected behavior that expresses a viral idea or feeling. Contagion will happen and lead to exponential growth towards a mass movement if new groups make contact with the pioneers, and this enlarged group encounters new people they can “infect” with their ideas, and so on. For contagion to continue spreading, new groups of people need to be ‘touched‘ by those already mobilized (contaminated by the idea or feelings) continuously. Most of the social contagion theories claim that contagion could only take place through physical contact. What we’ve seen in these uprisings was that contagion could begin through virtual contact, the viral element can reach people through the virtual flow of information. The movement is sustained over time by reinforcement mechanisms that keep the people intoxicated by the viral emotions of the crowd.

Pioneer groups emerge and develop a “contagious potential” within certain contexts, a propitiating environment. In the case of these uprisings the environment of rage and frustration was clear: high youth unemployment, extreme income and wealth inequality, brutal oppression.

Social networks of the physical kind, before the emergence of digital networking, have long been considered by sociologists as the most efficient form of contact to enable contagion.

Evidence of this role of social networks has been found far before the Internet, digital social networks and social media. The historic episode that inspired Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, was the object of economic and sociological investigation as an instance of social networking leading to extreme spontaneous collective action in mid 19th century. A network had been built by Irish migrants coming to New York from the same small region of Ireland. A community so closed that the young men would ask relatives back at home to choose their future wives among girls from the city they’d left. Communication was intense, face to face, by word of mouth. In a context where a viral feeling could spread, in this case panic, there was a run on the two banks concentrating the cash deposits and savings of the Irish community. By the same token, resentment and prejudice could lead to rage and trigger gang wars.

Today, social networks and digital media, mobile technologies – videos, photos and SMS – global TV (CNN, Al Jazeera), and radio networks  accessible in English all over the world, on real time, through cable, the Web or satellite, have replaced word of mouth communication, and face to face contact. This virtual contact through information distribution and sharing would be enough, in the proper context, to take more people to the streets, where they’d get in touch with protesters and the final stage of contagion would take place.

Images and messages showing an increasing number of people on the streets would give a greater sense of safety to others and finally convince them to go out to express their own indignation. The mass of protesters would, then, expand by waves, through this flow that starts with virtual communication and ends on physical contact when newcomers to the streets get themselves mixed into the crowd. Contagion would spread and speed up through the virtual and mobile media. Virtual contact predisposes an increasing number of people to go to the streets and expose themselves to the physical contagion of the emotional mass of their fellow citizens.

It is possible to observe this new form of two-step contagion, where the virtual sphere creates the propensity to join the group outside in the physical world. It is contagion through identification with the strong emotional drive of the people on the streets. This identification lowers all barriers preventing people to join the protests, and they adhere to the movement, spontaneously, voluntarily.

When youngsters convince their parents to go to the streets with them, a new chain of identities is formed, allowing contagion across generations.  On CNN, an Egyptian mother said her generation had failed because they did not confront Mubarak’s dictatorship. Her son’s generation was doing the right thing, she said, and she felt compelled to go to the streets with them. When images of more mature people out on the streets start to show on the screens of Al Jazeera and CNN, on photos sent through SMS or posted on Flickr and similar social networks, other mature people are encouraged to join.

The same happened with women in general, and muslim women in particular. The first images of the manifestations were mostly of young males. After a few days, young females started to show. Mostly wearing western clothes. After some time muslim females wearing chador started to show. The crowd became progressively more diverse by age, gender, and creed.

The final images of the crowd on Tahrir square portrayed very clearly how contagion had cut across age, gender and religion.

Often the exposure to the viral feelings through the social media would be enough for contagion to happen. Social transmission of the “virus”, or “meme”, is clearly possible to occur through virtual media. That’s why the contention that Twitter and other social media would not lead revolutions is pointless. Of course not. But they certainly are a new and powerful infrastructure that expands and accelerates the spread of contagious ideas, attitudes and beliefs. Information flows through them beyond borders and hardly any barrier resists long enough to prevent news to reach almost everybody, everywhere.

The cost of closing the Net is immense. In Egypt it led to economic collapse. Logistics today is strongly dependent on the Web. It took Egyptian banks almost a week to recover and reorganize their data, interrupted by the Internet blackout, to be able to return to normal operations. The stock-exchange could not be reopened immediately also because of data loss during the blackout. Trade contracts could not be closed. Cargo shipments were delayed.

Social media are undoubtedly a powerful tool for spontaneous mobilization and acceleration of contagion. They give speed to the development of the social movement that today evolves faster than ever from a relatively small group protest to a mass uprising. They also allow, for the first time in history, the real time creation of a global safety net that, although unable to prevent all violence against protesters, exponentially increases the risk of sanctions and even intervention from foreign governments to stop bloodshed. Social media have become an essential element of the global “conversation”, allowing for fast dissemination of information, creating channels of virtual social contagion, and generating relevant global pressure against oppressors.

This global reach of the virtual conversation makes it much easier for contagion to move beyond borders. This is also a new phenomenon. There are historical examples of rebellion to cross the borders of neighboring countries, but never at the speed, nor to the extent we’ve seen happening from Tunisia to Bahrein. Besides, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrein are very different from each other in terms of size of population, structure of the economy, religious and ethnical composition. What they have in common is the context of oppression, frustration, and disheartenment. Irrespectively of their economic structure, they have high unemployment levels, especially among the youth, and extreme inequalities. In spite of the economic disparities, the educational level of the youth generation is higher, they are far better informed, and a significant portion has access to the Web, social media, social networks, and the global TV and radio networks. Context and media.

The fact that these mass manifestations are highly spontaneous and develop through contagion characterizes them as social, rather than political movements. It is true that their primary aim is to topple corrupt, oppressive, inefficient governments, but they are not moved by political motivations such as the desire for power, or to put a specific a group or party in power. They are not politically structured. They are not led by political organizations, such as parties or unions. Their agenda is both compact and generic. They want some non-tyrannical government to create opportunities for their social improvement. They cry for freedom, jobs, and income. They want to participate, to have a say on what happens to their lives and their nations. The future, after they win, is fully open. Who will lead them ahead is not clear, nor democracy is guaranteed.

Tags: , , meme, social contagion, , social network, , web journalism