Although sometimes written off as “slacktivism” the way that people perform activism on social media platforms is complex and evolving. To better understand this, we analyze three major global events and find that peripheral users in online protests may be just as important as the highly committed minority in spreading a message.
Barberá, Pablo, Ning Wang, Richard Bonneau, John T. Jost, Jonathan Nagler, Joshua A. Tucker, and Sandra González-Bailón. “The Critical Periphery in the Growth of Social Protests.” PLOS ONE 10, no. 11 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0143611
Nov 30, 2015
Area of Study
Social media have provided instrumental means of communication in many recent political protests. The efficiency of online networks in disseminating timely information has been praised by many commentators; at the same time, users are often derided as “slacktivists” because of the shallow commitment involved in clicking a forwarding button. Here we consider the role of these peripheral online participants, the immense majority of users who surround the small epicenter of protests, representing layers of diminishing online activity around the committed minority. We analyze three datasets tracking protest communication in different languages and political contexts through the social media platform Twitter and employ a network decomposition technique to examine their hierarchical structure. We provide consistent evidence that peripheral participants are critical in increasing the reach of protest messages and generating online content at levels that are comparable to core participants. Although committed minorities may constitute the heart of protest movements, our results suggest that their success in maximizing the number of online citizens exposed to protest messages depends, at least in part, on activating the critical periphery. Peripheral users are less active on a per capita basis, but their power lies in their numbers: their aggregate contribution to the spread of protest messages is comparable in magnitude to that of core participants. An analysis of two other datasets unrelated to mass protests strengthens our interpretation that core-periphery dynamics are characteristically important in the context of collective action events. Theoretical models of diffusion in social networks would benefit from increased attention to the role of peripheral nodes in the propagation of information and behavior.
Social media has provided a vital platform for communicating about and carrying out political protests. The ability of online networks to quickly spread information has been praised by many commentators, but at the same time, users are often labeled “slacktivists” because of the shallow commitment involved in clicking a social media button versus the more involved process of protesting. This depiction fails to acknowledge the complex forces that contribute to the current media environment, including the synergies that both core and peripheral participants create in the process of starting and scaling up visibility of the protest movement. How much do these peripheral protesters contribute to the mobilization of a cause by disseminating information about the protest events?/
To answer this question, we analyzed the role of the online participants in three different contexts: Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in May 2013 and the international calls for action, “United for Global Change,” a demonstration planned for May 12, 2012. We then break down and track protest communication (in different languages and political contexts) on Twitter.
We find that peripheral users in online protest networks may be as important in expanding the reach of messages as the highly committed minority at the core. By expanding the audience of messages sent by the committed minority, the periphery can amplify the core voices and actions, and provide a way for larger numbers of online citizens to be exposed to news and information about the protest — even in the absence of mass media coverage. Our results suggest that the success of the protests in exposing the maximum number of online citizens to protest messages depends on activating the periphery. Peripheral users are less active per person, but, because there are so many of them, their combined contribution to the spread of protest messages is comparable to that of core participants.