It is often claimed that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are profoundly shaping political participation, especially when it comes to protest behavior. Whether or not this is the case, the analysis of “Big Data” generated by social media usage offers unprecedented opportunities to observe complex, dynamic effects associated with large-scale collective action and social movements. In this article, we summarize evidence from studies of protest movements in the United States, Spain, Turkey, and Ukraine demonstrating that: (1) Social media platforms facilitate the exchange of information that is vital to the coordination of protest activities, such as news about transportation, turnout, police presence, violence, medical services, and legal support; (2) in addition, social media platforms facilitate the exchange of emotional and motivational contents in support of and opposition to protest activity, including messages emphasizing anger, social identification, group efficacy, and concerns about fairness, justice, and deprivation as well as explicitly ideological themes; and (3) structural characteristics of online social networks, which may differ as a function of political ideology, have important implications for information exposure and the success or failure of organizational efforts. Next, we issue a brief call for future research on a topic that is understudied but fundamental to appreciating the role of social media in facilitating political participation, namely friendship. In closing, we liken the situation confronted by researchers who are harvesting vast quantities of social media data to that of systems biologists in the early days of genome sequencing.
As more than a billion people had done previously, on November 21, 2013, Ukrainian journalist and activist Mustafa Nayem wrote a Facebook post; this post, however, would have a much larger impact on subsequent political developments than most that had preceded it. Frustrated with President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a long-promised association agreement with the European Union, Nayem asked others who shared his frustration to comment on his post. Even more importantly, Nayem wrote that if the post received at least 1,000 comments from people willing to join him, they should all go to Independence Square to protest. And indeed they did: starting with just a few thousand people, the protests would swell to be the largest since Ukraine’s independence, particularly after police used force against protesters at the end of November 2013. Eventually, these protests led to the resignation of the government, the exile of the former president, and indirectly to the secession of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in the eastern part of the country.