Berkman: E-Mobilization and Participation

The third panel of the Berkman Conference on Internet and Democracy was started with a presentation by Marshall Ganz on lessons learned from traditional approaches to mobilization and how these compare with new methods. Some of the main points I took away from Michael’s presentation and the question & answer session follow.

  • Individual liberty, equality and collective capacity are three fundamentals of democracy.
  • Transformation and exchange are more important than aggregation of individual interests and values.
  • So what kind of institutional arrangements promote individual liberty, equality and collective capacity and how can/does the Internet facilitate this process?
  • Social movements arise from purposeful actors to form new partnerships, common values and collective action. There is often confusion between social movements and fads.
  • The role of leadership is a process whereby individuals are inspired to respond creatively and with a common purpose in the face of uncertainty.
  • Social movements mobilize individuals through tiers of leaders. Martin Luther King was not the only leader in the civil rights movements. The traditional perception of social movements led by one characteristic leader is misplaced. Social movements are not completely decentralized either.
  • Leadership is not about command and control but rather about mobilization.
  • Social action must be understood both in strategic and motivational terms.
  • YouTube has allowed for the sharing of people-interest stories, which tend to be more credible than deliberate, structured political commercials and
  • While the Internet provides for anonymity, this undermines the sharing of experiences and common values.
  • While the dramatic reduction in networked communication has been discussed at some length, the motivational factor has not. The narrative, the common purpose and inspiration to act must be present in order to encourage individuals to turn to the Internet to seek further information and form social groups. Networked communication facilitates the dissemination of the narrative.
  • Q & A: Mobilization patterns on the Internet are different from those in good old traditional social movements. So how much from traditional social movement theory and practice apply?

Helen Margetts gave a presentation on the Internet and the logic of collective action. vis-a-vis petitions Helen carrried out an experiment by drawing on the behavior of some 50 individuals (students and non-students). She used a  treatment group and control group in order to measure differential impact. The first group received information about a petition and who else had signed the petition. Group 2 received no information.

The results show that treatment had some effect on signing, with 64% of the treatment group signing the petition versus 54% for the control group. However, the analysis yielded results that were not statistically significant. However, when the petition is signed by large number of individuals (> 1 million) significantly more people signed when in receipt of information. For a ‘middle’ number of signers, significantly fewer individuals followed up and signed the petition themselves. For low number (< 12), the effect of additional information had no effect on whether or not individuals would then sign the petition.

Some of Helen’s additional points that I found interesting are included below.

  • The Internet reduces costs of participation but also seems to reduce collective action problems. But what is the mechanism by which this process ensues?
  • Can the Internet provide the social pressure necessary to ensure effective collective action?

Beth Kolko on gave her talk on “Participation: Diverse Modes, Media and Communities.” Beth is particulalry interested in thinking about participation in what she humbly terms “alternative ways.” In reality, her talk was extremely insightful and an important reality check for scholars interested in measuring the impact of the information revolution on social, political and/or economic participation. She provides a far more rigorous approach to what participation really means vis-a-vis ICTs and “micro-democracy,” i.e., democracy with a small ‘d’.

Beth thus emphasizes the difference between Internet access versus Internet use; information versus communication tools/information. Even when individuals in developing countries have access to computers,  this does not necessarily mean that they use these computers to access the Internet. It is critical that we understand how frequently individuals use the Internet, what sites or programs they access  (video clips, chat rooms, emails, browsing for fun, reading news etc.), and where they access the Internet from, i.e., a public or private space. The accessing of government websites is virtually nil in some  countries with repressive regimes. Additional parameters that provide insights on the impact of ICTs on micro-democracy include the length of mobile phone use versus Internet browsing.

These are important points, especially for scholars who work with quantitative data to study the impact of ICT diffusion. Number of computers, number of Internet users, etc., are not necessarily appropriate proxies for some of the studies being carried out. Just like in conflict analysis and conflict early warning, it is vitally important that we get “the view from below.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

One response to “Berkman: E-Mobilization and Participation

  1. Pingback: Today In eAction News // 06.25.08 | Make Something Happen

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