In the middle of a deluge of opinions about the role of social media in the recent arab uprisings, here’s an interesting new paper by Florian Fischer, from the Center for Global Politics.
By testing the model of information cascades through the analysis of the recent political uprisings in Egypt and Syria, this study aims not only at enhancing our knowledge of the model and its possible application(s), but also hopes to specifically shed light on how concise its adoption by Shirky is with regard to social media. At the same time, it may contribute to our understanding of the recent political developments in the Middle East. It is important to mention at this point, that this paper does not aim at a general explanation of the occurrence of political protest in Egypt or Syria. While factors such as economic performance and resource distribution, rising (food) prices, demographic changes in combination with (the lack of) educational and economic opportunities, as well as sectarian divisions can be considered as possibly having contributed to the occurrence and development of political protest in Egypt and Syria respectively, they will not be discussed in detail here due to the scope and focus of this study. Within the broad framework of collective action theory, this paper solely focuses on how political protests might be regarded as information cascades (as understood by Lohmann) and the impact social media might have on these (as proposed by Shirky).
And some of the findings (highlights are mine)
The findings of this study, limited as they may be, suggest that the number of protests before an uprising, i.e. the protest history, has a greater relevance for the success of an uprising to effect regime change than the degree of social media use. Within the research design proposed and the two cases chosen, there was a strong positive correlation between the independent variable “number of previous protests” (IV-1) and the dependent variable “effected regime change”. This outcome thus supports our first hypothesis that the preceding protest history of a country can be a correlating factor with regard to the success of ongoing protests in effecting regime change, and this correlation is positive in its nature, i.e. that the more political protest was manifested before a given moment, the more probable the success of subsequent political protests to effect regime change is.
The correlation between our dependent variable and the independent variable “the degree of social media use” (IV-2) was much less obvious, albeit positive. Although the index used to assess social media use showed a higher value for Egypt, our case with a regime change, than for Syria, the difference in value points is marginal. It is difficult to draw any significant conclusion from this result with regard to the impact of social media on protests and their success in effecting regime change. Thus, the second hypothesis proposed, i.e. that the more social media tools are used in a given regime, the more successful political protests can be in effecting regime change, could not be strongly confirmed by our findings.
You can read the full paper here.