Home People Gladwell and Straw Men

The failure of the Green Revolution in Iran to dislodge the regime continues to spark a bonfire of Twitter-hating. The latest prominent figure to throw logs on the blaze is the essayist Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker. The piece merits an essay-length response, but I will confine myself to three brief points.

1. Gladwell argues, to summarize, that social media cannot create or sustain “high-risk” activism because they magnify weak ties rather than strong ones. Undoubtedly this is true. But Gladwell’s argument proceeds from the idea that only strong ties influence our decision-making processes, a contention for which he produces one piece of evidence, from which his entire argument is drawn. It seems eminently more likely that our decisions are guided not just by strong ties but by information in our local “neighborhoods” – those sectors of the real world with which we have regular contact, and that these neighborhoods include both strong and weak ties. Both are likely to affect our willingness to participate in risky collective action. By providing more complete information about our social neighborhoods, social media vastly increase the likelihood that individuals have accurate information about the preferences of others. This is particularly important in authoritarian contexts (unlike the United States in 1960).

2. Gladwell uses as an example of the low-commitment nature of digital activism the case of registering bone marrow donors. He argues that even though the Sameer Bhatia campaign was enormously successful, it is of little importance because it succeeded by “not asking too much of them.” His anecdote makes me wonder if Gladwell has ever actually looked into the process of donating bone marrow. I have a close friend who needs a transplant, and registering as a donor is a huge pain in the ass, not least because the costs are borne by the donor. You have to pay to donate. If social media can help overcome these very substantial barriers to bone-marrow donation, we should be sitting up and taking notice. A larger point would be that Gladwell is reducing the phenomenon of digital activism to whether or not social media can overthrow governments. Not even the most assiduous promoters of social media will argue that overthrowing an authoritarian government is easy. It is, on the contrary, nothing but a persistent straw man.

3. Gladwell repeats, rather uncritically, Anne Applebaum’s conspiratorial contention that the 2009 election protests in Moldava were in fact organized by the government itself. As evidence of this Applebaum produces a single blog post. She also argues that there weren’t enough Twitter users in Moldova at the time to support the role that was being attributed to it. But if you follow Applebaum’s sources to the end you would discover that the dispute is not whether social media (i.e. the whole universe of blogs, SMS, Twitter, Facebook) were used to organize the protests, but whether Twitter itself was the key application. And even the source Applebaum cites on the number of Moldovan Twitter users does not actually have any hard data. So to summarize – the 2009 protests in Moldova were indeed organized by social media and did in fact result in arrests for the demonstrators. And they would’ve gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for those darned kids – what Applebaum and Gladwell fail to mention is that the communist government was brought down in August 2009, just months after the Twitter Revolution they say never happened.

Overall it’s very disappointing to see the author of The Tipping Point not even mention or think about the possibility that social media might diffuse dissent as an idea, through weak ties, and thus change the calculus of collective action itself, by changing our perceptions of the attendant risks. It’s particularly disappointing to see digital activism reduced to the revolution/no revolution dichotomy, because there are so many more interesting things going on here than regime change, which despite the merciful retreat of the Bush years into the realm of memory, remains the only thing anyone seems to care about.

2 replies to this post
  1. Hi David,

    While I broadly agree with your argument, I’d like to take issue with one point:

    “By providing more complete information about our social neighborhoods, social media vastly increase the likelihood that individuals have accurate information about the preferences of others.”

    Can we be sure that social media provide us with complete, accurate information about other people’s views? Isn’t it possible that, since our social media connections are self-selected, they actually do the opposite, reinforcing our existing biases? If so, there are a couple of interesting implications.

    First, these aren’t the same “weak ties” studied by Granovetter etc. – individually they look the same, but on aggregate they don’t provide the same random sampling of the population as traditional weak ties. So we might need to split the strong/weak dichotomy along a second axis: ingroup/outgroup.

    Second, biased weak ties might be more effective as amplifiers of information cascades than random weak ties. If we use our weak ties to sample the population’s views on a subject, without understanding that self-selected weak ties tend to amplify ingroup opinions, we’re likely to view society as being more politically polarised – and more favourable to our own opinions – than it actually is. It would be ironic if the mobilising potential of social media came from our inability to distinguish “more information” from “more complete information”…

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