Who’s First? : Elites, Challengers, and Political Opportunities

To what extent does the insertion of digital technology alter our existing assumptions about activism? This is the question I’ve put to Doug McAdam in reading his book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. In my last post I laid out a range of possible effects digital technology can have on three key social movement theories: opportunity and mobilizing structures and framing processes. Here I’ll dig into opportunity structures, challenging McAdam’s contention the it is elite action that causes political contention and social movement emergence.

The “Elites First” Theory of Social Movement Emergence

In his book McAdam writes:

From this perspective, what come to be defined as political opportunities by challenging groups are themselves byproducts of innovative collective action by state (or other elite) actors designed to effectively counter perceived threats to or opportunities for the realization of their interests.

McAdam is saying that the openings in the political power structure that provide challengers (activists) with the opportunity for mobilization are created by previous actions taken by elites. That is, elites are the first movers in social movement emergence.

As the title of the book implies, the American civil rights movement is the example McAdam calls upon in proving his points, and he is a master of the subject. He points out that the modern civil rights movement did not begin with the famous 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, which brought figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to national attention, but with decisions made by President Truman in the late 1940’s to realign the federal government with civil rights organizations by creating a national Committee on Civil Rights and desegregating the military, mostly as a propaganda effort against the Soviet Union in the battle over whether communism or the free market was best for human freedom. It was these national and international actions by elites – a change in opportunity structures as a results of the Cold War – that made the modern civil rights movement possible.

This is of course depressing, because it implies that the opportunities of activists depend on the actions of their opponents. For activist challengers it’s like beginning every race a few minutes behind a fast runner. Winning is possible but activists start with a disadvantage.

Does Social Media Improve the Position of Challengers?

Does the insertion of social media allow for some reversal in these roles? I think they do. Now challengers as well as elites have the ability to perceive environmental changes and realign quickly, altering their own opportunity structures while creating threats for opponents.

Let’s dissect the “elites first” theory and see how the insertion of digital technology might undermine its assumptions. The “elites first” theory supposes that when their is an environmental change which affects the interests of both elites and challengers, elites are:

  1. Able to perceive that change more quickly and
  2. Able to realign more quickly (in order to protect themselves against the threat or take advantage of the opportunity)

I would argue that the insertion of social media undermines both the “first perception” and the “first realignment” assumptions that lie behind the “elites first” theory.

Perception: How Freer Information Benefits Challengers

Some environmental changes are never broadcast, and thus people with elite information networks are best able to take advantage. But in the age of Twitter, Wikileaks, and Al Jazeera, it is harder and harder to keep secrets and those secrets are transmitted to a broad public much faster and through a greater number of channels.

This means that challengers, as well as elites, are able to perceive information about opportunities and threats quickly. This is not to say that challengers are better informed than elites, only that they are on a more even footing regarding access to salient information about issues affecting their interests.

Realignment: The “Organizational Vehicle” of Social Media

Also, because of the vanishingly simple coordination and collaboration tools provided by social media, challengers can also quickly realign in response to those changes. In his book McAdam writes that:

The fact of the matter is that, for state actors, most of the ongoing interpretation of social change processes takes place in formal organizations geared to the defense or advocacy of state (and associated elite) interests…. They already [have] an organizational vehicle… to facilitate collective action.

Now challengers (even incipient ones) also have an “organizational vehicle” – social media. While the formal hierarchical institution is often still more effective at guiding collective action that the loose network, this is not always the case. If circumstances are changing quickly a command and control structure, useful for assuring coordinated implementation of collective action, becomes a liability as hierarchy slows the pace of decision-making (for example, the US government’s uncoordinated response to the Egyptian revolution). The flat networks provided by social media serve as a real alternative for organizing collective response to opportunities and threats, giving challengers a more even footing with elites.


In a world where challengers and elites have more equal access to information about changes that affect their interests and a more equal ability to act collectively in response to those changes, the structural conditions for social movement are stronger and the structural conditions for routine and prescribed politics becomes weaker.

Social movement emergence does not equal social movement success, and elites still have a range of tools with which to defend their interests but, as regards the reliance of challengers on elites to create changes in the opportunity/threat structure, the presence of social media puts challengers in a relatively better position. Elites are no longer the default first movers of social movement emergence.

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