Networked Critical Masses

by Dan Mercea

I am going to start this opinion piece with an oft-heard claim: democratic participation is deteriorating to the point that many of us observing it have become cautious if not pessimistic in our assessment of the strength of democracy. Evidencing this bleak outlook would be the rise of runaway populism bearing little commitment to democratic values coupled with a precipitated retrenchment behind national borders in the wake of the global economic crisis. These developments come on the back of a deep-seated disenchantment with political institutions (both national and regional, e.g the E.U.). Yet, some have noted that a deep sense of injustice in the face of austerity or authoritarianism has seeped into politics igniting a contentious spirit that burns with passion, shining a bright light on the status-quo. In the face of rampant allegations of corruption, incompetence or self-interested collusion among office-maximizing political parties, political protest has emerged as a corrective on the failings of representative democracy. In Spain (15M), Brazil (the 2013 Vinegar protests), Bulgaria (the 2013 protests against the government), Ukraine (the 2013 Euromaidan movement) and most recently in the Romanian protests clamouring the dismal organization of the presidential elections (November 2014), people have risen to call for renewed accountability and a decisive return to the spirit of the social contract (and charter) underpinning latter-day democratic politics.

Deeply embedded into the fabric of these upheavals has been a multifarious reliance on networked communication. This observation is not intended to hail a step change in contentious politics and by any extension, democratic participation. There is a long catalogue of prophets that have already done it with mixed results. Instead, I want to invite renewed attention to the multitudes of critical voices bubbling up on social media that seem to be a source of angst rather than optimism about democracy among mainstream political actors and institutions.

Many, including this author, see information and communication technologies -be they social media platforms, smart phones or the backbone of fibre-optic cables, wifi hotspots and servers that make up the internet- as subject to increasingly stringent commercial and state control. Its purpose is to extract higher returns from the widest range of human communication, to render more accurate predictions of (collective) human conduct, or both. Control over technology is an object of disputation with regulation of Net neutrality or surveillance power being the latest battle grounds. Control over content is more delicate and harder to justify against a political culture that holds up freedom of speech as a sacrosanct value. Together, the two interlocking facets of control allude to a tightening stranglehold on networked communication. Yet, there is volatility in this communication ecology. A combination of soft communication skills, social capital, civic literacy and IT competencies distributed across variable communication networks can scale up to reach a critical mass the clampdown of which runs the risk of rapidly escalating economic costs and political instability (see the ban of mobile and internet access in Egypt, in 2011).

What I wish to briefly do here and expand on at length in an upcoming book (Civic Participation in Contentious Politics: The Digital Foreshadowing of Protest, Palgrave, 2015) is to index budding signs of a readjustment in the formation of critical masses that for long we have suspected hinges less and less on long-lasting affiliations with interest representation groups or sustained exposure to and socialization into activist networks. These avenues to collective action have endured but neither they nor the broadcasting media seem as effective at upscaling contention to the tipping point of the critical mass and beyond it. Here, I reference three aspects that might be contributing to this outcome: participant recruitment, civic literacy and participatory coordination.

First, there is a widely-held understanding that individuals with little or no experience of protest participation who are not members of activist organisations face barriers to protest participation linked to limited motivation and unfavourable risk/cost assessments of potential involvement. Such barriers they can surmount with support from activist organisations or activist social contacts. In my research, I suggest that the use of social media may stimulate the casual participation of individuals with prior protest experience who are not members of an activist organization and whose collective identity is no longer inextricably linked to a bounded sense of belonging to a given social group. Whilst this finding may signal a new participatory mode hinging on digitally networked communication, it equally confounds expectations pertaining to a net contribution of social media to the participation of newcomers to protest.

Second, examining communication on social media associated with a protest taking direct aim at mainstream political institutions (i.e. the E.U. and the Stop ACTA movement) revealed an array of narrative patterns whereby information and opinion about institutions was exchanged and fed into a conversation about the organization of collective action. Together, the two strands of activist communication may enhance a comprehension of citizenship; of the parameters of the relationship between citizens and institutions and the action repertoires available to safeguard them. Third, the same communication occasioned the expression of motivations to engage in collective action as well as the pooling of resources required for such action to materialize. By-and-large such coordination was not stewarded by activist organisations, a result that seems to further substantiate the notion of casual participation.

Whilst portending perhaps a gradual shift in political participation, these positive dynamics likely remain confined to privileged socio-spatial areas. What is more, there is nothing stopping them from being repurposed for uncivic action (e.g. terrorism) that runs counter to the democratic political culture; whose containment, although philosophically and morally (ergo legally) justifiable may require precisely the increasingly sophisticated control over the technology resisted on civic grounds. So, one increasingly vital way for society to defend democratic politics would be to acknowledge the legitimacy of networked critical masses as collective political actors. Thereby, we would resist the rhetoric that pushes them beyond the pale of institutional politics, instead seeing them as a necessary counterweight to creeping commercial or governmental control and uncivic action.

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