Economics of dissent: How Twitter and Facebook tipped the revolutionary equation

March 17, 2011, 3:05 PM UTC

Perhaps it is time to update the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” to “The Internet is mightier than dictators.”

By Othman Laraki, contributor

While the above statement is made tongue-in-cheek, it is undeniable that we are living through a time of accelerated change. Suddenly, we are witnessing decades-long regimes being challenged by oppressed populations. It is not entirely clear what has changed, but the advent of the Social Internet seems to somehow be involved. Some see Twitter, Facebook and other online social applications as self-congratulating, delusional apps for the Silicon Valley nerd-o-sphere, whereas others view them as dictatorial kryptonite.

As is frequently the case, reality is somewhere in between. It is true that the Social Internet hasn’t changed the fundamental fabric of society. It is also unlikely that Twitter and Facebook are the revolutionary coordination weapon the world has been waiting for. Revolutions have always been the tipping of unstable systems, where some relatively minor events offer a coordination point around which dissent congeals. At the heart of the “Revolutionary Equation” is a perspective that revolutions are triggered and won based on information and signaling. Individuals revolt because they expect to make a difference and they expect to be sufficiently numerous that they will overcome their governments’ ability to suppress them. Twitter and Facebook have created an environment in which dissent can reach critical mass outside of governments’ ability to suppress it. The Social Internet has altered the “Revolutionary Equation” by reducing the cost of dissent and increased the cost of suppressing it.

The Revolutionary Equation

People revolt as a function of three variables: discontent (general measure of dissatisfaction), cost of dissent (personal cost dispensed by the government to those who dissent), and expected mass (expected volume of people who are willing to express their dissent).

Let’s consider a distribution of discontent among a population.

The main point of this graph is to point out that any population will have a distribution of (dis)satisfaction. Happier countries will have a steeper and more concave curve and less happy countries will have a flatter, more convex curve. Another way to think about discontent is that it is a measure of the benefit of overthrowing the government. Essentially, the least happy people attribute the highest utility to a revolution.

Cost of Dissent
A government has a relatively fixed ability to dispense “cost” for dissent.

Pretty much any government is willing to kill (or severely punish) some of its citizens to remain in power. However, no government can kill 100% of its population, so there is a limit to the amount of cost that a government can dispense. The illustration above is a gross oversimplification, but essentially points out that at some point, governments fall off a cliff in terms of being able to punish dissent. Generally, when there are signs of unrest, the more repressive governments will quickly signal to the population that their cost curve stretches up and to the right. As an example, in its reaction to protests against rigged elections in Iran, the government quickly signaled that they were willing to kill their own people in order to maintain control.

Expected Mass and Utility of Dissent
In a stable state, it is not worthwhile for the majority of the population to revolt. You will always have a few anarchists, terrorists or heroes who are sufficiently unhappy that it is worthwhile for them to fight — they know they won’t succeed in overthrowing a regime, but will fight nonetheless.

People will revolt when their expected mass exceeds the cost that they expect the government is able or willing to dispense. When people revolt, they are essentially betting that their expected mass is greater than what the government is able to repress. If you assume that the most dissatisfied people will dissent first, you effectively end up with a revolution when you have enough highly dissatisfied people who are willing to dissent at a high cost to get to the point where the government’s ability to suppress dissent breaks down.

Triggering events are usually caused by the expectation of mass –essentially how people perceive this graph to be. What usually happens next is a race between the population increasing the expected mass (visibility going up as people go to the streets) and the government reducing the expected mass (through information or by breaking up protests) and signaling the ability/willingness to dispense high cost (by bringing out the army or killing/jailing people).

How Twitter and Facebook Impact the Revolutionary Equation

Fundamentally, social tools such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have several important implications:

  • Fungible Identity: Online identity is fungible. People can appear as themselves, but can also impersonate others or invent new identities.
  • Speed: Messages and information can propagate much faster than ever before. Entire conversations happen in the fraction of the time they have in the past.
  • Global Connectivity: People can trivially connect to others down the street or across the world.
  • Global Audience: A Tweet by one person can reach the entire world and be rebroadcast over CNN in a matter of minutes.
  • Global Standards: Global and local opinions have become almost impossible to discern. Raising international outrage reverberates internally as well. Isolation of opinion has become almost impossible.
  • Scale: The Internet is very very big. Billions of people are on it. Getting millions to hop onto any bandwagon has become almost trivial.
  • Flattening: We are no longer in a world where governments have the biggest loud speaker. Individuals can sometimes have a reach that is broader and more global than entire governments.

With the implications of the Social Internet in mind, the past few weeks have demonstrated the emergence of four key dynamics that deeply impact the cost and expectation of mass variables in the Revolutionary Equation.

1) Consolidation: In a pre-Social Internet world, the supporters of a given cause were essentially required to coordinate in plain sight. In countries with repressive regimes, dissent would be reserved only for the few at the extreme who were willing to risk their freedom or lives to fight for a cause. Thanks to the fungibility of identity and to the fact that most governments are relatively absent from the social media sphere, it has become easier for mainstream people to express their views at a lower personal cost. Moreover, the topic-based organization of social media tools (groups and pages on Facebook and hashtags and followers on Twitter) drastically facilitates the process by which we all meet like-minded people. The lower cost of expressing dissent increases the supply of those willing to express discontent. The better coordination increases the expected mass, when people can clearly see how many others share their perspective.

2) Revolution Simulation: Today, populations can essentially “simulate” revolutions online. Not only can citizens around the world more easily understand the level of support for a given cause, they can also better understand which courses of action will be supported by the mass. Ahead of each of the protests that swept the countries in the Middle East, you could see people from each of the countries debating the objectives of a given movement. In a sense, this allows a population to discover the level of change that would garner mass support. Whereas governments used to control mass media and “demonstrate” strong popular support, Twitter and Facebook make it transparent to the world and local populations how many people are actually for or against the current regime.

3) Global Echo Chamber: Beyond better connecting people within a country, Twitter and Facebook trivialize the connections between people across the world. Even national causes can now draw from a global population. All of a sudden, you have a massive influx of people for whom the cost of dissent is close to zero (eg. Americans have nothing to fear from the Egyptian government). The global population can now make a massive contribution to the expectation of mass by offering the feeling that people around the world are there to support your quest for a fair and democratic government.

4) Satellite Feedback Loop: Few people realize the depth of the impact of satellite television on developing countries. Around the world, people stopped getting the news only from the state-sponsored television station. AlJazeera, CNN, BBC, etc. have become the news sources for the world. When doomed governments realized that people were moving from Twitter and Facebook into the street, they blocked the Internet. This was nothing short of a fatal mistake. Blocking the Internet was seen as a form of repression and admission of guilt. The fact that the government freaked out was broadcast by AlJazeera, BBC, etc…, through satellite dishes right into the homes of every single person in the country, further pushing up the expectation of mass.

5) Amplification: Even with the Internet cut off, the small trickle of Tweets and YouTube videos that manage to make it out of a country are closely monitored by international media and rebroadcast through satellite. Essentially, BBC takes a Tweet that would have been seen by 10 people and shows it to 10 million. BBC News became a massive Twitter application that pressured governments to reduce the cost of dissent and further increased the expectation of mass for the revolutionaries.

— Othman Laraki is Director of Products at Twitter. This post is an op-ed and is not necessarily reflective of Twitter Inc’s opinions. This post republished with permission.