Democracy, Social Media, and the #UmbrellaRevolution

Chinese autocrats deeply dislike dissenters (and, sadly, they are pretty efficient in silencing them), and dislike them even more if they wave Democracy flags, given the potential of the condemned “D” word to trigger further dissent. That’s why Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution is driving the Chinese Communist Party crazy, and social media only makes things worse.


Let’s look closer at the Umbrella Revolution as an excuse to analyze the underlying forces behind it, reviewing the interaction of democracy and technology.

Fighting for Democracy with Social Media

When looking at the social media activity around the Umbrella Revolution, it becomes apparent that it’s a powerful tool for pro-democracy activists. In the past 4 days, more than 1.3 million tweets have been recorded about the protests:

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Social media, which is not banned in Hong Kong as in mainland China, has been the tool used by Occupy Central (the main organization behind the protests) to coordinate and communicate with its supporters, practicing the “Ridiculously easy group-forming” I analyzed recently. This brings to mind the case of the Arab Spring pro-democracy revolutions, which also relied heavily on social media, as powerfully illustrated by Wael Ghonim’s Revolution 2.0. As Rheingold explains in his book (ch 5), the Reed nature of the Internet radically disrupted the Sarnoff nature of previous media, with which autocrats felt more comfortable.

To make things even worse for the regime, the Umbrella Revolution can be watched live on YouTube (it has been streamed for the past 3 days already) and thousands of videos about the protests have been uploaded by Hong Kong ordinary citizens. YouTube has proven to be a great social media tool for human rights activists, given the power of video to mobilize people.

Practicing Democracy with Social Media

At the same time, social media has proven to be a powerful tool to practice democracy in societies that embody the democratic flag that Hong Kongers are fighting for. For the first time there is a political arena where citizens from modern societies can engage other citizens without the offline constraints of the pre-Internet era. Citizens can now express themselves in the modern Agora, discuss political issues with others and put pressure on their elected representatives.

This of course has some limitations:

  1. The Filter Bubble: as explained by Eli Pariser’s TED Talk, algorithmic personalization has the severe risk of exposing citizens only to like-minded opinions at the expense of controversial voices, anesthetizing our critical thinking and ability to participate in democratic deliberations (the pioneer of this concept was Cass Sunstein in his 2001 book Republic.Com). This was powerfully illustrated by Orgnet in this map about siloed Amazon book purchases:
    0808polemics-600x284To remedy this problem, besides the hard-to-implement idea of strengthening “Bridge people” like the ones described by Rheingold, I strongly suggest reading Jonathan Stray’s proposals, specially the one on diversity control features in filtering algorithms.
  2. In One Ear And Out The Other: elected representatives have strong incentives not to respond to their constituencies (as described by HKS’ Fung et al). Giving citizens a voice doesn’t mean that the government will listen. That’s why Democracy needs to start experimenting with “empowered participation”, i.e. giving real decision making power to citizens to enable their participation (what we are doing in Argentina with the Net Party, as well as in Participatory Budgeting initiatives). This is something specially promising at the local level, where, as Christakis and Fowler describe in their book about “Netville”, the Internet positively enhances interactions among local communities.
  3. Elites: aligned with Rheingold’s description of the power law curve (vis-a-vis the normal curve) and the Pareto principle (which recalls Anderson’s Long Tail concept), it happens that the voice of the “long tail of average citizens” receives minuscule attention compared to the voice of mainstream media elites in today’s Internet (as Matthew Hindman proved).

The Battle for Free Speech

Lastly, the Umbrella Revolution also brings to light the battle for free speech, a fundamental condition for Democracy. While in Western democracies the debate is around Network Neutrality and the role of “the Deciders” regulating hate speech in the tech giants, in China its about the very basics. There the enemy is the world famous Chinese Great Firewall, an intimidating censorship innovation to crush dissenters that already is being applied to the coverage of Hong Kong events in mainland China. For example, Instagram was recently shut down and a large number of posts have been deleted from Weibo:


At the same time, ICT innovations continue to surprise: fearing that the Chinese regime might tighten censorship of Hong Kong’s internet, more than 100,000 people in Hong Kong downloaded Fire Chat in the past 24 hours, as reported by the app’s developer. This is a wireless P2P messaging app (works phone-to-phone thru Bluetooth and Wi-Fi), and at one point on Sunday more than 30,000 people were using the app simultaneously in Hong Kong.

Ridiculously easy group-forming [DPI-659’s #1]

A lot is said these days about the “2.0 nature” of the web, entailing some important implications for democracy (the topic of this brand new blog). In this first post I will reflect about the possibilities brought by the Internet that allow people to interact and collaborate in ways that were inconceivable some decades ago, to then link it to democracy. As starting points I’ll use Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody” and Tim O’Reilly’s What Is Web 2.0 article, which I strongly recommend.

Out of the two, Shirky’s is the most relevant (and engaging) one to understand the overall social and political implications of the Web 2.0. The main argument by Shirky is that the tectonic shift embodied by the Internet is about people using new tools to assemble and to do things together (given the drastic drop of transaction costs), bypassing traditional organizations and institutions. To summarize it, he quotes Seb Paquet’s statement about “ridiculously easy group-forming”. Shirky then continues to describe, in different chapters, the main kinds of group activity that emerge: sharing, cooperation, and collective action.

On the other hand, O’Reilly’s article has the merit of being one of the pioneering analysis of the Web 2.0 concept, being written in 2005 (with the unknown Facebook being only 1 year old and Twitter not even existing). At the same time, the article has the shortcoming of being written mostly to a business audience (hence disregarding the many non-business implications described by Shirky). But the shiny highlight of O’Reilly is that he is extremely accurate and relevant-to-2014 in describing the technicalities when explaining the 7 principles of the Web 2.0.

Collective Intelligence: scale of intent and complexity 

The main point of overlap of both authors is the Collective Intelligence concept, which is described pretty precisely by O’Reilly and which is implicit in Shirky’s analysis of the 3 group activities. O’Reilly does it by analyzing how some web applications are efficient by harnessing the unconscious contributions of millions of users (such as Cloudmark, Google and Amazon) or the voluntary contributions of users in platforms (such as Wikipedia, Flickr or eBay). While Shirky emphasizes the intended contributions of users with the purpose of engaging a group, paying special attention to the three kinds of group activity stated above.


And it’s the analysis of the different kinds of group activity that better describes the actual behaviour we observe over the Internet on a daily basis. He argues that the three kinds of activity can be categorized according to the difficulty to coordinate them. Sharing is the simplest one for a user, and it’s THE feature we know so well nowadays: we live in a society of “sharers”, we are constantly sharing all kind of stuff; be it through any social network, any chat app, or good ol’ email.

Then, cooperation is harder because of the need to synchronize behaviours of different people, but is remarkable for having achieved notorious impact throughout the web; the most notable and cited example is Wikipedia. And finally, collective action is the hardest given the binding nature to commit to a collective effort even if you don’t agree with the majoritarian decision (“rules for losing”), and is the one activity that is still rare in the Internet.

Implications for democracy

To connect these three kinds of group activity to the topic of this blog, we could say that the first two activities are already significantly influencing our democratic institutions. Regarding our ability to share, the Web 2.0 has revolutionized the media industry (a key player in democracy), with citizens participating in both the production of news (though they still are largely mainstream dominated, as Matthew Hindman proved) and its consumption (the mediate through sharing -or curating-).

Regarding our ability to cooperate, it is also already happening in our political systems through online political activism, be it in developed countries (such as the campaigns of Obama or Podemos), in developing countries (such as the Arab Spring activism or the Argentina’s Twitter political battles), or globally (such as the Avaaz or Greenpeace campaigns).

What we still haven’t seen is online collective action with “rules for losing”, within the political institutions. Back in Argentina we want to experiment with it in the Net Party, and many promising Participatory Budgeting initiatives are starting to implement it as well. And that’s what I’ll continue to explore in this blog throughout these two years at HKS.