Eleven years ago, the 15M movement was born in Madrid. This striking collective action phenomenon ensued several new political parties: Partido X, Podemos, and Equo, amongst others. Roughly six million citizens became indignados in 50 cities throughout Spain (RTVE, 2011). The movement lacked any type of central organization; rather, it comprised more than 200 separate associations (Alcaide, 2011). How could then the Indignados movement thrive and organize successfully so as to display one of the largest social movements in the history of Spain? The answer is it had the right platform for the right people.
Collective action is broadly defined as a coordinated movement performed by a group to improve their situation by achieving a public good (Sandler, 1992). Collective action, therefore, represents a vast array of diverse activities: from voting to camping in Madrid’s central square. Since the beginning of liberal democracies, when people gained constitutional guarantee for their rights to free speech and freedom of association, collective action movements have fitted into the classic mould fairly homogeneously. However, contemporary forms of collective action introduce a novel element that makes collective action theory a field worth revising: the integration of collective action movements into the digital environment.
Thus far, political participation had barriers to entry, the prime consequence being only those citizens with higher income levels and education could partake in collective action (Verba and Nie, 1972). The gradual democratisation of participation has currently experienced a very powerful boost: the inclusion of digital tools lowers enormously participation costs and allows individuals belonging to different social groups and with new motivations to contribute to collective action. Entry barriers are the lowest ever, being the chief ones owning a computer or smartphone, paying for one’s Internet bill, and —mainly— time. The dynamics of participation already have a new logic to explain what motivates people to participate now.
We can already observe a substantial shift in how collective action was conducted during the 15M movement in 2011, when social media usage was lower than now (Poushter, Bishop and Chwe, 2018). Three noteworthy traits are worth highlighting. Firstly, most of the process took place online. Calvo et al. (2011) estimate that more than 60% of those who identified as participants had never attended an assembly or spent a night out camping. Assemblies were one of the most characteristic activity of the 15M movement. Interested citizens would coalesce everywhere around Spain and engage in direct democracy processes, vote on executive decisions, and discuss a myriad of numerous issues, such as in what way they could engage more people or possible future policies. And, although these meetings were one of the cardinal elements of the Indignados movement, more than 60% of those who attended at least one meeting had never spoken—the Pareto principle in action. Secondly, most of the contributors knew about gatherings through social media, emails, or websites—being Facebook/Tuenti the primary source of information. Thirdly, age, a factor that was previously irrelevant (Verba and Nie, 1972; Finkel and Opp, 1991), gained importance. Over 70% of the participants were under 34 years old (Galindo, Garcia and Rodríguez, 2008; Calvo et al., 2011).
While it is true that the upper class was the most represented during the two main strikes (Galindo, Garcia and Rodríguez, 2008), this phenomenon can have multiple explanations. One reason could be how time-consuming this whole movement was. Also, many people could have contributed online and felt they did their fair share. Notwithstanding this fact, it is incontrovertible that almost anyone could have contributed at least online as long as they had Internet access. Asemblies, strikes, and other in-person activities will still occur, and old participation rules may continue to apply to them, but increasingly collective action is taking place online. The subsequent question is: what factors define who participates, now that virtually every citizen living in a liberal democracy and with access to the Internet can get involved in collective action?
New collective action studies show that, in order to get involved in collective action, the political motivation of the people is second to the frequency of their Internet use (Norris, 2009; Borge and Cardenal, 2011). Consequently, Internet-usage levels become a more reliable predictor of online political participation than motivation, even when controlling for variables such as age, education and civic responsibility. The leading hypothesis to explain this effect is that the greatest cost that exists today is related to access to the Internet.
Internet users still select which collective actions they want to contribute to. The main reason to contribute is the fact that the cause may affect the user directly. But once you come across a collective action movement online two crucial factors come into play: personality and platform type. While there are obviously numerous ways of classifying people depending on their personalities, the method to obtain most significant results is to divide people according to their Social Value Orientations (S.V.O.), which measure individualist, competitive, cooperative and altruistic behaviors (Griesinger and Livingston Jr., 1973), and then classify them as individualistic or group-centered based on their results (Margetts et al., 2017). Group-centered individuals are more concerned about the welfare of the whole community and have a greater willingness to engage in efforts to improve the situation of others, while individualistic people focus their actions on furthering their personal position alone (Cameron, Brown and Chapman, 1998).
The other relevant part of the equation is the design of the digital platform that embeds users into collective action. Platforms can provide information of two types according to their structure: visibility and social information (Margetts et al., 2017). Visibility is the information by which other users can see what we as individuals are doing, going to do or have done. For instance, if I sign a request and tweet about it. In contrast, social information is the data on the number of people who have participated, who are participating or who are interested in participating. An example is a webpage that publishes the amount of people who have signed a specific request.
Group-centered and individualistic people’s participation changes significantly under different platforms depending on whether these integrate visibility options and/or social information. Visibility and social information significantly affect pro-social people’s participation in a negative manner (Margetts et al., 2017). On the contrary, individualists participate much more when these traits are present, and in the cases where they are non-existent they become significantly less involved. It may be that the group-centered individuals collaborate less in cases with more visibility and social information because when they do they get intensely involved, and if they see many people are already acting, they may believe their contribution is unnecessary.
Another hypothesis is that group-centered people may oppose the idea that others see their actions as virtue-signaling. They tend to be more selfless than their counterparts, but they act in this fashion because it is part of their personality, not because they strive to have a good image. Should they think others perceive their actions as a mere act to look better, visibility and social information may deter their actions. On the other hand, the logic behind the increase of individualists' engagement is that they probably want to increase their reputation within a social group.
Collective action on online platforms does not exclusively have to be on social media platforms. Websites such as Change.org or the Spanish Government transparency portal are collective action platforms as well. Moreover, social media is not necessarily the best collective action platform, especially when compared to other forms of mobilization, such as in-person engagement. For example, it has been widely documented that they help create echo chambers by which engagement is increasingly polarized rather than deliberative. When measuring whether left-wing and right-wing people follow media outlets of different ideology to theirs, it seems they both do in fairly similar ways —although left-wing users do it slightly less (Sunstein, 2018; Eady et al., 2019). Sunstein (2018) attributes this behavior to the involvement in politics of individuals; the greater the political participation, the more they ostracize themselves into echo chambers. With regards to communicating between themselves, both groups seldom do so, and it is only very few that repeatedly do so and create links of dialogue (Brady et al., 2017; Del Valle and Borge Bravo, 2018). Sunstein (2018) analyzes in detail how Twitter and Facebook are built and posits that homophily is rife in these platforms by design.
In conclusion, to initiate collective action and attain the necessary social acceptance, it is essential to understand what type of people we are addressing and via which channels. There is no ideal platform to embed all collective action, visibility and social information can exert great pressure on certain people in varying degrees. Therefore, those in search of creating a successful collective action movement should bear in mind that one-size-fits-all options are counterproductive when determining which digital platform to build on.
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