Limitations of Social Media Mobilization

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Social media is capable of significantly rapid mobilization, without the complementary role of ‘mass media’. However, success is extremely sensitive to various key factors and this sensitivity poses a limit on the power of social media in rapid response.
Social media is capable of significantly rapid mobilization, without the complementary role of ‘mass media’. However, success is extremely sensitive to various key factors and this sensitivity poses a limit on the power of social media in rapid response.

On December 17, 2010,  Mohammed Bouazizi, a Tunisian 26-year-old fruits and vegetables vendor was subject to unjust treatment by the police, when they confiscated his produce because he lacked a permit. When he resisted, the police beat him up. Owing to a boiling frustration over living standards, police violence and a history of unemployment, Bouazizi doused himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire in front of a local municipal office. Nineteen days later, he died.

However, by this time Bouazizi’s act of desperation had forced people across the country to pour into the streets of cities like Sfax and Tunis and began to organize themselves with cell phones and Facebook. As the Tunisian President fled and the country risked disorder and random violence, people across the country used social media to dispel misinformation and organize themselves to counter security forces, regime-supporters and looters alike.

The organized efforts had culminated into a political resistance movement we now know as the Tunisian Uprising.

In another case of social media publicising horrific social stories, a video was posted on March 5, 2012, produced by Invisible Children, highlighting the atrocities of  Joesph Kony.  Titled Kony 2012, the objective of the video was  to “help bring awareness to the horrific abuse and killing of children in the East and Central African countries at the hands of Kony and his leadership.” More importantly, the video authours attempted to instigate enough international attention to capture Kony by the end of 2012. By March 28 2012, the video was near the 86 million viewer mark on YouTube.

Joesph Kony is still a free man. Further, while people had enthusiastically exhibited their viral support, many failed to participate in its follow-up campaign. 

It can easily be said that the aforementioned events gained momentum due to social media mobilization. In description, social mobilization is the ability of social networks to mobilize rapidly to address challenges such as disaster response or finding a missing child, or the events already mentioned.

However, according to a research paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) journal, social media has its limits. It was the limitations of social media that prevented Kony 2012 to become a success beyond the bounds of the Internet, much like the Tunisian Uprising.

The findings of the study reveal that social media is capable of significant and rapid mobilization, without playing the same role as the ‘mass media’.

The paper, titled ‘Limits of Social Mobilization’, analyzes the results of the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Red Balloon Challenge, which was held in 2009. The challenge was designed to test the power of social media at its absolute limit. It also accompanied a notable monetary prize for the winner.

The Red Balloon Challenge required competing teams to locate the GPS coordinates of 10 weather balloons placed at undisclosed random locations all over the continental US. A team from MIT found all balloons in 8 hours and 52 minutes by mobilizing volunteers through social media.

Computer simulations indicate the possibility to replicate what was done in the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge with 90% chance of success.

Success however, is dependent on conditions to be ideal, in what can be termed as ‘the perfect storm’. Success is extremely sensitive to various key factors. And this sensitivity poses a limit on the power of social media in rapid response.

The paper identified certain factors that contribute to the success of social media mobilization:

  • Social media mobilization relies critically on highly connected individuals, with very rapid response time, willing to mobilize people in distant locations. Even under these highly favorable conditions, sometimes the risk of an unsuccessful search remains significant, it adds.
  • Success requires a large number of so-called passive recruits, people who do not necessarily participate in mobilizing others, but who may help if they come across the balloon.

The Tunisian Uprising had both factors contributing to its success.

Elaborating upon the first factor, Tunisia’s 10 million residents and two million expatriate citizens are avid users of technology. 85% of the population has cell phones (5% smart phones), and roughly two million of them are on Facebook. At the time of the Revolution, Twitter had a far smaller footprint, with perhaps 500 active users within the country’s borders. However, what mattered was who was tweeting what, than how many people were tweeting. In practice, these were the only Web 2.0 tools available for activism, since other channels such as YouTube were government-censored.

Secondly, the passive recruits in this case were the Tunisian expat community. They took over the role of sharing information over the social media, posting videos, which were shared further, creating an echo effect. This amplification effect went far beyond the extended Tunisian community itself, with activists in many countries and from many backgrounds helping to promote the cause.

In the case of Kony 2012, the Ugandans failed to get on-board from the beginning. Their implicit portrayal of them as helpless victims unable to deal with Kony unless Americans came to their rescue had a negative response.

Social Media Effect
Social Media Effect

Masdar Institute Researchers Quantify the ‘Reliability’ of Social Media for Time-Critical Mobilization

‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Science’ publishes paper developed at Social Computing and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory led by Dr Iyad Rahwan and co-authored by Peers.

“Our first finding is to establish the plausibility of achieving a highly distributed, time-critical search task without any use of mass media. In the aftermath of the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge, it was not yet clear whether ‘social media’ could be solely relied upon to achieve such task, without any help from ‘mass media’. We showed that this is indeed possible.

“We also found that the challenge lies at the limit of human capability; it depends on all conditions being at the limit of what we know about human social networks and interaction speed. Otherwise, we have a very high chance of failure.”Dr. Manuel Cebrian, paper co-author and one of the MIT winning team members, said “basically, we cannot find 20 balloons in nine hours, and we could not have found the 10 balloons in less time than it took us.” — Dr Iyad Rahwan, Associate Professor and Head of Computing & Information Science at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology

“Such papers published in respected science journals identify valuable opportunities for the ICT sector while showcasing our expertise in advanced analysis and research. With the support of the UAE’s leadership, Masdar Institute has consistently published scientific papers in global journals and raised its profile as a world-ranking research institution. We foresee many such papers emanating from our renowned faculty and their labs in the coming months, illustrating our contribution to Abu Dhabi’s human capital development objectives.” — Dr Fred Moavenzadeh, President, Masdar Institute

The scientific paper is a result of two years of research at the Social Computing and Artificial Intelligence laboratory, led by Dr. Iyad Rahwan.

The first author of the paper is Dr Alex Rutherford, post-doctoral fellow at Masdar Institute and member of Dr. Rahwan’s lab. The other co-authors are Prof. Alex (Sandy) Pentland of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr. Manuel Cebrian, from National ICT Australia, Sohan D’Souza of Masdar Institute, and Prof. Esteban Moro, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

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