The infrastructure of revolts: internet, game theory and complex networks in the Arab Spring
Brais Alvarez-Pereira, Department of Economics, European University Institute
Martin Portos-Garcia, Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute
Combining game theory and complex networks, we study the ows of controversial political information in non-democracies. Our model explains how, under certain circumstances, by facilitating the communication between potential protesters the internet can mean the difference between massive protests happening or not happening. The key nding of our study is that a relatively small increase in the proportion of the population having internet access might imply a big difference in the resulting equilibrium, by making it feasible for challengers to estimate their potential support, a requirement for mass protests to take place. As the perceived support for a potential protest increases, more agents will nd optimal joining it. This model is particularly oriented to seek an explanation for the fast spread of the self-organized protests that have recently shaken the Arab world.
1.1 Thinking collective action rationally?
Although embedded to some extent within political process, traditional rational choice accounts are far from mainstream in the study of contentious politics. With some remarkable exceptions (e.g. Marwell and Oliver 1993; Oberschall 1994; Lichbach 1995; Opp 2009), they have rather played a secondary role. Many scholars have cast rational choice insights aside too readily, which may have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Moreover, these criticisms have often been based on the narrower versions of rational choice models, which build on Mancur Olson's legacy (Finkel 2008; Opp 2013), when not simply on outright cliches associated to rational choice theory (RCT, hereafter). Unlike structuralist or culturalist metanarratives, RCTs place individuals' rational choices and actions at their core. This is precisely their virtue: behavioural theories of rational choice provide mechanisms linking structural dynamics and individuals solving social dilemmas - i.e. agency (see Ostrom 1998:2). This is not to argue that only RCTs monopolize the supply of bridgers. For instance, many causal mechanisms-based contributions have proved - and still proof - useful in overcoming the structure-action binomial. However, we argue, RCT can be helpful in this regard in many cases, too. The Olsonian logic of individual (non)-involvement in collective action rests upon two axes (Olson 1965): individuals' participation will have insignificant marginal impact on the collective enterprise being successful and collective goods (e.g. regime change) are normally non-excludable. As protesting is costly and risky, rational individuals who respond to incentives and stimuli tend to not participate in collective actions (i.e. they free-ride). Dealing with the free-rider dilemma has consumed most time and effort of rational choice scholars within our field (see Lichbach 1995; Opp 2009). The most resolute attempt to date in this regard has been the work by Opp and colleagues (Finkel et al 1989; Opp et al 1995; Opp 1989, 2009, 2013): their wide rational choice model of collective action (RCM, hereafter). It differs from the Olsonian logic (the narrow RCM) in two crucial aspects: 1. Individuals do act on their subjectively perceived in uence, which does not necessarily equal zero. 2. Relevant private incentives or disincentives for individual participation could be material, but also social or moral (Finkel 2008:23-24). These principles, along with the basic propositions of RCT substantiate our approach: human behaviour is goal-directed and seeks to maximize individuals' net utility, cooperation and coordination are often required to obtain a collective good, and de facto goal-attainment depends on behavioural opportunities and constraints, or costs-benefits in rational choice terms (Opp 2013:1; Oberschall 1994:79). More in depth, the relationahip between social beliefs and collective action is crucial throughout. Following a rational choice approach, Yang Lu et al (2013) build a global game in which they assume agents are homogeneous in preferences but receive different signals about the regime's strength, and share this information with each other when they are randomly paired. They use this model to study how different rumors might be more or less credible among the popu- lation, and how this credibility will determine the size of the mass of attackers in a revolution, which always happens but will only succeed if the amount of active revolutionaries is large enough. With a different focus, social beliefs and their tendency to consensus and wisdom are a topic widely studied, especially in economics see for example Golub and Jackson (2010) and Acemoglu et al (2010), DeGroot (1973) and Olfati-Saber et al (2007) on network theory, and the social and natural sciences (Sueur et al 2012).
1.2 The state of the art: internet and the protest domain
A fruitful academic debate has emerged regarding the changes internet brings about mean for political mobilization and activism. Not in vain, digital technologies in general and social media in particular are inherent to most contentious developments nowadays, as the Arab Spring reflects.
We can distinguish two main views on the contribution of social media to the organization of protests (see Mico and Casero-Ripolles 2013:3-4). On the one hand, the reinforcement tradition states that the Web reinforces organization (strengthening rather than creating new ties), transnationalization and mobilization of traditional collective action (Diani 2000; Van Aelst and Walgrave 2002). On the other hand, according to the innovation perspective, internet generates new forms of activism and collective action, which are social media driven (Mercea 2012; Bennett and Segerberg 2013).
With regards to the organization of activism, internet and especially social networks promote the creation of communities based on shared interests, fostering collective identities and providing the infrastructure to generate a critical mass (Harlow 2013; cited in Mico and Casero-Ripolles 2013:4). In addition, especially in non-democracies, the internet is expected to decrease the influence of established media organizations (mostly controlled by the regime) on the political agenda and to open more political information to public scrutiny, which would imply lower dependence on institutional structures (Bimber 1998). Broadly speaking, we assume that the internet sharply reduces costs for creating, organizing, and participating in protests and decreases the need for activists to be physically together in order to act together, as so do Earl and Kimport (2011). It does not mean that participation automatically increases with increasing internet access. It depends on how people use and appropriate it (Loader and Mercea 2011). As our analysis shows, virtual political activism is not restricted to online boundaries.To be sure, virtual interactions do not replace face-to-face ones (Diani 2000). However, internet access and ows of political information,we argue, have been crucial to account for the development of (protest) events in non-democratic regimes, as those that experienced the Arab Spring wave. Why do we focus on the latter? Despite internal variability and heterogeneity across Arab countries where mobilizations took place with varying degrees of intensity (see Donker 2013), these protests are all together distinctive in certain regards; more importantly for our purposes: 1. They consisted of technologically mediated protest events where the internet played a key role. 2.The cross-country spread of protests followed the logic of "example modularity", based on the em- ulation of others prior successful example (Beissinger 2007). 3. Except from the triggering case (Tunisia), the other protests within the wave were initially driven by digital technologies, which later had an impact on the offline sphere, as we will show. 4. All of them took place in the Middle East/North Africa, which has historically been the least free region in the world (Freedom House 2013), with some key recurring and resonating claims: pro-employment, human rights protection, regime change and political freedom/elections, anti-corruption, etc.
But how have these different regimes coped with internet, online activism and the threat it may pose for regime stability? Some scholars had already stressed the importance of internet prior to the Arab Spring, for instance, to create an International network in support of Mexican Zapatistas in order to avoid large-scale repression in 1994, to overcome barriers to news ows during Milosevic's mandate in Serbian boundaries and to bring Malaysian anti-regime groups together in 1998 (Ferdinand 2000). However, contrary to more optimistic approaches, we would like to add a word of caution: internet can also be used as a tool for propaganda; moreover, it may also help monitoring and repressing online and offline political activism, especially under dictatorial regimes (Howard et al 2011). Not in vain, internet censorship is nowadays a main element of state repression. Secret state affairs have been made public knowledge through the network,state repression of protests and con icts in any part of the world are watched internationally in real time, facing a public opinion with increasing resources at hand. As a consequence, most authoritarian and autocratic regimes and increasingly difficult controlling the internet without totally shutting the network down, as evidenced during the Arab Spring by the Egyptian, Syrian and Libyan cases. As aforementioned, this paper follows a rational choice approach, combining a game theoretical model (based on the n-person assurance game) with complex networks to explain how access to internet can help to improve the transmission of political information across individuals, especially in societies under authoritarian or autocratic regimes. These ows of information refer to the transmission of facts provided or learned about the political sphere. Besides, we show how under certain conditions the exchange of information through internet might contribute to trigger mass protests that challenge the political status quo, which would hardly have happened otherwise.
In section 2, we present a simple game-theoretical model based on the Assurance Game or Stag Hunt, in which cooperation pays off. Following R. Karklin and R. Petersen (1993), we study the aggregation of this game across society introducing the concept of an individual tipping point, given by a certain proportion of the population protesting, above which the corresponding agent will find it optimal to join the demonstration. Section 3 displays the process proposed to explain how internet can help to improve the communication of political information across society, and this is illustrated with several simulations on simple networks. Based on these results, in section 4 we develop the model that shows under which economic, social and political conditions we would expect internet to make a difference in affecting the individual utility of protesting. In section 5, for illustrative purposes, we apply our model to the Arab Spring. We stress some final remarks and conclude in section 6.
FULL VERSION The infrastructure of revolts: internet, game theory and complex networks in the Arab Spring