Riot policemen clash with protesters near the Fire Station in Ferguson, Mo., Nov. 24, 2014. (EPA/Alexey Furman)

As America awakes to the morning after protests in Ferguson and across the country, much will be made of the role played by social media in those protests (see for example here, here, and here.)

At NYU’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory, we’ve been spending a lot of time over the past year thinking about the ways in which social media can impact the decision of an individual to join a protest (primarily examining data from Ukraine and Turkey). When political scientists think about protest, we often use the framework of a collective action problem: a group has a goal it would like to achieve, but individual participation in that group activity is costly. So even though the group would benefit from coordinating and carrying out an action, if often does not take place. This framework points to the importance of information: about the protest, about what the costs of participating in the protest are likely to be, about the possible benefits of participating, all of which, crucially, is in part based on expectations about what other people will do.

Social media, therefore, can play an important role in facilitating protest by making it easier for individuals to acquire information.  This can include:

  • Information about the planned and actual location and timing of protests
  • Information about how safe participation is (is there violence? fires? tear gas?)
  • Information about how many other people are currently participating in protests

In addition to providing information about the protests, social media might affect people’s motivation to participate in the protest.  This could be done in many ways, but could include:

  • Triggering feelings of group identity (e.g, the many references seen to “black lives matter” in tweets regarding the Ferguson protests)
  • Triggering feelings of injustice
  • Triggering emotions such as anger

Of course, it is important to realize that just as social media can make people more likely to participate in protest, the information and motivation received through social media might make people less likely to participate in protests.  For example, information related to protests turning violent might make people less likely to want to join those protests. Similarly, other emotional responses might inhibit rather than encourage behavior.  We also can not discount the possibility that actors who wish to discourage protest will also use information available on social media to shut down protests.  Similarly these actors may choose to spread disinformation about protests that either is intended to discourage participation or to make it harder for protesters to coordinate activity.

Another important question is whether social media has what social scientists would call an “independent causal effect” — that is, is it having a separate impact on the decision to participate in the protest? — or is it simply providing the same sort of information and motivation that one could get from other media sources? For example, on Monday night while I monitored developments related to Ferguson I was watching both cable network news and Twitter simultaneously. While this is a question that we believe scholars will be investigating for years to come, there are reasons to think that the use of social media has effects that are different from simply receiving information via more traditional forms of media.

First, there is the speed with which social media delivers information about ongoing events.  Network news can only cover one development at a time; social media, on the other hand, can simultaneously be covering all of them, and virtually instantaneously.

Second, social media allows for potential protest participants to actively plan events, something that is not even in the purview of traditional media.

Third, social media allows people to search for information specific to their own personal needs.  To go back to Monday night, CNN was covering events in Ferguson; I wanted to know whether there were protests in New York City.  Searching the public Twitter page made this possible in seconds, at which point I learned exactly where protests in NYC were occurring.

Fourth, social media brings information that is pre-vetted by networks of people into which the user has self-selected.  To put this another way, when we use social media without the search function – by accessing normal feeds of information – we are getting information from people we have chosen to follow or with whom to be “friends” that they have already identified as important enough to share.  I personally don’t think we have a good handle on how much this matters, but my suspicion is strong that seeing that one’s friend has chosen to share information about where a protest is taking place plays a different role in the decision making process of whether to join that protest than simply learning about the existence of the protest from a traditional media source.  Indeed, social media has the ability to combine personal encouragement (we saw one friend using Twitter in Turkey to tell another friend to get out of a café and come join the protests) with information about the protests.

Finally, social media gives protesters the chance to share information about protests that the traditional media may choose not to cover.  This was especially the case in the early days on the Turkish Gezipark protests, when the Turkish version of CNN famously aired a documentary about penguins while CNN international covered the protests occurring within the country.

It is easy today to claim that “social media is fueling protest,” because going forward we almost always will see social media usage associated with protests, and Monday was (and I’m sure Tuesday will be) no exception.  The harder task – but ultimately more important – is to figure out exactly how and why it does.

Protesters in Oakland, Calif., New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., took to the streets to express their anger at a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. (The Washington Post)