From Turbulent Politics to Chaotic Pluralism: How Social Media Shape Collective Action

Open to the Public
Nador u. 9, Monument Building
Monday, February 9, 2015 - 5:30pm
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Monday, February 9, 2015 - 5:30pm

How does the changing use of social media affect politics, and what model of democracy might best encapsulate this change? This talk draws on a forthcoming book (Turbulent Politics, Princeton University Press, 2015) to show how social media are now inextricably intertwined with the political behaviour of ordinary citizens, and to propose a pluralist model of contemporary politics. As people go about their daily lives, they are invited to make ‘micro-donations’ of time and effort to political causes: liking, sharing, tweeting, retweeting, following, uploading, downloading, signing petitions and so on, which extend the ladder of participation at the lower end and offer citizens new opportunities to exert the ‘continuous pressure’ on states envisaged by early pluralists. These micro-donations can scale up to large mobilizations – most fail, but some succeed rapidly and dramatically through a series of chain reactions and tipping points. When deciding whether to participate, people are exposed to web-based social influence, particularly social information about the participation of others, and visibility. Different types of people (personality types for example) have different responses to these forms of social influence. This paper argues that such dynamics contribute to turbulence in politics, which is leading democracies to a model of ‘chaotic pluralism’, characterised by diversity and heterogeneity as were early pluralist models, but also by non-linearity and high interconnectivity, making this model far more disorganised, unpredictable and unstable than the architects of pluralist, neo-pluralist or revisionist models ever envisaged. The talk proposes methodological approaches for studying such a political system - big data approaches and experiments - and discusses the implications for the future of the modern state. 

Helen Margetts is the Director of the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), and Professor of Society and the Internet. She is a political scientist specialising in e-government and digital era governance and politics, investigating the nature and implications of relationships between governments, citizens and the Internet and related digital technologies in the UK and internationally. She has published major research reports in this area for agencies such as the OECD and the UK National Audit Office, in addition to important books and articles. In 2003 she and Patrick Dunleavy won the 'Political Scientists Making a Difference' award from the UK Political Studies Association. She is co-director of OxLab, a laboratory for social science experiments and editor of the journal Policy and Internet. She holds the ESRC professorial fellowship 'The Internet, Political Science and Public policy: Re-examining Collective Action, Governance and Citizen-Governance Interactions in the Digital Era' (2011-4).

Professor Margetts joined the OII in 2004 from University College London where she was a Professor in Political Science and Director of the School of Public Policy. She began her career as a computer programmer / systems analyst with Rank Xerox after receiving her BSc in mathematics from the University of Bristol. She returned to studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1989, completing an MSc in Politics and Public Policy in 1990 and a PhD in Government in 1996. She worked as a researcher at LSE from 1991 to 1994 and a lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London from 1994 to 1999.