Creating Technology for Social Change

Organizing on Social Media to Change Platform and Government Policies: Oxford Internet Politics and Policy Conference 2016

What role does social media play in supporting collective action, and how do people organize to change social media systems themselves?

I’m here in Oxford for the 2016 Internet Politics and Policy conference, hosted by the Oxford Internet Institute. Yesterday, I shared a paper on The Civic Labor of Online Moderators. Today, I was able to attend a fascinating session on the ways that people organize online for change.

Participatory Policymaking on Collaborative Social Media Platforms

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Up first is Alissa Centivanny, a professor at the Western University, Ontario. In her talk on participatory policymaking on collaborative social media platforms, Alissa asked for suggestions and feedback on this work-in-progress research.

Platforms are becoming inseparable from many aspects of our lives, developing enormous power in our lives. They’re often opaque, difficult to understand. As a society, we tend to see platforms as Godzillas: powerful entities that pop up from beneath the sea and unexpectedly carry out unfettered demonstrations of power. But all of us play a role in the power dynamics at play; how can we recognize that role?

One tragedy of the human condition is that each of us lives and dies with little hint of even the most profound transformations of our society and our species that play themselves out in some small part through our own existence.

James Beniger, from The Control Revolution

Alissa’s goal today is to show how design, policy, and social practice co-evolve together. She cites Hood and Margett’s “Tools of Government,” Participatory Policymaking, Mechanic’s “Sources of Power of Lower Participants” (1970), and Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” (1970). She points out that while people have done huge amounts of work in participatory policymaking practice, those efforts have not often achieved substantial policy outcomes. Yet people like Mechanic have shown many ways in the everyday world that people with limited power do manage to influence those more powerful than them.

Alissa sets out to ask questions about how online platform users are involved in shaping the policy of online platforms. Her first example is the reddit blackout, a moment when moderators of thousands of subreddit communities took collective action against the platform, forcing it to change its practices and communities (Alissa has published research on the blackout, and so have I).

Alissa’s second example is the controversy over a the Wikimedia Foundation’s “Knowledge Engine,” a proposed extension of the foundation’s work that was controversial with wikipedia contributors and led to the resignation of the foundation’s executive director. Unlike moderators in the reddit blackout, Wikipedians couldn’t shut off parts of the site. Instead, says Alissa, they carried out high volume, detailed deliberative processes.

Alissa is still early in the research process and is still looking for resources, links, and people to interview.

Density Dependence (but not Resource Partitioning) on a Digital Mobilization Platform (

Next up is Nathan TeBluthius, who shares work with Benjamin Mako Hill and Aaron Shaw (read the paper online here).

Online mobilization platforms have a problem of duplicate campaigns. Or is it a problem? Nathan shows us images from four campaigns to end dog meat festivals, only one of which was successful. Since there are only so many people, might these overlapping campaigns compete, detracting from the success of a campaign, or do they actually build and grow the movement overall? Your answer to this question determines on your view of the resources available to a movement.

To answer this question, Nathan scraped a dataset of petitions from He then created clusters of petitions based on the similarity of the issues they take on. This allows Nathan to bring in theories theories of “density dependence” from ecology, which expect that clusters that are too small or too large will end up with less participation. In other words: highly unique campaigns will seem to niche to people (and not legitimate), and hugely popular campaigns will crowd each other out (through competition). His hypothesis is that the most successful campaigns will be part of mid-sized clusters. Nathan also mentions two other hypotheses.

In their statistical model, Nathan and his co-authors find support for this main hypothesis. Here’s how they put it in the paper: “This curvilinear relationship between topic density and petition success suggests support for the idea that environmental pressures on petitions include both legitimacy and competition.”

Tweeting for the Cause: Network Analysis of UK Petition Sharing

Peter Cihon, a gradstudent at Cambridge University, shares work he did with Taha Nasseri, Scott Hale, and Helen Margetts (paper here).

What is the relationship between social media and petition signatures? Peter looks at the UK’s online petitions site during the period of the UK coalition government from April to June 2013. Past research has shown that the number of first-day signatures predict the success of a petition. In a time-shift analysis, Margetts and colleagues showed that the volume of tweets predicted the number of signatures. Yet in an analysis of German petitions, Lindner and Riehm showed that petitions increased inequality in political participation rather than broadening it (2011). Michael Strange’s work has shown how activists form coalitions through petition creation.

Peter asks the questions: what does petition sharing actively look like, and who shares petitions? To ask this question, the team collected tweets from the Twitter search API from July 2013-March 2015 associated with 11,000 petitions. To study this, they researchers worked with two kinds of networks: petitions are connected to each other if the same user tweets about them. They also look at another network that connects users if they have shared the same petition. These are both implicit relationships based on activity.


Using this network, they used community detection algorithms to see if sharing yields topic clusters. They couldn’t find evidence that users exclusively share a particular kind of cause. Next, they asked whether sharing tends to focus on popular or unpopular petitions. That was not the case; both successful and unsuccessful petitions are shared by the same users. Finally, they asked if centrally-shared petitions are associated with the number of petitions; there was no association between the centrality of sharing and the number of petitions.

What does this mean overall? Firstly, Twitter users share petitions of different topics and a wide range of outcomes, a finding that’s similar to a study of power users on by Huang et al on how activists are born and made. Second, central users in sharing networks are not formal interests, but acting as individuals. Finally, “latent” interest groups may be implied by similar behavior online. To end, Peter asks what might happen if people were made aware of each other?


Pascal Jurgens mentions: What is the scarce resource that’s in play? A person might actually become excited to sign more petitions, but maybe their scarce resource is attention.

Helen Margetts has a conversation with Nathan. They note that does work to put people in touch with each other, using comments systems and recommendation systems to suggest other petitions that a person might choose to join. The site also sends people emails about similar petitions.

I asked Alissa about Hirschman’s choices of exit, voice, and loyalty, which tend to be seen as individuals’ choices, asking her how she thought about the collective action aspects of the reddit and wikimedia protests. Alissa brings a collective sensemaking method to try to understanding the collective understandings that emerge as people try to make sense of a larger distributed movement that is not coordinated or centralized. In contrast the petition sites try (unsuccessfully) to focus and limit the conversation to specific campaigns and counts. If one imposes structure that always stretches the boundaries and edges it introduces, the others begin more loose and may or may not approximate structure over time — it’s that collective sensemaking that Alissa studies.