IDP2014 (I). Helen Margetts: Chaotic pluralism. Politics after a decade of social media

Notes from the 10th Internet, Law and Politics Congress: A decade of transformations, organized by the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 3-4 July 2014. More notes on this event: idp2014.

Chairs: Joan Balcells. Lecturer, School of Law and Political Science (UOC).

Helen Margetts. Director of the Oxford Internet Institute. Professor of Society and the Internet at the OII, University of Oxford.
Chaotic pluralism. Politics after a decade of social media

How has changing use of social media affected politics over the last decade? And what model of democracy, if any, has encapsulated what is going on?

Pluralism has surely been the winner in the bets: more competing elements in democracy, diversity of political institutions and policy-making, the existence a group for every interest, counter-mobilization undermining monopolistic exercise of power, etc.

In the last 10 years, more people have gone online, in the whole world. There has been a rapid growth of Internet penetration almost everywhere. And not only more people is online, but people is spending more and more time online too: especially on social media.

Tiny acts of action or collaboration on the Internet have been possible: micro-donations of money and time. The aggregation of these micro-donations are very important, but are causing a strong debate on whether this is politics, or clicktivism, slacktivism or what. But the think is that many people that would never participate in politics, now do. And this tiny participation can scale up to massive participation and engagement.

But these mobilizations are unstable, unpredictable. There is a new ecology of participation which we still do not know how it works. We know that much or e-petitions fail, but that it is not about the issue (which is not important), but about other aspects. On the other hand, we see many small changes and few large changes. We can see tipping points that, when reached, they position the petition above the threshold of success.

The dynamics of political participation:

  • Exposition to social information, about the participation of others. On social media, you know, in real-time, what other people are doing, what are they voting or supporting.
  • Visibility vs. anonymity. This duality influences the way you and/or your peers participate.
  • Network effects.

Leadership without leaders: social media platforms provide ‘zero-touch’ co-ordination; rather thnn institutions, organizations; political action needs starters and followers to mobilize, but no necessarily leaders.

We are heading to chaotic pluralism: a pluralist pattern of competing interests, more disorganized but also much more active.

But chaotic pluralism offers us the means to understand it: every single act takes place in a digital environment, it leaves a trace, it generates big data, with natural science models, with experiments, etc.

Chaothic pluralism payoffs: social media provide a continuous flow of information between governors and government; social media as a barometer of public services, means of self improvement; government seeing like a citizen, rather than a state.

Chaotic pluralism challenges: natural science and social science having to work together, in multi-disciplinary teams; education and training to understand big data; reputational challenges of this research; new ethical frameworks.


Q: to what extent can you trust people that there are no leaders? aren’t there leaders, even if there are informal ones? To what extent is it just rethorics that there are no leaders? Margetts: It is true that there is people that are at the core of mobilizations, or at organizing and promoting something. And it is true that these headless organizations have the risk of some people “taking over”, but there is too much chaos for the concept of “taking over” even applying to this kind of organization. Organizations are qualitatively different.


10th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (2014)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2014) “IDP2014 (I). Helen Margetts: Chaotic pluralism. Politics after a decade of social media” In ICTlogy, #130, July 2014. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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