People Power is a potentially frightening expression, conjuring visions of mob rule and lynching.
In fact, people power it is like any other source of power – water, electricity, nuclear. It can be dangerous, or it can be good, depending upon how it is harnessed.
Whatever the role of social media campaigning in advancing world affairs, its level of growth and ultimate success depends on social media operators (a) understanding the social science of group dynamics, and (b) learning from the now constant stream of lessons coming from existing social media platforms.
Group Dynamics can inform the social media as to how people power is best harnessed for good. As a social science, group dynamics is often concerned with small groups and how they operate. But the subject nonetheless has much to offer for the mega social media campaign sites of today. And so it deserves some attention.
Irving James identified and wrote, in 1982, of a syndrome common to many groups called ‘groupthink’. This phenomenon, he found, can cause groups to be prone to poor decision making. He described it as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternate courses of action”.
Subsequently, a law professor at the University of Chicago, Cass Sunstein, picked apart what goes on in such situations:
In a 1999 draft paper “The Law of Group Polarization” he identified two kinds of groupthink.
The first, polarization, occurs when people join groups of like minded people. In such cases, he found, they tend to move ‘ toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by the predeliberative judgment’. For example, a group of people tentatively in favour of more gun control, on forming a group to discuss it, will inevitably leave such a meeting supporting a hardened approach to gun control.
He also found – and this was confirmed in various social experiments – that in some cases it mattered not whether a person had any tendency toward a certain view at all before they joined a group – they will just ‘go with it’. This he described a ‘social cascade’.
Here is an example of a social cascade – D is asked whether a toxic waste dump is hazardous to people who live nearby. He does not know the answer at all. If he is not provided with further information, but is asked the question in the presence of A, who strongly believes this is true, he will tend toward the direction of thinking of A. If he is asked in the presence of A, B and C, all of whom are convinced this is the case, he is very likely to become of their view, in the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary.
So there exist two confirmed kinds of groupthink, whereby people may make decisions based on others, rather than on independent information – polarization, and social cascade.
Having identified the primary culprits causing groupthink, Sunstein investigated whether these phenomena can be overcome. He surmised that groups could perform more rationally where they were provided with ‘argument pools’ (competing ideas), before individuals in it made a decision. Referring to the work of James Fishkin, he cites a study where participants in a group, asked about punishment for crime, were provided with material on sentencing alternatives to prison. The provision of this information led the surveyed group to lower its collective belief that ‘sending more offenders to prison’ is an effective way to prevent crime, from 58% to 38%. This was the opposite reaction to that predicted by groupthink. Without the material, he suggested, the expected response of the group would have been to polarise in the other direction. This finding suggested that polarization could be overcome with information.
Sunstein also supposed that social cascading could be overcome, and he reasoned that this would be avoided by diversity. In a thought experiment, he asks us to imagine a deliberating body consisting of all citizens in the world. In such a circumstance, he postulated, predeliberation prejudices would be so diverse that any effect of groupthink would be nullified. Here, he surmised, a tendency of an individual toward a certain view, even if held by others, would not be an example of polarization, or social cascading. It must in that circumstance represent their actual position as compared to that of other individuals.
So, on the face of it, groupthink – which can lead to groups making distorted decisions – can be overcome by two things: information and diversity.
We might still be concerned. What if the people in charge know better than the group? What a mistake to give power to the group!
James Surowiecki, a New York journalist, has pointed to evidence that, properly harnessed, people in groups can and often do provide superior answers to the best individuals in them.
In his 2004 book,’The Wisdom of Crowds’ Surowiecki disentangles how this occurs.
He starts his argument with a ditty about a competition to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, at a county fair. Sure enough, the average guess of those who played was closer to the correct number than the best guess among of them. There follow multiple examples of how groups of people in certain conditions consistently outperform the smartest among them in reaching correct decisions. Not least betting markets.
Like Sunstein, Surowiecki realises that the key to the success of a good performing crowd, over a bad performing crowd, is for it to have access to information, and to be diverse. Diversity and independence of thought from one another, in particular, he found to be of paramount importance to the success of groups. Only then would their aggregate response to a problem be superior to the best within them.
So crowds can work. But it is one thing for a crowd to get a right answer about what ‘is’. Can this translate to a crowd getting right what ‘should be’? This is the question being asked of crowds in social media campaign sites – what should be the policy adopted by a decision maker? It is very different to asking a crowd how many jelly beans are in a jar.
It is true that it may be pushing the boundaries of crowd capabilities to open up political decision making to the broader community. But, given the social media does not produce binding decisions, there is little to be lost from trying. We are arguably in a period of trial and error, before a new era of 'issues based democracy', where those affected by decisions will have a far greater say in the making of those decisions.
In her 2009 work, Professor Beth Simone Noveck, then team leader of Obama’s open government initiative, outlined optimal conditions for extracting solutions to government problems from people via the internet. She observed from several practical studies that if you allow people to self select a subject or issue in which they have an interest, the right minds in the community will come together and apply themselves to a task. It is a matter of asking the right question, and providing the right platform for them to respond. Also importantly, she found, there needs to be a reflecting back to the participants the outcome of their participation in the process, if they are to continue to engage.
No doubt the most valuable lessons being learned by the social media campaign sites are those from their own experiences as to what works. But they might do well to learn also from the experiences of others who have gone before them.
It is important to us that the social media campaign sites get their processes right. If they do, then those who hold power – on our behalf – might one day be overheard to say, as Mahatma Ghandi is reputed to have:
“There go the people. I must follow them. I am their leader.”