Some Useful Concepts Relevant to Digital Activism

Information cascade – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, information_cascade

An information (or informational) cascade occurs when people observe the actions of others and then make the same choice that the others have made, independently of their own private information signals. Because it is usually sensible to do what other people are doing, the phenomenon is assumed to be the result of rational choice. Nevertheless, information cascades can sometimes lead to arbitrary or even erroneous decisions. The concept of information cascades is based on observational learning theory and was formally introduced in a 1992 article by Sushil Bikhchandani, David Hirshleifer, and Ivo Welch.[1]. A less technical article was released by the authors in 1998.[2]

Information cascades are fragile because new information can overturn a long-standing behavioral trend. Because people are rational, they realize that their behavior is based on limited information and are willing to change. Thus, even though a thousand people may have chosen one action, a single new piece of information can induce people to subsequently choose a different action.

There are two key conditions in an information cascade model:
  1. Sequential decisions with subsequent actors observing decisions (not information) of previous actors.
  2. A limited action space (e.g. an adopt/reject decision).[3]
Small protests began in Leipzig, Germany in 1989 with just a handful of activists challenging the German Democratic Republic.[4] For almost a year, protesters met every Monday growing by a few people each time.[4] By the time the government attempted to address it in September 1989, it was too big to squash.[4] In October, the number of protesters reached 100,000 and by the first Monday in November, over 400,000 people marched the streets of Leipzig. Two days later the Berlin Wall was dismantled.[4]

Social loafing – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, social_loafing

In the social psychology of groups, social loafing is the phenomenon of people making less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone. This is seen as one of the main reasons groups are sometimes less productive than the combined performance of their members working as individuals.

Research began in 1913 with Max Ringelmann‘s study. He found that when he asked a group of men to pull on a rope, that they did not pull as hard, or put as much effort into the activity, as they did when they were pulling alone. The main reason is that the social loafer or “free-rider” believes that their personal work is not being evaluated.[1]
According to Bibb Latané et al., “if a person is the target of social forces, increasing the number of other persons diminishes the relative social pressure on each person. If the individual inputs are not identifiable the person may work less hard. Thus if the person is dividing up the work to be performed or the amount of reward he expects to receive, he will work less hard in groups.”[2]

The main explanation for social loafing is that people feel unmotivated when working with a team, because they think that their contributions will not be evaluated or considered.

According to the results of a meta-analysis study,[3] social loafing is a pervasive phenomenon, but it does not occur when team members feel that the task or the team itself is important. It can occur when the person feels under appreciated within their team or group.

Social loafing occurs in a group situation in which the presence of others causes relaxation instead of arousal. When individuals relax their performance, they are able to fade into the crowd, which is especially appealing to people when they know they are not going to be accountable for their actions or performance. In easier, less demanding tasks, such as singing happy birthday or giving applause, one is likely to exert less effort due to the concept of diffusion of responsibility. This occurs when people think that they can “get a free ride” because someone else will surely pick up the slack.

Diffusion of responsibility – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, diffusion_pf_responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility is a social phenomenon which tends to occur in groups of people above a certain critical size when responsibility is not explicitly assigned. This phenomenon rarely ever occurs in small groups. In tests, groups of three or fewer, everyone in the group took action as opposed to groups of over ten where in almost every test, no one took action. This mindset can be seen in the phrase “No one raindrop thinks it caused the flood”. Knowing this, it is always important to respond to emergencies such as a car accident in the light of the mindset, “Well there’s so many people driving past this, surely someone has called 911.”

Diffusion of responsibility can manifest itself:
  • in a group of people who, through action or inaction, allow events to occur which they would never allow if they were alone. Examples include groupthink and the bystander effect.
  • in a group of people working on a task that loses motivation because people feel less responsible and hide their lack of effort in the group (social loafing).
  • in hierarchical organizations, such as when underlings claim that they were just following orders and supervisors claim that they were just issuing directives and not doing the deeds.

Slacktivism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, slacktivism

Slacktivism (sometimes slactivism) is a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.

Examples of activities labeled as “slacktivist” include signing internet petitions, the wearing of wristbands (“awareness bracelets“) with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.

Herd behavior – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, herd_behavior

Herd behavior describes how individuals in a group can act together without planned direction. The term pertains to the behavior of animals in herds, flocks, and schools, and to human conduct during activities such as stock market bubbles and crashes, street demonstrations, sporting events, religious gatherings, episodes of mob violence and even everyday decision making, judgment and opinion forming.

Groupthink – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, group_think, groupthink

Groupthink is a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Individual creativity, uniqueness, and independent thinking are lost in the pursuit of group cohesiveness, as are the advantages of reasonable balance in choice and thought that might normally be obtained by making decisions as a group.[1] During groupthink, members of the group avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the group. Groupthink may cause groups to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the group’s balance. The term is frequently used pejoratively, with hindsight.

William H. Whyte coined the term in 1952, in Fortune magazine:

Groupthink being a coinage—and, admittedly, a loaded one—a working definition is in order. We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity—it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity—an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well.[2]

Irving Janis, who did extensive work on the subject, defined it as:

A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.[3]

Highly cohesive groups are much more likely to engage in groupthink, because their cohesiveness often correlates with unspoken understanding and the ability to work together with minimal explanations (e.g., techspeak or telegraphic speech). Vandana Shiva refers to a lack of diversity in worldview as a “monoculture of the mind” while James Surowiecki warns against loss of the “cognitive diversity” that comes from having team members whose educational and occupational backgrounds differ.[4] The closer group members are in outlook, the less likely they are to raise questions that might break their cohesion.

Although Janis sees group cohesion as the most important antecedent to groupthink, he states that it will not invariably lead to groupthink: ‘It is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition’ (Janis, Victims of Groupthink, 1972). According to Janis, group cohesion will only lead to groupthink if one of the following two antecedent conditions is present:
  • Structural faults in the organization: insulation of the group, lack of tradition of impartial leadership, lack of norms requiring methodological procedures, homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology.
  • Provocative situational context: high stress from external threats, recent failures, excessive difficulties on the decision-making task, moral dilemmas.
  • Directive leadership.
  • Homogeneity of members’ social background and ideology.
  • Isolation of the group from outside sources of information and analysis.

Social psychologist Clark McCauley‘s three conditions under which groupthink occurs:

  1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
  2. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
  3. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
  4. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, disfigured, impotent, or stupid.
  5. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”.
  6. Self censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
  7. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
  8. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

To make groupthink testable, Irving Janis devised eight symptoms indicative of groupthink (1977).

  • Incomplete survey of alternatives
  • Incomplete survey of objectives
  • Failure to examine risks of preferred choice
  • Failure to reevaluate previously rejected alternatives
  • Poor information search
  • Selection bias in collecting information
  • Failure to work out contingency plans.

Groupthink, resulting from the symptoms listed above, results in defective decision making. That is, consensus-driven decisions are the result of the following practices of groupthinking[5]

Conformity – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, conformity

Conformity is the process by which an individual’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are influenced by other people. This influence occurs in both small groups and society as a whole, and it may be the result of subtle unconscious influences, or direct and overt social pressure. Conformity also occurs by the “implied presence” of others, or when other people are not actually present. For example, people tend to follow the norms of society when eating or watching television, even when they are at home by themselves.

People often conform from a desire to achieve a sense of security within a group—typically a group that is of a similar age, culture, religion, or educational status. Any unwillingness to conform carries with it the very real risk of social rejection. In this respect, conformity can be seen as a safe means of avoiding bullying or deflecting criticism from peers. Conformity is often associated with adolescence and youth culture, but it affects humans of all ages.
Because conformity is a group phenomenon, such factors as group size, unanimity, cohesion, status, prior commitment, and public opinion all help to determine the level of conformity an individual will display.[1]
  1. Compliance is public conformity, while keeping one’s own private beliefs.
  2. Identification is conforming to someone who is liked and respected, such as a celebrity or a favorite uncle.
  3. Internalization is acceptance of the belief or behavior and conforming both publicly and privately.
informational conformity, or informational social influence, and normative conformity, otherwise known as normative social influence.[3]
Using Kelman’s terminology, these correspond to internalization and compliance, respectively

Informational influence

Informational social influence occurs when one turns to the members of one’s group to obtain accurate information. A person is most likely to use informational social influence in three situations: When a situation is ambiguous, people become uncertain about what to do. They are more likely to depend on others for the answer. During a crisis immediate action is necessary, in spite of panic. Looking to other people can help ease fears, but unfortunately they are not always right. The more knowledgeable a person is, the more valuable they are as a resource. Thus people often turn to experts for help. But once again people must be careful, as experts can make mistakes too. Informational social influence often results in internalization or private acceptance, where a person genuinely believes that the information is right.

Economists have suggested that fads and trends in society form as the result of individuals making rational choices based on information received from others. These informational cascades form quickly as people decide to ignore their internal signals and go along with what other people are doing.[6] Cascades are also presumed to be fragile because people are aware that they are based on limited information. This is why fads often end as quickly as they begin.

Normative influence

Normative social influence occurs when one conforms to be liked or accepted by the members of the group. It usually results in public compliance, doing or saying something without believing in it.

Normative influence is a function of social impact theory which has three components.[8] The number of people in the group has a surprising effect. As the number increases, each person has less of an impact. A group’s strength is how important the group is to a person. Groups we value generally have more social influence. Immediacy is how close the group is in time and space when the influence is taking place.

Minority influence

Although conformity generally leads individuals to think and act more like groups, individuals are occasionally able to reverse this tendency and change the people around them. This is known as minority influence, a special case of informational influence. Minority influence is most likely when people are able to make a clear and consistent case for their point of view. If the minority fluctuates and shows uncertainty, the chance of influence is small. However, if the minority makes a strong, convincing case, it will increase the probability of changing the beliefs and behavior of the majority.[13] Minority members who are perceived as experts, are high in status, or have benefited the group in the past are also more likely to succeed.

Audience effect – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, audience_effect

Free rider problem – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, free_rider

Social facilitation – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, social_facilitation

Social facilitation is the tendency for people to be aroused into better performance on simple tasks (or tasks at which they are expert or that have become autonomous) when under the eye of others, rather than while they are alone (audience effect), or when they are working alongside other people (coactor effect). Complex tasks (or tasks at which people are not skilled), however, are often performed in an inferior manner in such situations. This effect has been demonstrated in a variety of species. In humans, it is strongest among those who are most concerned about the opinions of others, and when the individual is being watched by someone he or she does not know, or cannot see well.

Hive mind – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, hive_mind

Sheeple – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, sheeple

Sheeple (“sheep people”) is a term of disparagement, in which people are likened to sheep. The term is believed to be inspired by the 1945 George Orwell novel Animal Farm, where the sheep of the farm blindly followed and defended the farm’s pig leadership.

It is often used to denote persons who voluntarily acquiesce to a perceived authority, or suggestion without sufficient research to understand fully the scope of the ramifications involved in that decision, and thus undermine their own human individuality or in other cases give up certain rights. The implication of sheeple is that as a collective, people believe whatever they are told, especially if told so by a perceived authority figure believed to be trustworthy, without processing it or doing adequate research to be sure that it is an accurate representation of the real world around them. The term is generally used in a political and sometimes in a spiritual sense.

Abilene paradox – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, abilene_paradox

The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group.[1][2][3] It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is “rocking the boat”.

Collective consciousness – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, collective_consciousness

Collective consciousness refers to the shared beliefs and moral attitudes which operate as a unifying force within society.[1] This term was used by the French social theorist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) in his books The Division of Labour (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).

In The Division of Labour, Durkheim argued that in “traditional” or “simpler” societies (those based around clan, family or tribal relationships), religion played an important role in uniting members through the creation of a common consciousness (conscience collective in the original French). In societies of this type, the contents of an individual’s consciousness are largely shared in common with all other members of their society, creating a mechanical solidarity through mutual likeness.

Other uses of the term

Various forms of what might be termed “collective consciousness” in modern societies have been identified by other sociologists, such as Mary Kelsey, going from solidarity attitudes and memes to extreme behaviors like groupthink or herd behavior. Mary Kelsey, sociology lecturer in the University of California, Berkeley, used the term in the early 2000s to describe people within a social group, such as mothers, becoming aware of their shared traits and circumstances, and as a result acting as a community and achieving solidarity. Rather than existing as separate individuals, people come together as dynamic groups to share resources and knowledge.

It has also developed as a way of describing how an entire community comes together to share similar values. This can also be termed “hive mind”. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation program, used the term to describe how the combined coherence in consciousness of a group of people could have an influence on the rest of society.

Communal reinforcement – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, communal_reinforcement

Communal reinforcement is a social phenomenon in which a concept or idea is repeatedly asserted in a community, regardless of whether sufficient empirical evidence has been presented to support it. Over time, the concept or idea is reinforced to become a strong belief in many people’s minds, and may be regarded by the members of the community as fact. Often, the concept or idea may be further reinforced by publications in the mass media, books, or other means of communication. The phrase “millions of people can’t all be wrong” is indicative of the common tendency to accept a communally reinforced idea without question, which often aids in the widespread acceptance of urban legends, myths, and rumors.

Communal reinforcement works both for true and false concepts or ideas, making the communal reinforcement of an idea independent of its truth value. Therefore, the fact that many people in a given community believe a certain thing is not indicative of its truth or falsehood, for just as a false concept or idea can be accepted as fact in a community via communal reinforcement, so can a true concept or idea.

Pack journalism – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, pack_journalism, journalism, media

Pack journalism is an often derogatory term used to describe the tendency of news reporting to become homogeneous. The term was coined by Timothy Crouse.[1]

Pack journalism occurs because the reporters often rely on one another for news tips or are all similarly dependent on a single source for access (which is often the very person they are covering). A type of groupthink occurs, as the journalists are constantly aware of what the others are reporting and an informal consensus emerges on what is newsworthy.

The term can also be applied in kind to entire news organizations. For example, pack journalism can occur when a news organization decides to make a particular story the lead story only because other news organizations are doing so.

Internalization – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, internalization

In sciences such as psychology and sociology, internalization is the process of acceptance of a set of norms established by people or groups which are influential to the individual. The process starts with learning what the norms are, and then the individual goes through a process of understanding why they are of value or why they make sense, until finally they accept the norm as their own viewpoint.

Role models can also help. If someone we respect is seen to endorse a particular set of norms, we are more likely to internalize those norms. This is called identification. In Freudian psychology, internalization is one of the concepts of the psychological process of introjection, a psychological defense mechanism.

Collective intelligence – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

tags: cyberactivism, digital_activism, concept, collective_intelligence, collaboration

Collective intelligence is a shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals.

The above definition has emerged from the writings of Douglas Hofstadter (1979), Peter Russell (1983), Tom Atlee (1993), Pierre Lévy (1994), Howard Bloom (1995), Francis Heylighen (1995), Douglas Engelbart, Cliff Joslyn, Ron Dembo, Gottfried Mayer-Kress (2003) and other theorists. Collective intelligence is referred to as Symbiotic intelligence by Norman L. Johnson.

Collective intelligence (CI) can also be defined as a form of networking enabled by the rise of communications technology, namely the Internet. Web 2.0 has enabled interactivity and thus, users are able to generate their own content. Collective Intelligence draws on this to enhance the social pool of existing knowledge. Henry Jenkins, a key theorist of new media and media convergence draws on the theory that collective intelligence can be attributed to media convergence and participatory culture (Flew 2008). Collective intelligence is not merely a quantitative contribution of information from all cultures, it is also qualitative.

Levy and de Kerckhove consider CI from a mass communications perspective, focusing on the ability of networked ICT’s to enhance the community knowledge pool. They suggest that these communications tools enable humans to interact and to share and collaborate with both ease and speed (Flew 2008). With the development of the Internet and its widespread use, the opportunity to contribute to community-based knowledge forums, such as Wikipedia, is greater than ever before. These computer networks give participating users the opportunity to store and to retrieve knowledge through the collective access to these databases and allow them to “harness the hive” (Raymond 1998; Herz 2005 in Flew 2008).

In 1912, Émile Durkheim identified society as the sole source of human logical thought. He argues in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life that society constitutes a higher intelligence because it transcends the individual over space and time.[5]

The developer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has made it with the goal to promote sharing and publishing of information globally. Later, his employer opened up the WWW technology for free use. In the early ‘90s, the Internet’s potential was still untapped, until the mid ‘90s where ‘critical mass’, as termed by the head of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), Dr. J.C.R. Licklider demanded for more accessibility and utility of the Internet.[7] Hence, it can be said that the driving force behind collective intelligence is the digitization of information and communication. This is because existence of hyperlink has made it easier to search and create websites and pages. Knowledge can be built in just a matter of minutes.
CI types1s.jpg

Another form of collective intelligence is the Learner generated context in which a group of users collaboratively marshall available resources to create an ecology that meets their needs often (but not only) in relation to the co-configuration, co-creation and co-design of a particular learning space that allows learners to create their own context.[9][10][11] In this sense, the learner generated contexts represents an ad hoc community which facilitates the coordination of collective action in a network of trust.

The best example of Learner generated context is perhaps found on the Internet- a group of collaborative users pooling knowledge to result in a shared intelligence space. As the Internet has developed, so has the concept of CI as a shared public forum. The global accessibility and availability of the Internet has allowed more people than ever to contribute their ideas and to access these collaborative intelligence spaces. (Flew 2008)

Collective Intelligence and the Media

New media is often associated with the promotion and enhancement of collective intelligence. The ability of new media to easily store and retrieve information, predominantly through databases and the Internet, allows it for it to be shared without difficulty. Thus, through interaction with new media, knowledge easily passes between sources (Flew 2008) resulting in a form of collective intelligence. The use of interactive new media, particularly the Internet, promotes online interaction and this distribution of knowledge between users.

In this context, collective intelligence is often confused with shared knowledge. The former is knowledge that is generally available to all members of a community, whilst the latter is information known by all members of a community.[16]

Collective intelligence as represented by Web 2.0 has less user engagement than collaborative intelligence.

Collective Intelligence and Social Bookmarking

Another important example of emergence in web-based systems is social bookmarking (also called collaborative tagging). In collaborative tagging systems, users assign tags to resources shared with other users, which gives rise to a type of information organisation that emerges from this crowdsourcing process. The resulting information structures can be seen as reflecting the collective knowledge (or collective intelligence) of a community of users.

For example, recent research using data from the social bookmarking website, has shown that collaborative tagging systems exhibit a form of complex systems (or self-organizing) dynamics.[17]. Although there is no central controlled vocabulary to constrain the actions of individual users, the distributions of tags that describe different resources has been shown to converge over time to a stable power law distributions.[17] . Once such stable distributions form, examining the correlations between different tags can be used to construct simple folksonomy graphs, which can be efficiently partitioned to obtained a form of community or shared vocabularies [18]. Such vocabularies can be seen as a form of collective intelligence, emerging from the decentralised actions of a community of users.

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About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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