Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Economics of Dissent: How Twitter and Facebook Tipped the Revolutionary Equation

Perhaps it is time to update the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” to “The Internet is mightier than dictators” 

While this statement is made tongue-in-cheek, it is undeniable that we are living through a time of accelerated change. Suddenly, we are witnessing decades-long regimes being challenged by oppressed populations. It is not entirely clear what has changed, but the advent of the Social Internet seems to somehow be involved. Some see Twitter, Facebook and other online social applications as self-congratulating, delusional apps for the Silicon Valley nerd-o-sphere, where as others view them as dictatorial kryptonite.

As is frequently the case, reality is somewhere in between. It is true that the Social Internet hasn’t changed the fundamental fabric of society. It is also unlikely that Twitter and Facebook the revolutionary coordination weapon the world has been waiting for. Revolutions have always been the tipping of unstable systems, where some relatively minor events offer a coordination point around which dissent congeals. At the heart of the “Revolutionary Equation” is a perspective that revolutions are triggered and won based on information and signaling. Individuals revolt because they expect to make a difference and they expect to be sufficiently numerous that they will overcome their governments’ ability to suppress them. Twitter and Facebook have created an environment in which dissent can reach critical mass outside of governments’ ability to suppress it. The Social Internet has altered the “Revolutionary Equation” by reducing the cost of dissent and increased the cost of suppressing it.

The Revolutionary Equation
People revolt as a function of three variables: discontent (general measure of dissatisfaction), cost of dissent (personal cost dispensed by the government to those who dissent), and expected mass (expected volume of people who are willing to express their dissent).

Let’s consider a distribution of discontent among a population.

The main point of this graph is to point out that any population will have a distribution of (dis)satisfaction. Happier countries will have a steeper and more concave curve and less happy countries will have a flatter more convex curve. Another way to think about discontent is that it is a measure of the benefit of overthrowing the government. Essentially, the least happy people attribute the highest utility to a revolution.

Cost of Dissent
A government has a relatively fixed ability to dispense "cost" for dissent.

Pretty much any government is willing to kill (or severely punish) some of its citizens to remain in power. However, no government can kill 100% of its population, so there is a limit to the amount of cost that a government can dispense. The illustration above is a gross oversimplification, but essentially points out that at some point, governments fall off a cliff in terms of being able to punish dissent. Generally, when there are signs of unrest, the more repressive governments will quickly signal to the population that their cost curve stretches up and to the right. As an example, in its reaction to protests against rigged elections in Iran, the government quickly signaled that they were willing to kill their own people in order to maintain control.

Expected Mass and Utility of Dissent
In a stable state, it is not worthwhile for the majority of the population to revolt. You will always have a few anarchists, terrorists or heroes who are sufficiently unhappy that it is worthwhile for them to fight – they know they won’t succeed in overthrowing a regime, but will fight nonetheless.

People will revolt when their expected mass exceeds the cost that they expect the government is able or willing to dispense. When people revolt, they are essentially betting that their expected mass is greater than what the government is able to repress. If you assume that the most dissatisfied people will dissent first, you effectively end up with a revolution when you have enough highly dissatisfied people who are willing to dissent at a high cost to get to the point where the government’s ability to suppress dissent breaks down.

Triggering events are usually caused by the expectation of mass – essentially how people perceive this graph to be. What usually happens next is a race between the population increasing the expected mass (visibility going up as people go to the streets) and the government reducing the expected mass (through information or by breaking up protests) and signaling the ability/willingness to dispense high cost (by bringing out the army or killing/jailing people).