A new book entitled “Political Turbulence” gives a taste of where such research might lead. The four authors, most of whom work at the Oxford Internet Institute, come to an intriguing conclusion: social media are making democracies more “pluralistic”, but not in the conventional sense of the word, involving diverse but stable groups. Instead, the authors see the emergence of a “chaotic pluralism”, in which mobilisations spring from the bottom up, often reacting to events. Online mobilisation can develop explosively and seemingly at random. Most online petitions, the authors found, attract only a small number of signatures, but the successful ones took off in the first few days (see chart). Success does not seem to depend on the subject matter: similar ones often fare quite differently.
Politics in the age of social media, the authors conclude, is better described by chaos theory than by conventional social science: “Tiny acts of political participation that take place via social media are the units of analysis, the equivalent of particles and atoms in a natural system, manifesting themselves in political turbulence.” One day, say the authors, it will be possible to predict and trigger such surges, in the same way that meteorologists have become good at forecasting the weather.
But who will be the political meteorologists? The chances are that it will not be researchers such as Mr Lotan or Mr Menczer. Access to data is getting harder. Many followers of IS, for instance, have abandoned Twitter and now use encrypted messaging services considered safer, such as Telegram or TextSecure. Social-media services are also becoming less generous with their data, both for privacy and commercial reasons.