Can the internet overcome the logic of collective action? An experiment of the impact of social pressure on political participation

Type: 
Paper
Date: 
Apr 2009
Citation: 

Margetts H., John P., Escher T. & Reissfelder S. (2009) Can the internet overcome the logic of collective action? An experiment of the impact of social pressure on political participation. Political Studies Association Annual Conference, University of Manchester, 7-9 April.

This paper investigates the impact of the internet upon individual contributions to collective action. It examines how political participation may be stimulated by one particular characteristic of the internet: its ability to provide real-time feedback information on the participation of others in a political action. The paper tests the hypotheses: that such information makes it possible in large groups to exert the social pressure that Olson (writing in the pre-internet era) considered only viable for smaller groups; that such social pressure will be greatest when the number of other participants are large, making people aware of what sociologists have termed a critical mass of support; and that feedback information about small numbers of other participants will have greatest effect, convincing individuals that their participation will make a difference. The paper uses an experimental design, first with 47 laboratory-based subjects, who were invited to sign petitions and donate money, then with 668 subjects in the field. The participants were randomised into treatment and control groups, who saw the numbers of other people who had signed the petitions, and those who did not. The paper finds a statistically significant difference between these groups. Furthermore, the signing of petitions in the treatment group increased relative to other petitions when the numbers presented were greater than one million. Where the numbers were in the middle range, the treatment group were significantly more likely to donate money to the issue. There was no impact at the lower end of the scale, with numbers less than twelve. The findings lend support to Marwell and Oliver’s claims about critical mass.

This paper may be viewed online at:
http://www.civicbehaviour.org.uk/documents/netexperimentforPSA28March2009.pdf

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