More evidence for spontaneity: Accidental activation in online campaigns

By Gabriela Gonzales, Juhi Tyagi, Idil Akin, Fernanda Page, Michael Schwartz and Arnout van de Rijt

We are delighted by the renewed discussion of the role of spontaneous processes in social movements; especially since we have been working on ways to identify and measure emergent processes for the past two years. As pointed out in the previous by Jaime Kucinskas (Spontaneity: An important and neglected topic in social movements), sociologists have to be careful before attributing spontaneity to invisible or unknown mechanisms, which could well be the result of ‘a priori factors.’ This identification problem occurs in much ex post facto research, which is usually unable to control for these a priori factors in order to empirically isolate a mechanism of spontaneity.

In our forthcoming article in Mobilization (“Field Experimental Study of Emergent Mobilization in Online Collective Action”), we attempt to overcome some of these constraints through field experiments. We analyzed data on 200 early signature campaigns posted on, a random half of which had received a jolt of a dozen signatures from our team. The equal distribution of a priori factors across the two experimental conditions produced by the randomization gave us a rare opportunity at an apple-to-apple comparison to evaluate if an accidental headstart would really make a difference. It did. We found that the ‘treated’ campaigns raised significantly more signatures than the untreated ones.

We were also able to control for the many unidentified causal forces affecting variance in petition signatures by creating forty near-identical animal rights campaigns. Considering previous studies in the field of collective action, we expected petitions with larger initial signatures to grow this advantage, with an ever-widening gap in signatory support. Or put differently, we expected the number of initial signatures to determine the trajectory of petition popularity.

What we encountered, however, were signatory dynamics dominated by spontaneous surges that often entirely undid initial disadvantages in support. That is, rather than initial differences in the popularity of petitions congealing into a widening hierarchy with a stable ordering, campaigns followed erratic pinball-like patterns and later popularity hierarchies were mostly unrelated to early ones. Unplanned or unpredictable events led to substantial differences emerging and disappearing as some petitions initially burst ahead, only to fall dormant, while others plodded along until a catalytic event produced a surge of support. In the abovementioned article, we call the mechanism driving these unpredictable dynamics, ‘accidental activation.’

What seemed to have given some petitions an unpredictable jolt was the unanticipated recruitment or accidental participation of secondary mobilizers such as well-positioned activists who were capable of generating a spurt of additional signatures. When people located at intersecting networks or having influence chanced upon the petition, it resulted in additional signatures. We found many of these signature jolts to be correlated with postings on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, or on prominent websites. These spurts at least sometimes generated much smaller echoes that were soon exhausted. Substantial new surges occurred when and if the petition experienced a new moment of accidental activation.

By showing extreme differences in signature accumulation among structurally similar petitions, we provide evidence for emergent processes that operate after the mobilization has begun or are created by the mobilization itself. Our data demonstrates that these emergent processes can have a major impact on the trajectory of the protest. Although we acknowledge the limited generalizability of these findings, we do suggest the possibilities of existence of similar processes in on-the-ground social movements that need to be explored and give several historical examples.

We hope that this discussion will lead to empirical and analytic efforts to further analyze and understand the role of spontaneity in social movement trajectories.

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