The way information is processed by decision makers is frequently at odds with the standard theoretical framework. On many contentious topics, decision makers' beliefs often fail to converge despite exposure to a high number of signals, or still continue to polarize. Individuals have been shown to exhibit the backfire effect, holding onto their initial beliefs even more strongly when presented with evidence to the contrary. The first piece of information in a series often acts as an anchor, and thus has an excessively high weight in posteriors. Decision makers' beliefs continue to shift after repeated signals, although no learning occurs. Based on recent findings on working memory, this paper proposes a cognitively less demanding yet ultimately incorrect way to update beliefs that accounts for these cognitive biases. If a signal is informative on multiple dimensions, and if individuals can hold only a limited number of items in working memory, then the order with which beliefs are updated across different dimensions leads to different posteriors. The unifying model advanced by this paper shows that polarization is possible even under common priors and common signals, and suggests new avenues of research for a better understanding of how information is processed by individuals, as well as how persuasion occurs.
The use of social media as a tool for spreading political information is accentuated when traditional media outlets are under pressure from governments. One such case was the 2013 protests in Turkey; largely ignored by mass media, protesters took to Twitter to get their voice heard, despite threats and attempts at suppression. We analyze this interaction on social media in a global game setting. Our results show that an increase in connectedness of a country serves to bring in line the information revealed by the mainstream and the alternative media. An increase in connectedness may free the mainstream media by making their capture more costly for the incumbent, thus allowing all media outlets to share relevant information with the public. Conversely, it may also lead the government to capture the alternative media outlets as well as the mainstream media, thus preventing dissemination of information in the country completely. The relationship between press freedom (as well as voter welfare) and social media usage rates depends on the incentives faced by the incumbent, who may either increase or decrease pressure on traditional media in response. Finally, we examine a cross-country dataset to test the predictions of our model. We show that our theoretical hypotheses are corroborated by data, and are robust to various specifications and empirical methods.
Drawing on evidence from the 2011 Egyptian uprising, we demonstrate how the use of two social media platforms – Facebook and Twitter – contributed to a discrete mobilizational outcome: the staging of a successful first protest in a revolutionary cascade, or, what we call "first mover mobilization." Specifically, we argue that these two platforms facilitated the staging of a large, nationwide, and seemingly leaderless protest on January 25, 2011, which signaled to hesitant but sympathetic Egyptians that a revolution might be in the making. Using qualitative and quantitative evidence, including interviews, social media data, and surveys, we analyze three mechanisms that linked these platforms to the success of the January 25 protest: 1) protester recruitment, 2) protest planning and coordination, and 3) live updating about protest logistics. The paper not only contributes to debates about the role of the Internet in the Arab Spring and other recent waves of mobilization, but also demonstrates how scholarship on the Internet in politics might move toward making more discrete, empirically grounded causal claims.