Online mobilization strategies by right-wing extremists

graphic: White supremacist podcast network (SPLC link)

The surge of right-wing extremism has been evident in the United States for the past five years, including the spread of white supremacist language and activism, armed demonstrations by right-wing militia organizations, violent threats against public officials in health and education agencies, and — of course — the violent insurrection that took place in the US Capitol Building January 6, 2021. But how does this work? What are the processes through which movements and groups that had been on the extremist fringe in the US are now coming into mass politics and are being embraced by Republican leaders from local to national? Is this just organic growth, or is it more deliberate and intentional than that?

The Souther Poverty Law Center has provided information — increasingly alarming information — about the growth of racist and extremist groups around the country for decades, and its research provides very important for all citizens who care about democracy to study. SPLC researchers have also highlighted the fact that hate-based groups and activists make extensive use of the internet to spread their ideas and values. Crucially, Megan Squire and Hannah Gais have documented a very rapid rise in mobilization and proselytization strategies through podcasts — low-cost, readily disseminated productions that spew White Supremacist hate along with “shock radio” irony (link). They write that “the role of podcasts in the world of far-right extremism has been largely understudied.” Producers of these hate-based podcasts can rely on dozens of podcast outlets provided by Apple, Google, and dozens of other internet mainstays, and the hate-based podcast can generate its audience at almost no cost. The article demonstrates graphically how these networks of extremist podcasts have grown in a very short time. They summarize the use of a wide network of hate-based podcasts for extremist purposes in these terms:

Podcasts have been exploited by far-right extremists in three distinct ways. They represent an important vehicle for radicalization to extremism and recruitment into extremist groups. Podcasts are also a bridge from online to on-the-ground organizing, specifically in the context of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Finally, extremists use podcasts to build contacts abroad and introduce their movements to leaders in other countries. (link)

Squire and Gais use a number of valuable analytical tools to describe the audiences of these podcasts and the important role that the podcast network has played in orchestrating events like Unite the Right. Through this research the SPLC report helps to capture the current structure of the White Supremacist movement today:

Both communities constituted two distinct poles within the white power movement, with Iron March representing its violent, terroristic ambitions and 504um typifying its efforts to build a white ethnostate through the existing political system. For a time, some users retained membership at both sites, while members of each site’s core leadership engaged in dialogue on their respective podcasts and occasionally republished one another’s work. However, after members of 8chan, a far-right image board popular with white supremacists and far-right conspiracy theorists, outed TRS leader Peinovich as married to a Jewish woman, the two communities fractured. “Slavros” and those groups, such as the Atomwaffen Division, that carried on the forum’s legacy of violence long after it disappeared from the web in fall 2017, expressed contempt for TRS and other factions of the alt-right. For “Slavros,” the alt-right represented “appeasement” to the current political order, as he argued in the September 2017 text “Zero Tolerance.”

Squire and Gais find a weird kind of narrative complexity in the stories of contemporary fascist beliefs that are represented in the various podcasts. This is important because it goes some way to explaining the virulence and appeal of these movements to some profiles of vulnerable individuals.

Another important angle that SPLC researchers have uncovered is the role played in hate organizations by cryptocurrencies (link). Michael Edison Hayden and Megan Squire show that cryptocurrency speculation has provided a very substantial source of funds in support of right-wing extremist mobilization. Here is a summary of their findings:

Hatewatch identified and compiled over 600 cryptocurrency addresses associated with white supremacists and other prominent far-right extremists for this essay and then probed their transaction histories through blockchain analysis software. What we found is striking: White supremacists such as Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, race pseudoscience pundit Stefan Molyneux, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer and Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer, and Don Black of the racist forum Stormfront, all bought into Bitcoin early in its history and turned a substantial profit from it. The estimated tens of millions of dollars’ worth of value extreme far-right figures generated represents a sum that would almost certainly be unavailable to them without cryptocurrency, and it gave them a chance to live comfortable lives while promoting hate and authoritarianism.

This research depends on the use of blockchain analysis software. Here is a definition of this kind of tool: “Blockchain analysis is the process of inspecting, identifying, clustering, modeling and visually representing data on a cryptographic distributed-ledger known as a blockchain. The goal of blockchain analysis is discovering useful information about the different actors transacting in cryptocurrency. Analysis of public blockchains such as the bitcoin and ethereum is often conducted by private companies. Bitcoin has long been associated with the trade of illegal goods on the dark web; this has been the case since bitcoin became the standard currency on the now closed ” (link). Tools like these provide a window into the magnitude and disbursements made by some of these specific individuals. Speculation in Bitcoin and other currencies created a great deal of wealth for many of the leaders of far-right extremist organizations. And these cryptocurrency platforms provide relatively anonymous vehicles for transfer of funds from donors to organizations and their leaders. 

Interesting and important as these analyses are, the job is still unfinished. We need a similarly detailed and technically sophisticated analysis of the use of Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms by very intelligent right-wing extremists in pursuit of their goals of fundraising, mobilization, proselytization, and activism. What volume of videos on Youtube, and how many viewers, are connected to right-wing extremism and racist ideologies? How are Facebook groups used to transmit and amplify hate-based messages to followers? How is Twitter subverted with lies about immigration, covid, or government action? And what about online video game communities — what role do these communities play in the amplification of hate-based values and beliefs? (Here is a New York Times piece about young teenagers being targeted in multi-player online games by neo-Nazi and white supremacist activists; link.)

When we consider the disproportionate role that false information, conspiracy theories, and outright lies about the coronavirus have played in the rapid incorporation of Covid into right-wing extremist grievances, the online networks described here are of great importance. These are some of the highways through which dangerous lies and mobilizing political narratives are conveyed by right-wing extremists. Hate-based extremists exist in real, concrete organizations and geographical locations; but they also exist in online communities. And the sophisticated data analysis provided by SPLC researchers is one of the tools we need if we are to fight effectively against the kinds of violent mobilization that occurred on January 6, 2021.

graphic: SPLC hate group map 2020 (link)

Gilbert on social facts

I am currently thinking about the topic of “organizational actors”, and Margaret Gilbert’s arguments about social actors are plainly relevant to this topic. It seems worthwhile therefore to reproduce a review I wrote of Gilbert’s book On Social Facts (1989) in 1993. It is a tribute to the power of Gilbert’s ideas that the book has much of the same power thirty years later that it had when it was first published. I also find it interesting that the concerns I had in the 1990s about “collective actors” and “plural subjects” expressed in this review have continued in my thinking about the social world through the current date. I continue to believe that constructs like collective actors require microfoundations that establish how they work at the level of individual “socially constituted, socially situated” individual human beings. I refer to this view as “methodological localism”; link.

I also find it interesting that my own views about social action derive, not from philosophy, but from immersion in the literatures of contentious politics and the concrete pathways through which individuals are led to mobilization and collective action. Unlike the methodological individualism associated with rational choice theory and neoclassical economics, and unlike the social holism that all too often derives from purely philosophical considerations, this literature emphasizes the actions and thoughts of individuals without making narrow and singe-dimensional assumptions about the nature of practical rationality. I learned through my study of the millenarian rebellions of late Imperial China that rebels had many motivations and many reasons for mobilization, and that good historical research is needed to disentangle the organizations, actors, and stresses that led to mobilization and rebellion in a particular region of China. The participants in the Eight Trigrams Rebellion or the Nian Rebellion in North China were not a plural subject. (For exposition of these ideas see chapter five of my Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science (1989), “Theories of peasant rebellion”.) I have included an excerpt from that chapter on the topic of collective action at the end of this post because it illustrates an “actor-centered” approach to collective action. It presents a clear counter-perspective to Gilbert’s views of “plural subjects”.

Readers may also be interested in a post written in 2009 on the topic of “Acting as a Group” (link).



Margaret Gilbert’s On Social Facts is an intelligent, closely argued and extensively analyzed treatment of the problem of social collectivity. What is a social group? What distinguishes a group from a random set of individuals—e.g. the set consisting of W. V. O. Quine, Madonna, and Napoleon? Is a social class—e.g. the English working class in the 1880s—a social group? Gilbert’s primary contention is that the notion of a collectivity—individuals constituting a group—is the central feature of social ontology and the chief focus of empirical social science. And she maintains that this concept can best be analyzed by the idea of a “plural subject”—the referent of the first-person plural pronoun, “we”.

The core of Gilbert’s theory of social groups involves the idea of the mutual recognition by a set of persons that they are engaged in some joint actions or beliefs. “A set of people constitute a social group if and only if they constitute a plural subject”; and a plural subject is “a set of people each of whom shares with oneself in some action, belief, attitude, or similar attribute” (p. 204). Gilbert argues that the pronouns “us” and “we” are the linguistic elements through which we refer to plural subjects in English. And she believes that plural subjects exist; they are not fictions or constructions, but agents which have beliefs, perform actions, and succeed or fail in carrying out their intentions. In later chapters Gilbert extends her conception of collectivities and plural subjects by considering several other important social notions: the idea of a social fact in Durkheim’s sense, the idea of a collective belief, and the idea of a social convention. In each case Gilbert argues that the concept of a plural subject supports a plausible and intuitively convincing analysis of the social concept in question. According to Gilbert, “social groups are plural subjects, collective beliefs are the beliefs of plural subjects, and social conventions are the ‘fiats’ of plural subjects” (p. 408). Gilbert’s account of social conventions is developed through extensive discussion of David Lewis’s influential formulation of this concept.

Gilbert argues against the individualism of Max Weber (and by implication, the premises of rational choice theory), by arguing that collectivities are the central subject of the social sciences, and that collectivities cannot be subsumed under (narrowly) individualist concepts. Thus Gilbert suggests that her theory offers support for holism over individualism (p. 3). Does it? I think not. An individualist is free to acknowledge that individuals have beliefs that refer to other persons and groups of persons; the position permits reference to shared purposes and actions involving a collection of persons deliberately orienting their actions towards a shared purpose. What individualism requires is simply that these are all the aggregate results of individual states of mind, and that the behavior of the ensemble is to be explained by reference to the beliefs and intentions of the participants.

An important test case for Gilbert’s account is the problem of collective action. Rational choice theory places much emphasis on public goods problems and the phenomenon of free-riding. How does Gilbert’s conception of plural subjects treat the problem? It appears to this reader that Gilbert makes collective action too easy. Plural subjects (groups) have purposes; individuals within these groups express quasi-readiness to perform their part of the shared action; and—when circumstances are right—the group acts collectively to bring about its collective goals. “The people concerned would be jointly ready jointly to perform a certain action in certain circumstances” (p. 409). She speaks of group will or communal will (p. 410). But the actions of a group are still the result of the choices made by constituent individuals. And however much the individual may align him- or herself with the collective project, the collective behavior is still no more than the sum of the actions taken by particular individuals. Moreover, it is necessary to acknowledge the endurance of private, individual interests that remain prominent for individual agents—with the result that we should expect individuals’ actions to sometimes involve free-riding, defection, and favoring of private over collective interests. It seems to this reader, then, that Gilbert leans too far in the direction of the Rousseauvian “general will” interpretation of social action.

How important for the social sciences is the notion of a social group or collectivity? Gilbert’s view is that this concept is foundational; it is the basis for a unitary definition of the subject matter of the social sciences. This overstates the importance of collectivities, it seems to this reader: there are important instances of social explanation that do not involve analysis of groups in Gilbert’s sense, and whose explanatory frameworks do not refer to groups, their behavior, their shared beliefs, or their collective intentions and self-understandings. A few examples might include neo-malthusian analysis of the relation between economic change and demographic variables; analysis of the effects of changes of the transport system on patterns of settlement and economic activity; and explanation of patterns of historical processes of urbanization in terms of changing economic and political institutions. These examples explain social phenomena as the aggregate result of large numbers of rational individual actions. They commonly refer to impersonal social structures and circumstances that function as constraints and opportunities for individuals. And they make no inherent reference to the forms of group collectivity to which Gilbert refers.

This is a rich book, and one that repays careful reading. It will be of particular interest to philosophers of social science and social philosophers, and the level of philosophical rigor will interest philosophers in other fields as well.


Here is a relevant excerpt from Understanding Peasant China, published in the same year as On Social Facts, on collective action as the composition of individual actors who are mobilized around a shared set of goals.

Rebellion is an example of collective action; but this concept requires some analysis, for not all forms of mass behavior constitute collective action. A collective action involves at least the idea of a collective goal (that is, a goal which participants in the event share as the aim of their actions), and it suggests some degree of coordination among individuals in pursuit of that goal. Thus a mass demonstration against the government is a collective action, whereas the panicked retreat through the streets after troops have dispersed the demonstration is not. Both are forms of mass behavior, but only the demonstration has the features of collective intentionality and coordination that would constitute a collective action. We may define a collective action, then, as the aggregation of a number of individuals performing intentional, coordinated actions that are intended to help attain some shared goal or purpose. This account distinguishes collective action from other forms of mass behavior in which the individuals do not intend to contribute to a group effect—for example, a panicked stampede in a football stadium, a run on a bank, or a cycle of hoarding food during a famine.

Collective actions can be classified according to the kind of shared goals that guide the individuals who participate in them—private interests and group interests. In some cases a collective action is inspired by the immediate gains available to each participant through coordinated action; in others, the action is inspired by the shared belief that the action will lead to an outcome that will benefit the group. An example of a collective action motivated by private interest would be a coordinated attack on a granary during a famine. No individual family has the strength to attack the granary by itself, but through coordinated efforts a group of fifty families may succeed. Each participant has the same goal—to acquire grain for subsistence—but the participants’ aims are private. By contrast, a demonstration by Polish workers in support of the Solidarity movement would appear to be motivated by a perception of group interest—in this case, the interest that Polish workers have as a group in representation by an independent labor union.

As we have seen in other contexts, the prospect of collective action raises the possibility of free riding: if the benefits of collective action are indivisible and undeniable to nonparticipants, it would be rational for the self-interested individual to not participate. To the extent that the potential benefits of a collective action are public rather than private, and to the extent that the action is designed to produce distant rather than immediate benefits, collective action theory predicts that it will be difficult to motivate rational individuals in support of the action.

Another important factor in the success or failure of collective action, besides the character and timing of benefits to members, is the idea of assurance: potential contributors’ confidence in the probability of success of the joint enterprise. As Elster, Hardin, and others show, the level of assurance is critical to the decisions of potential contributors. If success is widely believed to be unlikely, potential contributors will be deterred from joining the collective action. An important dimension of assurance is the likelihood that other potential contributors will act. Each must judge the probability that enough people will support the action and so make success more likely. One central task of leadership and organization is to bolster the assurance of each member of the group in the likely support of other members. (UPC 147-149)

Modeling organizational recruitment

One defect of the ABMs considered in the prior post about the emergence of civil conflict is that they do not incorporate the workings of organizations into the dynamics of mobilization. And yet scholars like Tilly (Dynamics of Contention) and Bianco (Peasants without the Party: Grassroots Movements in Twentieth Century China) make it clear that organizations are critical to the development and scope of mobilization of a populace. So a model of civil conflict needs to be able to incorporate the effects of organizations in the mobilization and activation of large groups of individual agents. Here I will explore what we might want from an ABM that incorporates organizations.

Ideally I would like to see a model that incorporates:

  • NxN individual actors (50×50 in the diagram above, or 2,500 agents)
  • M organizations with different characteristics competing for membership among the actors
  • A calculation of “uprising behavior” based on the net activation of a threshold percentage of actors in a circumscribed region
How might organizations be introduced into an agent-based model of social contention? I can imagine two quite different approaches. (A) We might look at organizations as higher-level agents within the process. As each organization works its way through the population it gains or loses members; and this affects individual behavior and the geographical distribution of activated agents. This would be an attempt to directly model the mechanism of mobilization through organizational mobilization. (B) Another possible and simpler approach is to represent organizations as environmental factors, analogous to disease vectors, which percolate through the population of first-order agents and alter their behavior. Let’s consider both. 
(A) Organizations as meso-level agents. The first approach requires that we provide rules of behavior for both kinds of agents, and recognize that the two processes (organizational recruitment and individual action) may influence each other iteratively. Organizations compete for members and strive to create collective action in support of their agendas. Membership in an organization influences the individual actor by increasing activation. And increasing membership influences the functioning of the organization.

Individual actors gain organizational properties when they are recruited to one of the organizations. Suppose that individual actors have these properties (largely drawn from the Epstein model):

  • grievance level
  • risk aversiveness
  • income level
  • salience of ethnicity for identity 
  • location
  • Organization-driven properties of activation
  • derived: level of activation (probability of involvement in response to an appeal from the organization)
If we want to model organizations as agents, then we need to specify their properties and action rules as well. We might begin by specifying that organizations have properties that affect their actions and their ability to recruit:
  • content of political agenda / call to action
  • perceived effectiveness
  • real effectiveness
  • number of cadres devoted to mobilization effort
For a simulation of inter-group conflict, we would like to include two ethnic groups, and one or more organizations competing within each group.

Mobilization occurs at the individual level: actors receive invitations to membership sequentially, and they respond according to the net effect of their current characteristics. Once an actor has affiliated, he/she remains susceptible to appeals from other organizations, but the susceptibility is reduced.

Membership in an organization affects an individual’s level of engagement in a set of grievance issues and his/her propensity for action. Individuals may express their organizational status at a range of levels of activism:

  • highly engaged 
  • moderately engaged
  • disengaged 

The model calculates each agent’s behavior as a function of grievance, risk, appeal, location, and organizational influence.

This approach suggests development of two stages of simulation: first a simulation of the competition of two organizations within a group; and second, a simulation of the individual-level results of calls to action by multiple organizations involving a specified distribution of organizational affiliations.

(B) Organizations as infection vectors. A simpler approach is to represent the various organizations as contagious diseases that have differential infection rates depending on agent properties, and differential effects on behavior depending on which “infection” is present in a given agent. Presumably the likelihood of infection is influenced by whether the individual has already been recruited by another organization; this needs to be represented in the rules governing infection. It also implies that there is a fair amount of path dependence in the simulation: the organization that starts first has an advantage over competitors.

It seems it would be possible to incorporate a disease mechanism into the Epstein model to give a role for organizations in the occurrence of civil unrest.

Now imagine running the model forward with two types of processes occurring simultaneously. The organizations recruit members iteratively and the activation status of each individual is calculated on each tick of the model. At each tick every individual has a membership status with respect to the organizations (“infections”), and each has an activation level (low, medium, high). When a concentration of, say, 40% of agents are activated to a high level in a region of a given size, this constitutes an episode of uprising / ethnic violence / civil unrest.

Two fundamental questions arise about this hypothetical simulation. First, is the simulation assumption that “organizational mobilization is like an infectious disease” a reasonable one? Or does organizational mobilization have different structural and population dynamics than the spread of a disease? For example, diseases percolate through direct contact; perhaps organizational mobilization has more global properties of diffusion. And second, does the resulting simulation give rise to patterns that have realistic application to real processes of social contention? Do we learn something new about social contention and mobilization by incorporating the additional factor of “organization” in this way that the Epstein model by itself does not reveal?

(It should be noted that organizations are a peculiar kind of agent. They have properties that are characteristic of “complex adaptive systems”: they are supra-individual, they are influenced by the actors they touch, and they influence the behavior of the actors they touch. So the behavioral properties of an organization perhaps should not be specified exogenously.)

(NetLogo is a sophisticated modeling package that permits researchers to develop small and medium-sized agent-based models, and it provides a number of relevant examples of simulations that are of interest to social scientists (link). Particularly interesting for the current purposes are a simulation of the Epstein model of rebellion discussed earlier (link) and an implementation of an AIDS contagion model that could be considered as a platform for modeling the spread of an organization or a set of ideas as well (link).  Here is the link for NetLogo: Wilensky, U. (1999). NetLogo. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.)

Social conflict and group mobilization

source: Du Shiyu and Qi Jiayan, “Multi-agent Modeling and Simulation on Group Polarization Behavior in Web 2.0”

An earlier post drew attention to the fact that there are sometimes powerful forces leading to the disintegration of previously peaceful populations of people into violent opposition across groups (link). A population concentrated in a geographical space (city, region) almost always represents a variety of sources of differentiation across groups: racial differences, economic differences, and cultural and religious differences, to mention several important ones. And virtually any sources of group identity and group wellbeing can potentially be a source of conflict and opposition within the population. So the earlier post asked the question, what are the factors that lead these latent conflicts to break out into active conflict? What leads individuals within a group to begin to mobilize together with the goal of resisting or attacking members of other groups?

Several factors are evident. First, there are multiple kinds of agents in play, both individual and collective. The cohesion-fission results are the complex consequence of the agency and strategies of these many agents and their strategic interactions. And there are agents working to secure cohesion at the same time as other agents work to bring about conflict across groups. Second, there are multiple sources of collective grievance that may serve to provide the raw materials for mobilization — fields over which groups have different levels of access to outcomes that they want to control. And third, there are a variety of structural factors that appear to be relevant to the dynamic processes of mobilization that may occur. Let’s look at each of these.


Leaders. Leaders sometimes have an interest in using inter-group conflict as a basis for mobilization of supporters around them, for the purpose of extending their power and the resources they control. (This is often referred to as “political entrepreneurship.”) Political leaders can provoke polarization by giving particular salience to one set of group characteristics over another. Lies, distortions, and emotional exhortation can provoke rank-and-file followers to increase their emotional level of commitment to the program of this group or that. The history of BJP in India as a provoker of Hindu-Muslim antagonism is a case in point (Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability). (A good illustration is Sam Popkin’s “Political entrepreneurs and peasant movements in Vietnam” in Michael Taylor, Rationality and Revolution.) Here is Popkin’s description:

This chapter examines the mobilization of peasants during the Vietnamese revolution. It shows how, out of the rational choices of myriad individual, peasant society can be restructured and new institutions constructed. It shows in particular how peasant organizers, starting with limited material resources and using only their organizational skills, can “bootstrap” their organizations into existence and so “build something from nothing”. Through small interventions in the patterns of daily life these political and religious organizers, here called political entrepreneurs, build institutions which generate a “revolutionary surplus” or profit, and financed by this surplus they then use their local bases to recruit people to a national struggle. (9) 

Organizations. Organizations have the ability to communicate with their members; they can supply resources to support mobilization (lease buses to transport demonstrators to the capital city); and they can educate and indoctrinate followers into a particular social world view. There is a wide range of organizations that are relevant to mobilization in a social environment:

  • Community-based organizations
  • Youth and student organizations
  • Gangs and criminal organizations
  • Business and industry
  • Religious organizations and leaders
Organizations also have the opportunity of building a high degree of emotional adherence in their members. Michael Mann emphasizes each of these avenues of influence in his analysis of fascist paramilitary organizations in the 1930s (link). 

Ordinary rank-and-file actors. Most people at any given time are not actively engaged in protest or militant activity. So the success or failure of efforts to polarize a population depend on the ability of leaders and organizations to activate these ordinary actors.



Now turn to the grievances that may lead actors to mobilize for action against another group. The primary source of conflict among groups within Marxist theory is property. Class conflict is the primary social conflict. But much social conflict seems to arise from non-material factors —

  • Material conflict of interest across communities (property, wealth, income, jobs)
  • Cultural and religious conflict of practice
  • Conflict over political power within the state over resources
  • Kinship relations and conflicts across kinship groups

So there is a wide range of potential causes for polarization. However, at most times and places these potential grievances remain latent rather than expressed. Leaders and organizations can extend efforts towards mobilizing the emotions and adherence of members of society for solidarity around one or another set of grievances.

Influences on the spread of conflictual mobilization

Proximity. The spatial distribution of people across a region influences the ease with which they communicate with each other. Neighbors are more likely to be influenced in their beliefs and motives for action than are strangers from widely separated parts of the city. C. K. Lee points out the impact that dormitory-style living arrangements had for workers in “sunset” industries in China; rumors and calls to action flowed easily through the residential buildings (Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt).

Social networks of affiliation. Social networks create communications pathways; they also create differentiated networks of trust. The fact that Suneel’s brother-in-law Atul attends the same temple as Suneel gives Suneel elevated grounds for trusting and relying upon Atul when it comes to learning current information and in responding to calls for action conveyed by Atul.

Incidents. Mobilization within a subcommunity is often triggered by an instigating incident — a traffic accident, an incidence of police brutality, an ethnic slur, a rumor of bad behavior by a member of another subcommunity. The police raid on the blind pig in Detroit in 1967 unleashed a cycle of mobilization and counter-mobilization within Detroit’s population and the state and federal governments.


Broadcast media. As was evident in the Rwanda genocide (link), control of radio or television stations is a major advantage for organizations and leaders who are seeking to mobilize their followers for a given kind of action.

Direct face-to-face mobilization. Organizations like labor unions, community-based organizations, and industry associations often have substantial personnel on the ground — cadres — who serve to communicate with and motivate the rank-and-file members and potential adherents. One important example is the GOTV efforts that various organizations are able to mount in times of elections. Another is the visibility and influence in urban neighborhoods that the Black Panthers created in the 1960s through their food programs.


Social media. It is widely believed, especially since the rapid mobilizations associated with the Arab Spring, that social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can serve as effective pathways of mobilization and activization. (link

We still haven’t gotten to a clear answer to the question: under what conditions does a community begin to fission into conflicting components? But this analysis of the elements of the situation sheds some light on the facilitating or inhibiting factors that are relevant to such a process of fissioning. When leaders and organizations emerge who have a political interest in creating division (not an uncommon situation); when genuine underlying tensions exist (pertaining to resources or identity markers); and when features of proximity, interrelatedness, and weakness of policing permit the spread of divisive messages of faction; then fissioning is increasingly like.

A sense of injustice in China?


Quite a few years ago Barrington Moore explored in his book Injustice the idea that a sense of justice sometimes plays an important role in history. Here is how he put his central question:

This is a book about why people so often put up with being the victims of their societies and why at other times they become very angry and try with passion and forcefulness to do something about their situation. For the most part, the book focuses on people at or near the bottom of the social order: those with little or no property, income, education, power, authority, or prestige. (xiii)

Moore is interested in a particular moment in history, the moment when …

… people come to believe that a new and different set of criteria ought to go into effect for the choice of those in authority and the manner of its exercise, for the division of labor, and for the allocation of goods and services… In this chapter we are looking for general processes that occur at the level of culture, social structure, and individual personality, as groups of people cease to take their social surroundings for granted and come to reject or actively to oppose them. (81)

We might summarize this idea in these terms:

  • A sense of justice is a broadly shared set of factual and normative beliefs about how existing society works when it comes to fair and equitable treatment of individuals by institutions and groups.
  • People are likely to mobilize in an effort to change the social order when their sense of justice is profoundly offended.

Moore offers examples of how offenses to a prevalent sense of justice can influence collective behavior, mostly drawn from German working class history. But for other examples we can also turn to E.P. Thompson’s concept of the moral economy of the crowd (link; also included in Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture) and James Scott’s application of this concept to the situation of rebellion and mobilization in SE Asia (The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance).

This set of ideas raises two different sets of questions. First, can we confirm the idea that the motivations that arise from the experience of justice and injustice are in fact important in influencing the outcomes of specific cases of social life? Or is the sense of justice simply an epiphenomenon? And second, can we empirically investigate the particulars of the sense of justice and injustice of a particular people at a point in time? Is the sense of justice itself a social fact that can be investigated and mapped?

These ideas seem especially relevant to the case of China since the Revolution. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Revolution depended upon a set of values that couched social justice in terms of equality across classes. On the other hand, China’s economy and society have witnessed an explosion of inequalities of income and influence since the 1980s. It is natural to ask, then, whether people who came to adulthood in the 1930s and 1940s in China acquired an egalitarian sense of justice and injustice; and whether they and their children experience today’s inequalities as being unjust. And in fact, some observers believe that rising inequalities in China are contributing to dangerously high levels of dissatisfaction and outrage among ordinary citizens. Or in other words, China is ripe for the kind of morally induced protest and resistance that Barrington Moore described. China is a “social volcano” in the early stage of venting and steaming, with an eruption to follow.

Martin Whyte’s recent study of this question leads to surprising findings (for me, anyway). In Myth of the Social Volcano: Perceptions of Inequality and Distributive Injustice in Contemporary China Whyte sets out to use the tools of survey research to assess and measure the contours of the assumptions about justice and inequality that are shared by several generations of Chinese men and women. He and research colleagues (including Shen Mingming and Yang Ming) conducted a national survey in 2004 aimed at probing Chinese attitudes towards inequalities. The survey involved responses from about 4,344 individuals, stratified in terms of region and rural/urban status.

Here is Whyte’s assessment of the survey data (chapter 3):

How can we summarize Chinese citizens’ feelings about issues of inequality and distributive justice? Which aspects of current inequalities in China do they accept and view as fair, and which do they see as basically unjust? In general, our survey results indicate that the majority of respondents accept and view as fair most aspects of the unequal, market-based society in which they now live. There is little sign in our results of strong feelings of distributive injustice, of active rejection of the current system, or of nostalgia for the distributional policies of the planned socialist era. (kl 1191)

In fact, Whyte describes a set of attitudes that place China squarely within what we might call the values of social democracy, favoring a social safety net and a market society that provides widespread opportunities for advancement. Here is a particularly relevant chart (figure 3.3):

The results in this chart display an intriguing blend of liberal and socialist commitments. Equal distribution (the Mao principle) receives 29.1% support, significantly lower than the 44.7% who oppose the principle. But another anti-liberal principle, government guarantee of jobs, receives higher positive than negative support (57.3% in support, 23.9% against). And there is overwhelming support for the idea of a government guarantee of a minimum living standard (80.8%).

Whyte singles out a number of principles of legitimacy and justice that he discerns in the survey findings (quoting from chapter 3, kl 1191 ff.):

  • There should be government-sponsored efforts to provide job and income guarantees to the poor …
  • There should be abundant opportunities for individuals and families to improve their livelihoods …
  • There should be equality of opportunity …
  • Material advancement and success should be determined by merit factors …
  • The pronounced social cleavage between China’s rural and urban citizens … are unfair
  • Since individuals and families vary in their talents, diligence, and cultivation and deployment of merit-based strategies for success, society will have a considerable amount of inequality …
  • Upper limits should not be set on incomes …
  • It is acceptable for the rich to use their advantages to provide better lives for their families
  • People in positions of political power should not be entitled to special privileges …

It is the generally optimistic character of these findings that leads Whyte to doubt that China is a “social volcano”. He finds that the bulk of the Chinese population possesses a conception of justice and economic expectation that aligns fairly well with China’s current social and economic realities. He does not find a rising sense of injustice and resentment that might fuel anti-regime mobilization. So China is not approaching a social eruption driven by a deepening sense of injustice among ordinary people; or at least this is how Whyte reads the data.

But it seems possible to read the data in another way as well. The principle of equal distribution — the Maoist principle — does actually correspond to the moral sense of a very large number of Chinese men and women in the survey (29.1%). (This number falls to 11.3% if it is specified that inequalities derive from a system of equal opportunity; figure 3.5.) How strongly does this minority hold this egalitarian view? Who are they? Is there a generational split on this question? And how about perceptions of conflict? Figure 3.7 presents opinions about the severity of conflict between various groups in Chinese society; there we find that 38.5% of respondents find large or very large conflicts between poor and wealthy people. Is this a large number or a small number?

In fact, there is an alternative reading of Whyte’s data that comes to a somewhat darker conclusion. It is true that there is a large majority in Chinese society who are optimistic about the direction of change China is undergoing, and who are optimistic about their futures and those of their children. But there also seems to be a meaningful percentage of China’s population who do not share these attitudes and beliefs. And perhaps this group is large enough to portend the kind of social conflict that Whyte is so skeptical about. When it comes to the likelihood of social unrest, perhaps it is not the modal individual but the disadvantaged minority who is most salient. So maybe a Moore-ian crisis is brewing in China after all.

Social networks as aggregators

We think of social phenomena as “relational” in some important respect. Individuals contribute to social outcomes through structured and dynamic relationships with other individuals. So outcomes are not just heaps of aggregated individual behavior; rather, they are the filigreed result of interlinked, coordinated, competitive and sometimes unintended actions of people who have intentional and structural relationships to each other. And we think of these relationships, often, in terms of the metaphors and analytics of social “networks.” So it is worthwhile giving some thought to how the machinery of social network theory can help us in better understanding the ways that social processes unfold. Here is a nice passage from Mario Diani’s introduction to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.

It is difficult to grasp the nature of social movements. They cannot be reduced to specific insurrections or revolts, but rather resemble strings of more or less connected events, scattered across time and space; they cannot be identified with any specific organization either, rather they consist of groups of organizations, with various levels of formalization, linked in patterns of interaction which run from the fairly centralized to the totally decentralized, from the cooperative to the explicitly hostile. Persons promoting and/or supporting their actions do so not as atomized individuals, possibly with similar values or social traits, but as actors linked to each other through complex webs of exchanges, either direct or mediated. Social movements are in other words, complex and highly heterogeneous network structures. (1)

This passage emphasizes quite a few themes that have been important throughout UnderstandingSociety — the heterogeneity of social phenomena, the difficulty of formulating a clear understanding of social ontology, and the challenge of representing the processes of aggregation through which individual social actions contribute to mid- and large-scale social outcomes.

So how do the analytical resources of network theory contribute to a better understanding of the ways that actions aggregate into outcomes?  Diani emphasizes several ways in which network analysis has contributed to the study of contentious politics.

Network analysis as it is best known developed with reference to a ‘realist’ view of social structure as networks which linked together concrete actors through specific ties, identifiable and measureable through reliable empirical instruments.  This view represented an alternative to both views of social structures as macro fores largely independent from the control of the specific actors associated with them …., and views of structure as aggregates of the individual actors sharing determinate specific traits (5).

So if we take it as a plain fact about the social world that individuals have a range of meaningful and material relationships with other individuals, both proximate and distant, then it is plainly important to understand the effects that those relationships have on their consciousness and behavior.  These causal relationships are likely to extend in both directions — from the network to the actor, and from the actor back into the network.

What kinds of social relationships are most relevant to understanding social processes like contentious movements?  Particularly important are “personal ties linking prospective participants to current activists or dense counter-cultural networks affecting rates of mobilization in specific areas” (3).  Diani mentions “personal friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbours; … people who share with prospective participants in some kind of collective engagement, such as previous or current participation in other movement activities, political or social organizations, and public bodies” (7).  To this list we might add membership and interaction within the kinds of civic and communal organizations that Robert Putnam emphasizes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Here is the key point: different people find themselves in very different networks of social connections, and these relationships contribute to their social and political consciousness in diverse ways.  If we are interested in the spread of militant civil rights activism, as Doug McAdam is in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, or in the spread of fascist activism and mobilization in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as Michael Mann is in Fascists, it is highly relevant to discover the relationships and organizations through which individuals come into contact with each other and with the ideas of the nascent movements.  Likewise, if we are interested in the proliferation of support for the Deacons of Defense in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, as Lance Hill is in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, then it is important to identify the personal and organizational linkages through which ordinary people became aware of this response to white supremacy and violence.  Communication of ideas and political emotions requires a mechanism connecting the “signallers” and those to whom the messages eventually percolate, and this is not a depersonalized, homogeneous process.

Recruitment and mobilization is one aspect of contentious politics where social networks are plainly important.  Relationships in the workplace, the neighborhood, or the church or mosque are a likely location for the diffusion of a range of socially relevant material — news, gossip, indignation, shared views about politics.  And these relationships are a potential vector for the recruitment of followers and activists for a range of new political ideas — from civil rights to Tea Party to fascism.

Identifying coalitions of collective actors is another area of current research.  Once a topic has gained some degree of visibility and salience, it is likely enough that multiple groups will begin to focus on it.  Anti-tax activism is a good example — dozens of “citizen-based” organizations emerged in California in the 1950s and 1960s with the overall goal of limiting property and income taxes in the state, and it is useful to track the emerging relationships that developed among these organizations and their activists.

Diani also highlights the role that concrete social networks play in “framing and tactical adaptation of action repertoires” (4).  Framing has to do with the ways that issues are understood by the participants; so this topic unavoidably has to do with culture and social interpretation.  But the ways in which cultural frames are conveyed to people through a population are material processes that can be studied empirically.  And social networks play a key role in these processes.  As people interact with their friends and associates, they develop their political and social representations of the society around them.  These interactions are the direct embodiment of their social networks.  Diani singles out “communitarian and subculture networks” for particular attention: “communitarian ties operate at a minimum to strengthen the identity and solidarity among movement activists and sympathizers. At the same time, though, they provide the specific locus of social conflict in those cases where the challenge is eminently on the symbolic side and where, in other words, the definition of identities and the preservation of opportunities for the enactment of alternative lifestyles are mainly at stake” (9).  These features of identity-based mobilization, through networks of like-minded individuals, are important in Michael Mann’s analysis of the rise of fascism in Fascists as well:

The fascist core consisted everywhere of two successive generations of young men, coming of age between WorldWar I and the late 1930s. Their youth and idealism meant that fascist values were proclaimed as being distinctively “modern” and “moral.” They were especially transmitted through two institutions socializing young men: secondary and higher education, encouraging notions of moral progress, and the armed forces, encouraging militarism. Since the appeal was mainly to young men, it was also distinctly macho, encouraging an ethos of braggart, semi-disciplined violence, in peacetime encouraging militarism to mutate into paramilitarism. The character of fascism was set by young men socialized in institutions favorable to moralizing violence and eventually to murder. Yet the similarity of values between paramilitarism and militarism always gave fascism a capacity to appeal to armed forces themselves, not to the extent of inducing military rebellions but to the extent of generating sympathy there that at its most extreme could immobilize the army. (26)

“Fascists” were not fully formed at the moment they entered the movement. People may formally sign up for a movement and yet possess only a rudimentary knowledge of it – sympathy for a few slogans, respect for a charismatic F¨uhrer or Duce, or simply following friends who have joined. Most recruits joined the movement young, unmarried, unformed, with little adult civilian experience. On them, fascist parties and paramilitaries were especially powerful socialization agencies. These movements were proudly elitist and authoritarian, enshrining a pronounced hierarchy of rank and an extreme cult of the leader. Orders were to be obeyed, discipline to be imposed. Above all, they imposed a requirement of activism. Thus militants experienced intense emotional comradeship. Where the movement was proscribed, clandestinity tightened it. Many activists lost their jobs or went into prison or exile. Though this deterred many of the more fainthearted, among those remaining active such constraints further tightened the movement. (28)

The social processes that Mann describes here have to do with all three aspects — recruitment, mobilization, and framing; and they depend on the networks of relationships through which the core fascist values and worldviews were transmitted to new recruits.  Institutions were key in this transmission — the military, the workplace, the youth organization — and a large part of their influence was their ability to create a significant cohort of young men with a specific set of set of social relationships.

The lens of social networks, in short, seems to be a very powerful tool for understanding the processes of aggregation — upward, downward, and lateral — through which ideas, grievances, and actors come together into major social upheavals and movements.

What is perhaps more difficult to see, though, is how to engage in empirical research on the concrete networks of social relationships that have important effects on outcomes we care about.  As the United States moved towards civil war in 1860 and 1861, there were hundreds or thousands of individuals in the U.S. Army officer corps who had antecedently mixed loyalties — Southern birth, family still residing in the South, but a tradition of education and service within the U.S. Army.  So what accounts for the choices that were made by various officers when they had to decide — North or South? It is intuitively plausible that each officer’s concrete social network played an important role in his decision — appeals from family and friends, business relationships in Virginia, long-standing relationships with senior Northern officers, an education and cohort at West Point.  But it is not entirely clear how to turn this plausible view into a feasible research plan.

This is one reason why the Diani volume is such a worthwhile contribution.  Most of the contributors focus their work on specific empirical problems in the field of social contention.  Maryjane Osa looks at activist networks in the Polish People’s Republic; Christopher Ansell looks at community activism in the San Francisco Bay environmental movement; Jeff Broadbent looks at social networks in the Japanese environmental movement; and Chuck Tilly and Lesley Wood look at networks in contentious episodes in British history around 1828.  These are concrete, empirical-historical efforts to take the guiding ideas of network analysis and discover some substantive insights into the specific ways that a variety of protest movements unfolded.  And they give a better understanding of the contribution that social network analysis can offer to concrete historical research.

New thinking about the Red Guards

Andrew Walder has spent almost all of his academic life, on and off, studying the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  In Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement (2009) he offers some genuinely new insights into this crucial and chaotic period of China’s revolutionary history.  Some historians have focused on the political motivations of Mao and other top leaders in the party; others have examined the economic and social cleavages that existed in China only a decade and a half into its Communist Revolution.  Walder is interested in a much more grass-roots question: what were the motivations, calculations, and states of mind of the “foot soldiers” of the CR, the Red Guards in the earliest years of the upheavals?  And why did the political activism of the CR devolve almost inevitably into intense factionalism between groups whose ideologies seemed virtually indistinguishable — loyalty to Mao, defense of the revolution, attacks on treacherous leaders?  Walder is a political sociologist, and he wants to understand the dynamics of mobilization and affiliation that led to the group violence and inter-group factionalism in the early years of this period.

Here is an example of the kind of factionalism that most interests Walder:

Chapter 8 examines the puzzling disintegration of the rebel movement in January 1967, soon after the decisive victory over its opponents.  Why did the victorious rebel coalition rapidly split into two opposing camps?  In their earlier attacks on ministries and commissions, rebels stayed within separate bureaucratic hierarchies.  Work teams were dispatched down these hierarchies to the schools under them, and the pursuit of work teams led rebels directly back up this hierarchy to the ministry or commission that sent them.  When these rebels moved to seize power in national and municipal agencies, however, they crossed into different bureaucratic hierarchies.  Rebel groups from different schools who went to the same organs of power turned quickly from allies into competitors.  These competitive rivalries were exacerbated by deep splits that had earlier developed among rebel forces in the two largest and most important campuses, Beijing and Quinghua universities.  The splits at Beida and Qinghua served as a wedge to divide rebel forces citywide, as factions of different schools aligned themselves with one or another faction at these two large campuses.  The resulting split between “Heaven” and “Earth” factions crippled the student movement and frustrated the CCRG until the very end. (26-27)

Walder suggests that earlier scholars have sought to understand the motivations and factions of China’s young people in terms of the class position of the participants and the pervasive political indoctrination of youth that had been ubiquitous in the 1950s and 1960s.  Factions existed, according to this line of thought, either because different groups had different interests, or they had different political theories and ideologies (“conservative” and “radical”).  Walder finds these explanations unsatisfactory, since they apply equally to both sides in all the factions — and so he wants to identify some other feature of the political landscape that would explain the behavior and the factionalization.  And, unlike the scholars of the 1970s and 1980s who had to largely speculate about these issues, Walder takes advantage of primary sources that allow the researcher to get a great deal of information about the participants in their own words, and in their relationships to other activists.

Walder also questions the relevance of the core assumptions of social mobilization theory for the Cultural Revolution — the idea that social movements need to be understood in terms of grievances, resources, and the state’s ability to resist group demands.  Fundamentally his objection is that this theory doesn’t help to explain the early months of the Cultural Revolution because all the postulated conditions were present in 1966, and mobilization did in fact occur (14).  But it occurred in a very distinctive way that resource mobilization theory seems not to prove a basis for explaining — the constant fissioning of a group of activists into two or more factions, bitterly opposed to each other.  It appears, then, that resource mobilization theory lacks the tools necessary to explain this specific pattern of mobilization — radicalization followed by bitter factionalism.

Walder’s explanation is a novel one.  He argues that factionalization was a consequence, not of class differences or ideological disagreements between individuals, but simply of the early choices that various individuals made early in the period.  A central feature of this period was the fact of denunciation — denouncing past or current leaders for disloyalty to the revolution or other ideological errors.  And these denunciations within the universities were highly consequential: “by mid-July 55 percent of all university party first secretaries and 40 percent of all general branch secretaries had been labeled anti-party reactionaries and placed in category 4” (57).  The rapid proliferation of denunciations meant that persons close to the denounced leader needed to decide — should they join the denunciation or should they refrain?  The work teams that were sent into Beijing’s elite universities in June 1966 (Peking University, to begin with) were forced to make choices in light of radical students’ denunciation of top university officials; lower officials had to make similar choices; and activist student leaders had to decide whether to support or oppose the activities of the work teams.  And, Walder argues, this choice was fateful and enduring.  It meant that the individual would be shunted into this group or that group, with further decisions cementing the affinity with the group.

Another way of stating the argument is that factional identities and the common interests that define them are the product of political interactions rooted in specific contexts whose properties must be researched, not simply assumed.  Individual decisions — to join factions, to oppose or support a work team — are not the product of prior socialization or social ties but are actdively shaped by political encounters.  The focus is on the interactions that generate choices and outcomes, not the prior statuses of individuals or their preexisting social and political ties. These processes determine when prior social statuses or network ties are activated in a conflict, and when they are not. (13)

In other words, Walder argues that the fact of pervasive factionalization in the Cultural Revolution does not reflect fundamental underlying disagreements or contradictions between the factions; it does not reflect prior sociological distinctions among the participants; but rather reflects the emergence of separate networks of political affiliation from which there was no exit.

Chapter 3 describes how the work teams split university power structures into warring factions, with a focus on the issues that bred conflict between work teams and militant students.  Only in rare and fleeting circumstances were the issues of contention about attacks on the incumbent power structure — a question that might distinguish “conservative” from “radical” political orientations.  Instead, they were usually about the work team’s authority over student actions and the physical control of officials held for interrogation, and about heavy-handed work-team punishment of students who proved hard to control. (24)

This is a fascinating micro-sociology of a crucial span of a few months of violent upheaval in a single city.  It helps to explain a particularly pervasive feature of a broad and chaotic period of political unrest in China — the constant factionalism that occurred at virtually every level of conflict.  It introduces an innovative model of political behavior (path-dependent choices by individuals leading to a durable configuration of political affiliations).  And it provides a new avenue through which the methods of network analysis can be fruitfully used to explain complex social processes.  It is a valuable contribution to the new wave of scholarship that is currently underway about the Cultural Revolution.  (Other contributions to this new scholarship are included in Esherick, Pickowitz, and Walder, eds., China’s Cultural Revolution As History.)

A side note, not crucial to Walder’s argument but interesting nonetheless, is the apparently simple question of when the Cultural Revolution took place.  It is conventional by many historians to date the CR to the years 1966-1976.  In 1966 the Red Guard movement erupted with wall posters and virulent activism in Beijing, among high school and university students.  And in 1976 Mao died, the Gang of Four were arrested, and the disruptions of the decade were decisively put aside.  But Walder dates the CR to a much shorter period, 1966-68, beginning with the same Red Guard explosion that occurred in 1966 but ending in 1968 when Mao unleased the military to put down the radical activists: “Not until August 1968 were the flames of China’s Cultural revolution extinguished by the imposition of a harsh regime of martial law” (1).

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