Explaining Offline Participation in a Social Movement with Online Data: The case of Observers for Fair Elections
This paper investigates to what extent activity of a social movement on a social networking site is related to participation in offline collective action. Through this research, we seek to contribute to a broader theory of effective communicative structures of social movements. We use the data of roughly 12,000 individuals from 17 online groups representing the branches of the ‘Observers for Fair Elections’ movement in 17 districts of St. Petersburg, Russia, and compare their online properties to real offline participation of movement members in elections in the role of electoral observers. We find that while prediction of individual offline participation with this online data is of limited power, association between district participation rates and online group features is very strong. Large, more inclusive and evenly connected networks, where people are engaged in high-threshold online activities, produce more offline participants; weak individual-level prediction, combined with strong group-level prediction, suggests either the presence of the ‘network effect’ or of third factors – such as prior contentious experience or the effect of leaders.