The SOPA blackout protest last week was an unprecedented event. Its massive success — with dozens of members of Congress switching their stance in one day under the withering intensity of thousands of phone calls — surprised even the activists who spurred the protest. So does this mean that we are entering the much-heralded era of Internet-powered citizen democracy?
The answer is yes. And no. The SOPA episode, like the Arab spring, demonstrates that the Internet can be leveraged to mount wide-spread political support for a cause. But it probably also shows that it will only happen when the stars perfectly align.
Two concepts from the economic study of politics — rational ignorance and collective action — can help explain why the SOPA protest worked, and why it’s not likely we will see many repeat performances on other issues. Rational ignorance is the idea that citizens in a democracy can’t possibly educate themselves about every issue sufficiently enough to make an informed decision. Doing so would cost more than the benefit one would gain, so we make the rational decision to remain ignorant on most issues.
For example, how do you feel about the Interagency Personnel Rotation Act of 2011 that’s now before Congress? (I picked that bill at random and know nothing about it.) If passed, it would cost each household three cents, but educating yourself about it in order to decide whether to call your members of Congress would cost you more than three cents worth of your time.
Yet on the other side of that equation are the folks who would benefit from an act’s passage. Say your share of a “Bridge to Nowhere” might be five cents — much less than even the postage needed to write your member of Congress — but the contractor and the local community that are getting the bridge stand to gain millions. That pays for lots of stamps.
The few who will benefit from a bill have an easy time organizing to lobby for it, while a group as large and dispersed as all taxpayers face what economist Mancur Olson called a collective action problem. That is, the costs of organizing large groups are greater than the possible gains.
Here’s the good news: The Internet demolishes the costs of learning about an issue, and it makes taking action so easy that it’s worthwhile for an individual to act.
If you were confronted with a blacked-out screen when arriving at your favorite website, learning a bit about SOPA was only a click and scan a way. On this front, efforts by transparency advocates to make the workings of Congress and the federal government accessible online are invaluable to overcome rational ignorance.
The Internet also lowers the cost to individuals of taking part in collective action. Signing a petition now takes a minute. Finding your congressman’s contact information is easier than ever – a single click will even connect you directly.
Social media in particular has pushed down, and continues to push down, the cost of organizing and taking action. If the cost can be pushed down far enough, then a group as big and dispersed as all Internet users, might individually find it worth their while to work at counteracting the influence of a small and concentrated group like the content industry. That’s what we saw with SOPA, and it was phenomenal.
Now for the bad news.
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