From The Arab Spring and Brazilian Protests to your Startup Community – The Role of Word-of-Mouth in Building Social Movements

Arnobio Morelix

Editor's note: Arnobio Morelix is an intern in Research & Policy at the Kauffman Foundation.

The Arab Spring and the recent Brazilian Protests were massive social movements that mobilized huge numbers of people. They had dispersed leadership, caused huge changes, and were grassroots movements that started from the bottom, rather than being imposed from the top. I think that startup communities, largely “messy, sloppy and organic,” as described by Brad Feld, are a lot like these social movements, and can potentially learn from them.

As a Brazilian, I was puzzled with our recent protests. I am in the United States for school but was recently in Brazil, and the speed in which the social unrest spread bemused me. When I visited Brazil in mid-June the protests were a small, niche movement. After I returned to the U.S., within days, the protests were already amongst the largest the nation had ever seen. 

Although there are many reasons why the protests began and spread I am more interested in how. How did the message spread so efficiently and so quickly? What can we learn from it and what can startup communities do to spread their messages as quickly? To find answers I interviewed Brazilian protesters, reviewed some research about the Arab Spring, and looked into Kauffman’s own research about local startup communities. Although social media has become the popular narrative to explain these social movements, from the Arab Spring to startup communities, the answer this preliminary analysis found was very different. As it turns out the human factor – face-to-face word-of-mouth – is still the key channel for spreading messages to build social movements.

From my interviews with three protesters in Brazil, I found that they used social media to find out general information about the protests, such as the day of the week when they would happen. However, their final decisions on whether to attend a protest or not were only made after talking to friends and defining details like who is going to the streets and where the specific meet up points are. For them, word-of-mouth was the key organizational tool, rather than Twitter or Facebook.

I reason that similar dynamics played out in the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring was largely portrayed in popular media as a Twitter-fueled revolution. This was a convincing narrative for us, outsiders, who did not have firsthand access to what was happening. However, there is evidence suggesting that the protests were actually organized in groups by word-of-mouth, as stated by Ali, a then 24-year-old activist. I have not found extensive research on how the protesters organized themselves, and I believe there is not yet robust research answering this question. However, we can find evidence of the not-so-influential role of social media in research on how people learned news about the protests. I believe that with this kind of information at hand we can hypothesize about how protests were originally organized.

For instance, a survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) with the Egyptian population reports that 72% of respondents relied on “word-of-mouth” as one of their top news sources, while only 16% relied on Facebook or Twitter; the top news source was TV, at 97%. As we can see, traditional means of communication such as TV and word-of-mouth played a very large role. To quote a research report from the United States Institute of Peace, the “hundreds of thousands of people who made the Egyptian revolution (…) did not learn about it through Twitter or Facebook. They saw it on Al-Jazeera, or out their windows.” It is important to remember that this data refers to how people learned news about the protests, not how they organized them. However, after comparing the Arab Spring with the Brazilian experience, I am inclined to believe that word-of-mouth was the dominant mean to organize the protests. On this particular issue particular I side with Washington University’s Prof. Dawn Brancati, who stated that new media offered a new means to organize protests, but not necessarily a superior one.

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