Online activism viewed through the “exit, voice and loyalty” framework

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

WhatsApp and Facebook action groups, petitions, and online grievance reporting are now commonplace manifestations of citizens demanding better public services, particularly in the urban areas of India. Related questions arise: what are the motivations that lead to formations of such groups? And how effective in reality are such groups in resolving the key issue of under-provision of public goods?

These are questions that demand an in-depth study by themselves. However, we get a few clues about analysing such questions from a framework by economist Albert Hirschman in his 1970 treatise “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”. The main argument that the framework makes is:

members of an organisation, whether a business, a nation or any other form of human grouping, have essentially two possible responses when they perceive that the organization is demonstrating a decrease in quality or benefit to the member: they can exit (withdraw from the relationship); or, they can voice (attempt to repair or improve the relationship through communication of the complaint, grievance or proposal for change).

In the urban context, this framework simply means the following: faced with a decline in the quality of living in a particular urban area, citizens can choose one of the two responses: either exit (move to a new city or another area within the same city) or voice (demand better services in the current areas through complaints and protests). The key question then is: what impact does online activism have on the choice between voice and exit?

Online activism makes it easy for people to choose voice over exit. This is because, as Hirschman says:
success in advocacy groups is uncertain. So, participation in a movement to bring about a desirable policy is the next best thing to having that policy.

This means that the act of getting involved in a public interest problem is seen as en end in itself by a few people because getting the desired outcome is anyways so uncertain. This further means that the costs of getting people to come together on an issue are actually seen as benefits by a few people. Thus, people move away from apathy, towards activism to voice their grievances. With online activism a possibility, the the costs of organising people over an issue become even lower, making it easier for people to rally around new causes.

Thus it is not surprising to find online petitions and action groups mushrooming to resolve urban issues. However, the key question remains: are such groups successful in bringing positive changes in the living standards that they sought to bring? As Hirschman points, since the act of getting together is itself seen as an end, people often see activism as a goal in itself. This is seen amply in the case of online action groups: groups die after getting initial ‘successes’ in the form of assurances from public officials or merely recognition in terms of ‘petition sign-ups’ or  ‘Facebook likes’. Converting this online voice into successful on the ground changes requires mobilising online groups into committed volunteers to chase the root-cause and follow up till the change is delivered. Not an easy matter.

Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.