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PhD Defence Anna Priante


Anna Priante is a PhD student in the Department of Public Administration (PA). Her supervisor is prof.dr. A. Need from the Faculty of Behavioural, Management and Social sciences (BMS).

Social movement organizations (SMOs) widely use social media to organize collective action for social change, such as cancer awareness campaigns. However, little is known about how effective online social movement campaigns are at generating social change by translating online action into meaningful (offline) action. This dissertation examines the micro-mobilization dynamics at play that can explain the effectiveness of online social movement campaigns. The central research question of this dissertation is:

How and why do micro-mobilization dynamics explain the effectiveness of online social movement campaigns in achieving social change?

This dissertation comprises six chapters seeking answers to this question and presents research based on a multidisciplinary, mixed-method approach combining theories and methods from sociology, social psychology, communication science, and computational social science.

In this dissertation, I investigate four key micro-mobilization dynamics that play a role in mobilizing movement members:  identity, networks, framing, and emotions. Chapter 2 provides a systematic literature review of identity and collective action via computer-mediated communication (CMC). By reviewing 59 empirical studies published from 2012 to 2016, we find that empirical research on identity, collective action, and CMC is broad and diverse because of contributions from multiple disciplines, theoretical perspectives, and methodological approaches.  Given the shortcomings in the findings, we derive a series of recommendations for future research directions, which also guide the empirical research presented in this dissertation.

All the empirical chapters of this dissertation study the case of the Movember Foundation and its US campaign on Twitter to promote men’s health and collect donations for medical research. Twitter data was provided by Twitter, which introduced the Twitter #DataGrants pilot program in 2014 with the aim of granting a small number of research institutions access to public and historical data. The unfettered access to the Twitter archive, combined with additional data provided by the Movember Foundation, provides a unique opportunity to study the effectiveness of online cancer awareness campaigns by tracking and linking online and offline individual-level data.

Chapter 3 uses social movement theory and network theory to study the communication networks generated by movement members during the Movember campaign and the forming of a collective identity. In this single-author chapter, I find that the online communication network goes through late latency phases during which people decrease their active participation and move to the periphery of the network or even exit the campaign network. Furthermore, I find that the communication network structure shapes the collective identity of the movement, which appears as a connected but distributed entity. Its maintenance over time, however, is only thanks to a small number of highly committed members who are also very engaged in collecting donations for the campaign cause. Altogether, these findings show that network structure and collective identity might have an impact on individual and collective efforts in fundraising outcomes.

Chapter 4 is a methodological study illustrating the development of automatic tools to detect Twitter users’ social identity. This chapter offers tools (social identity classifiers) for social scientists to scale up online identity research to massive datasets derived from social media. An identity theory‒based classification of online social identity is used to train the classifiers. This study shows that social theory can be used to guide natural language processing methods, and that natural language processing methods can provide input to revisit traditional social theory, which is strongly consolidated in offline settings.

Chapter 5 investigates the effect of movement members’ online social identity and structural position in the communication network on individual mobilization outcomes. By adopting a multi-method approach combining automatic text analysis, social network analysis, and multivariate regression analysis, we find that only some types of social identity have a significant effect in predicting the amount of collected donations. In terms of network positions, the results show that while occupying central positions in the Twitter communication network facilitate mobilization outcomes, people at the core of network communities collect less in donations than people at the periphery.

Chapter 6 concludes the empirical section of the dissertation by examining the last two micro-mobilization dynamics, namely framing and emotions, emerging from interactive and communicative processes during mobilization. In this single-author chapter, I use a multi-method approach combining automated text analysis, the use of a plagiarism detector, network visualizations, and regression analysis to study the extent to which movement members’ adoption of the movement’s dominant framing and the level of emotional involvement in members’ framing processes explain fundraising outcomes during online campaigns. I find that almost one-third of the discourse that movement members generated on Twitter during the campaign aligns with the Movember Foundation’s dominant framing. However, the more movement members use the movement’s language, slogans, and frames in their tweets, the less they collect in donations. By contrast, the use of emotional language in framing processes is positively associated with the amount collected in donations.

In summary, the collection of findings obtained in this dissertation shows that, by looking at the micro-mobilization dynamics of collective action, we can gain an important understanding of the mechanisms at work during online social movement campaigns and of the effectiveness of such campaigns in fostering communication processes related to the cause, obtaining important resources for the cause, developing a collective identity, and raising awareness. Owing to its multidisciplinary approach, this dissertation offers theoretical contributions at the intersection of several fields of studies on social movements, social networks, media and communication, nonprofit organizations, and public health. Methodologically, this dissertation offers innovative applications and tools for social science research using social media, new ideas on how to use and combine existing methods, techniques, and software to analyze large datasets, and direct access to scripts, codes, and tools developed to support data collection, preparation, and analysis. In practical terms, the body of work presented in this dissertation provides multiple organizations (e.g., social movements, health advocacy, nonprofit) with valuable insights into the effective organization of online campaigns via social media. In addition, results from this dissertation can support policymakers and practitioners in framing policies that improve public health via voluntary online fundraising; and individual activists in organizing collective action to produce effective social change in a society characterized by the pervasive influence of social media.