Signaling and Solidarity

So folks on Twitter have been turning their avatars (little profile photos) green to show solidarity with the protesters in Iran. There are websites to help you do this. But why do this? How does it help? I want the Iranian people to live in freedom, just as I want all people to live in freedom. But the point of the gesture eludes me, unless the point of the gesture is to be seen making the gesture by others who will credit you for it. Like so many political gestures, it is vanity dressed up as elevated moral consciousness. It doesn't help. Is it harmless? Unlike the stupidly grandstanding House resolution, the ruling regime probably won't be pointing to verdant Twitter avatars as evidence that the uprising is an American plot. So I wouldn't worry about that. Here's what I do worry about. When people feel pressure to signal, and it's free, they'll signal. But sending the signal creates a small emotional investment in the overt message of the signal — solidarity with opponents of the ruling Iranian regime. As every salesman knows, getting someone to make a big, costly commitment is best achieved by getting them to first make a tiny, costless commitment. The tiny, costless commitment of turning Twitter avatars green is thin edge of the persuasive edge for the neocons who would like to sell the public a war in Iran. Since I would rather not be Bill Kristol's useful idiot, I will conspicuously leave my avatar as is, and continue hoping for the best.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center