There are two opposing models of how the internet has changed protest movements. The first is that the internet has made protesters mightier than ever. This comes from the successful revolutions in Tunisia (2010-11), Egypt (2011), and Ukraine (2013). The second is that it has made them more ineffectual. Derided as "slacktivism" or "clicktivism," the ease of action without commitment can result in movements like Occupy petering out in the US without any obvious effects. Of course, the reality is more nuanced, and Zeynep Tufekci teases that out in her new book Twitter and Tear Gas.
Tufekci is a rare interdisciplinary figure. As a sociologist, programmer, and ethnographer, she studies how technology shapes society and drives social change. She has a dual appointment in both the School of Information Science and the Department of Sociology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Her regular New York Times column on the social impacts of technology is a must-read.
Modern internet-fueled protest movements are the subjects of Twitter and Tear Gas. As an observer, writer, and participant, Tufekci examines how modern protest movements have been changed by the internet—and what that means for protests going forward. Her book combines her own ethnographic research and her usual deft analysis, with the research of others and some big data analysis from social media outlets. The result is a book that is both insightful and entertaining, and whose lessons are much broader than the book's central topic.
"The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest" is the book's subtitle. The power of the internet as a tool for protest is obvious: it gives people newfound abilities to quickly organize and scale. But, according to Tufekci, it's a mistake to judge modern protests using the same criteria we used to judge pre-internet protests. The 1963 March on Washington might have culminated in hundreds of thousands of people listening to Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech, but it was the culmination of a multi-year protest effort and the result of six months of careful planning made possible by that sustained effort. The 2011 protests in Cairo came together in mere days because they could be loosely coordinated on Facebook and Twitter.
It's a mistake to judge modern protests using the same criteria we used to judge pre-internet protests…
That's the power. Tufekci describes the fragility by analogy. Nepalese Sherpas assist Mt. Everest climbers by carrying supplies, laying out ropes and ladders, and so on. This means that people with limited training and experience can make the ascent, which is no less dangerous—to sometimes disastrous results. Says Tufekci: "The internet similarly allows networked movements to grow dramatically and rapidly, but without prior building of formal or informal organizational and other collective capacities that could prepare them for the inevitable challenges they will face and give them the ability to respond to what comes next." That makes them less able to respond to government counters, change their tactics—a phenomenon Tufekci calls "tactical freeze"—make movement-wide decisions, and survive over the long haul.
Tufekci isn't arguing that modern protests are necessarily less effective, but that they're different. Effective movements need to understand these differences, and leverage these new advantages while minimizing the disadvantages.
To that end, she develops a taxonomy for talking about social movements. Protests are an example of a "signal" that corresponds to one of several underlying "capacities." There's narrative capacity: The ability to change the conversation, as Black Lives Matter did with police violence and Occupy did with wealth inequality. There's disruptive capacity: The ability to stop business as usual. An early internet example is the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. And finally, there's electoral or institutional capacity: The ability to vote, lobby, fund raise, and so on. Because of various "affordances" of modern internet technologies, particularly social media, the same signal—a protest of a given size—reflects different underlying capacities.
This taxonomy also informs government reactions to protest movements. Smart responses target attention as a resource. The Chinese government responded to 2015 protesters in Hong Kong by not engaging with them at all, denying them camera-phone videos that would go viral and attract the world's attention. Instead, they pulled their police back and waited for the movement to die from lack of attention.
If this all sounds dry and academic, it's not. Twitter and Tear Gas is infused with a richness of detail stemming from her personal participation in the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Turkey, as well as personal on-the-ground interviews with protesters throughout the Middle East—particularly Egypt and her native Turkey—Zapatistas in Mexico, WTO protesters in Seattle, Occupy participants worldwide, and others. Tufekci writes with a warmth and respect for the humans that are part of these powerful social movements, gently intertwining her own story with the stories of others, big data, and theory. She is adept at writing for a general audience, and—despite being published by the intimidating Yale University Press—her book is more mass-market than academic. What rigor is there is presented in a way that carries readers along rather than distracting.
The synthesist in me wishes Tufekci would take some additional steps, taking the trends she describes outside of the narrow world of political protest and applying them more broadly to social change. Her taxonomy is an important contribution to the more-general discussion of how the internet affects society. Furthermore, Her insights on the networked public sphere has applications for understanding technology-driven social change in general. These are hard conversations for society to have. We largely prefer to allow technology to blindly steer society or—in some ways worse—leave it to unfettered for-profit corporations. When you're reading Twitter and Tear Gas, keep current and near-term future technological issues such as ubiquitous surveillance, algorithmic discrimination, and automation and employment in mind. You'll come away with new insights.
Tufekci twice quotes historian Melvin Kranzberg from 1985: "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral." This foreshadows her central message. For better or worse, the technologies that power the networked public sphere have changed the nature of political protest as well as government reactions to and suppressions of such protest.
I have long characterized our technological future as a battle between the quick and the strong. The quick—dissidents, hackers, criminals, marginalized groups—are the first to make use of a new technology to magnify their power. The strong are slower, but have more raw power to magnify. So while protesters are the first to use Facebook to organize, the governments eventually figure out how to use Facebook to track protesters. It's still an open question who will gain the upper hand in the long term, but Tufekci's book helps us understand the dynamics at work.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.