It's the fourth anniversary of the popular uprisings in Egypt, one of the first instances of protesters spreading their message via social media. And yet, headlines from Cairo screech with depictions of a violent regime resurgent, echoes of protests silenced with bullets. What happened to the Arab Spring, which so impressed pundits in the West with its social media savvy?
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently published a paper highlighting the weaknesses of social media-fueled movements, including those of Egypt, Turkey, and Occupy Wall Street. While digital technologies offer movements a heightened ability to seize the public's imagination, evade censorship, and mobilize the flock, Tufekci argues that these same advantages circumvent the difficult, long-term process of building a political organization. What ignites digitally augmented movements at the beginning undermines them in the end.
"Lower coordination costs, the thing that people thought might empower movements, paradoxically in the long run disempowers them," Tufekci told me in an interview. "By pushing them into the spotlight without infrastructure, social media lets them scale up without being ready for what comes next."
"Social media lets them scale up without being ready for what comes next."
Tufekci spoke to me about the extensive and interlaced social groups that sustained the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56. Compared to the global Occupy marches, the Gezi protests in Turkey, or the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Montgomery represents a targeted campaign with endurance. In the absence of DMs, community organizers crisscrossed the city. This meticulous undertaking built hierarchy and trust and strengthened the boycott, helping the group cope with harsh pushback from authorities.
Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who studies US foreign policy, agrees. "Organization, political party work, canvassing, recruiting candidates, all that happens in an incredibly localized way," Hanna told me. "Social media doesn't hurt, but it can't take the place of that—that kind of patient institution building that takes years."
Following Evgeny Morozov's pivotal and persuasive The Net Delusion, (the book equivalent of a weekend's worth of Snapchats from your friend Eddie Snowden) Tufekci illustrates how governments are subverting communication tools with overt repression and shrewd finesse, embodying all those high school essays juxtaposing Orwell's vision of the future with Huxley's.
"Governments can't really censor fully," Tufekci said. "The Chinese model that people think of, where everything is being censored, even in China that's very hard to accomplish. But they can control mass media. And they can keep people from wanting to get to the information, or believing the information, or motivating people to fight against information they don't like. So that's a very different model than, say, pre-revolution Egypt."
Novel communication inspires not only new forms of censorship, but propaganda and spying as well. "Governments have been much more interested in sophisticated surveillance technology." Hanna said. "Regime supporters and reactionaries and Islamists, all manner of politically engaged people are using social media. It's not the idealistic vision of social media as progressive tool for mass mobilization. There are lots of competing and contending factions that are utilizing these fora."
I also asked Tufekci and Hanna how black bannered non-state actors are using social media. "ISIS is a great example, too," Tufekci said, as she described their media campaign that dissipated the local police force and led to the capture of Mosul. "Forget what we see, the beheadings, which are geared towards us. They are able to inflate their scale and create fear."
"It's a very cheap way to do propaganda," Hanna said. "This is a free platform that can be a force multiplier in terms of getting their message out. They've used it adeptly. And I think the coverage has been so fawning and it's assumed such strategic and tactical genius on the part of actors like ISIS that it has in some ways enhanced their own propaganda."
Against the charge that recent protest movements have failed, that creating awareness and running demonstrations through social media is a dead end, Tufekci points to how aggressively governments are trying to control it. She sees great power and potential in these tools, even if political reform remains elusive.
"My argument isn't that these movements aren't successful," she said. "Even with Egypt, where authoritarians are back in force, it's still too early. Occupy is too early, Ferguson is too early. As a different way of looking at it, I want to ask: what's the capacity being built?"
From this vantage point, the success of protests in this decade will be defined less by immediate political victories than by reserved optimism. The boom and bust cycle of consciousness-raising and resignation may only be a phase in the life of networked social movements. Or, it may be their distinct feature.