Twitter And Tear Gas

Zeynep Tufekci takes an insightful look at the intersection of protest movements and social media.

Ever since I’ve read Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd”, I’ve been fascinated with crowd psychology and social networks. In “Twitter And Tear Gas – The Power And Fragility Of Networked Protests” Zeynep Tufekci connects the elements of protest movements with 21st-century technology. In her work, she describes movements as

“attempts to intervene in the public sphere through collective, coordinated action. A social movement is both a type of (counter) public itself and a claim made to a public that a wrong should be righted or a change should be made.”

In times of far-reaching social media platforms, restricted online forums, and end-to-end encrypted private group chats, the means to organize a protest movement have drastically changed. 

“Modern networked movements can scale up quickly and take care of all sorts of logistical tasks without building any substantial organizational capacity before the first march or protest. (…) The Gezi Park moment, going from almost zero to a massive movement within days clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools. However, with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected. First, the new movements find it difficult to make tactical shifts because they lack both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions. Often unable to change course after the initial, speedy expansion phase, they exhibit a ‘tactical freeze’. Second, although their ability (as well as their desire) to operate without defined leadership protects them from co-optation or “decapitation,” it also makes them unable to negotiate with adversaries or even inside the movement itself. Third, the ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.”

While these movements often catch the general public by surprise, it really does come down to timing and committment by a group of decentralized actors. These actors, who come from all walks of life, seek to connect with others as rapidly as possibly by leveraging the unrestricted powers of social media. Social media creates ties with a variety of supporters. Tufekci points out

“people who seek political change, the networking that takes place among people with weak ties is especially important. People with strong ties already share similar views (…). Weaker ties may be far-flung and composed of people with varying political and social ties. Also, weak ties may create bridges to other clusters of people in a way strong ties do not.”

Protest movements predating social media often shared similarities with multi-day music festivals, overnight camps or even military training exercises. They instill a sense of camaraderie which attracts a certain type of indivudal. Today’s protest movements differ from those days in that they can erupt quickly, but fall apart as fast as they came to be. Still 

“many people are drawn to protest camps because of the alienation they feel in their ordinary lives as consumers. Exchanging products without money is like reverse commodity fetishism: for many, the point is not the product being exchanged but the relationship that is created.”

In addition the speed at which modern movements operate serves as an invitation for individuals disconnected from broader society or individuals who simply prefer the short-lived special operation to right a policy wrong over the long-term work required to build and maintain relationships that are powerful enough to organically drive a change of policy.

“Some online communities not only are distant from offline communities but also have little or no persistence or reputational impact. (…) Social scientists call this the “stranger-on-a-train” effect, describing the way people sometimes open up more to anonymous strangers than to the people they see around every day. (…) Such encounters can even be more authentic and liberating.”

Tufekci spends much time on describing the evolution of social interactions in a networked space, the social inertia that needs to be managed in order to pick up momentum, but she also offers some insights on defensive considerations to make a protest movement work. First and foremost, a protest movement garners attention online, which in turn creates an influx of supporters. It will also attract opposition from private individuals, political opponents, and current political leaders. Those in power had previously relied upon, and in some countries still rely upon, censorship and suppression of information. Twitter and other social media platforms have disrupted this control over the narrative:

“To be effective, censorship in the digital era requires a reframing of the goals of censorship not as a total denial of access, which is difficult to achieve, but as a denial of attention, focus, and credibility In the networked public sphere, the goal of the powerful often is not to convince people of the truth of a particular narrative or to block a particular piece of information from getting out, but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people.”

I apologize for using a wealth of quotes from her book, but it’s best described there, in her own words. Protests movements are here to stay. Understanding how democratic nations evolve their policies, right political wrongs, and influence authoritarian nations through subtle policy, online protest and real-world tear gas confrontation will help us make more informed decisions as we pick our political battles. Zeynep Tufekci put together a well-researched account that helps to make sense of the most important, controversial online protest movements from the Occupy Gezi/Wall Street movements to the Eqyptian Revolution to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter and MeToo or the March For Our Lives. There are two noticeable drawbacks of this otherwise excellent book. First, the chapters appear uncoordinated within the book and are too long. The reader can’t take a breather without feeling to lose a thought. Second, her examples are chronologically disconnected from the actual movements. While this helps to illustrate a certain point, I found it to be a confusing feat. Twitter And Tear Gas has its own website. Check it out at https://www.twitterandteargas.org/ or reach out to the author on Twitter @zeynep 

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