The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter and Facebook help spark protest movements. Then they undermine them.

In "Twitter and Tear Gas" a scholar-activist explores the links between technology and mass protest.

Protesters unveil an Occupy Wall Street banner on May 1, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

TWITTER AND TEAR GAS: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest

By Zeynep Tufekci. Yale University Press. 326 pp. $26.

Name a lefty anti-authoritarian movement of the past quarter-century, and chances are Zeynep Tufekci has been there — marching with it or studying it, or both. The Zapatista movement in southern Mexico, born with and against the North American Free Trade Agreement? Check. The Battle in Seattle? The Iraq War protests? Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising? Occupy Wall Street? The Gezi Park protests in her native Istanbul? Check, check, check, check, check.

It is Tufekci’s personal experience in the squares and streets, melded with her scholarly insights on technology and communication platforms, that makes “Twitter and Tear Gas” such an unusual and illuminating work. Tufekci clearly sympathizes with the movements she chronicles, but she keeps enough academic distance to remain skeptical of their impact. While debates over the relationship between technology and protest have often degenerated into praise of Facebook revolutions or anti-slacktivism diatribes, this book offers a more productive tension: The technology that helps modern movements organize high-profile protests, Tufekci concludes, can also keep them from developing the staying power to achieve their long-term goals. And the leadership principles of contemporary movements aren’t helping much, either.

So don’t be too impressed by the size of an anti-Trump march or the speed with which a protest comes together. “Somewhat paradoxically,” Tufekci writes, “the capabilities that fueled their organizing prowess sometimes also set the stage for what later tripped them up, especially when they were unable to engage in the tactical and decision-making maneuvers all movements must master to survive.”

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The author contrasts today’s efforts with the American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, whose participants and organizers could not rely on a Facebook call-out to launch, for example, the Montgomery bus boycott or the March on Washington. But it was precisely the early, painstaking work of planning and coordinating and recruiting that helped the movement endure. “After both long-term organizing and working together during the boycott to take care of a myriad of tasks,” Tufekci writes, “the movement possessed a decision-making capability that saw it through challenges as they came up, and one that was strong enough to survive outside pressures and internal strife.” In this light, the 1963 March on Washington wasn’t significant just because of what was done and said that day, “but for the means through which it came to be — a manifestation of the vast organizing capacity that the civil rights movement had built over many years.”

Compare that with the movement that spread across Turkey in 2013, sparked by authorities’ plans to bulldoze Istanbul’s Gezi Park in favor of commercial and residential construction. The government and compliant media outlets sought to minimize the initial backlash, but Facebook and Twitter spread the news, along with images of clashes between police and protesters in the park, and the movement grew in numbers and in international notoriety. Tufekci was there, of course, and her stories of solidarity among those setting up tents, providing medical care, cooking meals and incessantly updating social media are among the book’s most compelling moments. She shows how protests are not just efforts to change policies, but a way for participants to battle their own alienation and build “communities of belonging,” often among wildly disparate individuals and groupings. (Don’t miss Tufekci’s description of the debates between Turkish soccer fans and LGBT protesters over inclusive chants.)

But the “collective effervescence” of crowds, as Emile Durkheim called it, has practical limits. “The Gezi Park moment, going from almost zero to a massive movement within days, clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools,” Tufekci writes. “However, with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected. First, these 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.” They saved the park, but protesters later told the author that momentum toward their broader goals, such as more representative democracy and less media censorship, soon fizzled.

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In a pre-Internet world, a successful protest march was the culmination of an arduous organizational process. Today, it marks just the beginning. Modern protests have “often faced greatest peril in their infancy when they were both powerful and large, but also underprepared and fragile.”

Tufekci focuses on three underlying capacities that social movements strive for. Narrative capacity is the ability to propagate a particular worldview; disruptive capacity is the ability to intrude on the regular course of business, whether through occupations, boycotts or other interruptions; and electoral or institutional capacity is the ability to threaten politicians where it matters most to them, at the ballot box, unless they shift key positions.

Occupy Wall Street displayed disruptive power, of course, and enjoyed enormous success in transforming the language of our inequality debates. “However, despite its impressive ability to change the conversation, Occupy had little or no direct electoral impact in the immediate aftermath,” Tufekci notes. “After the occupation of [Zuccotti Park] was forcibly dispersed, it was unable to undertake a tactical shift.” Its slow, flat and consensus-obsessed leadership style — in which a single dissenting voice in a crowd could keep Rep. John Lewis from addressing an Occupy gathering in Atlanta — hindered its ability to battle on new fronts. Not until the presidential candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Tufekci argues, did the dispersed Occupy forces mobilize once again.

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Protest movements with a congenital distrust of elective officials and government hierarchies tend to favor management by “adhocracy,” which Tufekci describes as “dealing with issues only as they come up, and by the people who show up.” But that inclination exacts a price. The tea party movement, by contrast, was eager to move beyond town hall protests and win elections, and it purposely — and successfully — organized itself accordingly.

Regardless of their political leanings, attention is the most precious resource all such groups seek — and governments find innovative ways to undercut that quest. Tufekci highlights Russia’s digital troll armies and China’s “50 Cent Party” to show the modern mutations of official censorship, with governments deploying them to foster resignation and cynicism among the population. “This can be done in many ways,” the author writes, “including inundating audiences with information, producing distractions to dilute their attention and focus, delegitimizing media that provide accurate information (whether credible mass media or online media), deliberately sowing confusion, fear, and doubt by aggressively questioning credibility (with or without evidence, since what matters is creating doubt, not proving a point), creating or claiming hoaxes, or generating harassment campaigns designed to make it harder for credible conduits of information to operate.”

After all, why go to the trouble of blocking particular information when you can undermine all information? And as we’ve learned recently, such practices are hardly restricted to countries under explicitly authoritarian regimes.

Beyond the threat of government disinformation, Tufekci warns of the fickle corporate powers behind the digital platforms that protesters embrace. “The current digital communications gatekeeping ecosystem has been reduced to a very few but very powerful choke points,” she writes. “Social movements today are largely dependent on a very small number of corporate platforms and search engines,” meaning that political stories “can be silenced by a terms-of-service complaint or by an algorithm.” Which is how, in 2014, Facebook posts about the “ice bucket challenge” overshadowed news of the protests in Ferguson, Mo.

Tufekci’s social-science jargon occasionally overwhelms her arguments, as when she explains “why we should approach causality in technology and sociology interactions as a multi-layered and multi-pronged dynamic that intermixes social dynamics with technological materiality.” (For real.) And her capacities analysis can feel a bit too siloed; the links among narratives, disruptions and elections may take longer to develop than Tufekci wants to wait.

Even so, this has the feel of a work that will be long cited — and deservedly so — by activists, technologists and others grasping at the relationship between our causes and our screens. “Twitter and Tear Gas” is a book that, superimposed on a seemingly familiar landscape, utterly transforms the view.

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