Twitter and Tear Gas

The brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, 2020 sparked widespread protest across the US. In Seattle, where I live, demonstrations centered in an area called Capitol Hill. For nearly a month protesters occupied about six city blocks and a large downtown park in what became known as “the CHOP” or Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. Police eventually cleared the area.

I remember being amazed at how quickly the CHOP was organized, yet in the end it didn’t seem to accomplish much. It looked very similar to the Occupy Wall Street protest of 2011 and to similar protests around the world. There’s a pattern here: protesters mobilize very quickly over social media, yet they are not able to achieve lasting change.

What’s going on?

Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci analyzes these protest movements in her book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.

Cover of Twitter and Tear Gas

Twitter and Tear Gas
By Zeynep Tufekci
Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017

Zeynep Tufekci (pronounced ZAY-nep too-FEK-chee) is an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She grew up in Istanbul, started her career as a computer programmer, and later switched to sociology. She’s a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a columnist for The New York Times, On March 17, 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, she published a New York Times opinion piece titled Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired that is widely credited with causing the CDC to change its public guidance on mask-wearing. She’s become kind of a celebrity commentator these days. I’m a fan too.

Twitter and Tear Gas was published in 2017 so I was a bit worried it might be out of date. It’s not. The book is still very pertinent and contains some deep insights.

Affordances, Capacities, and Signals

The main idea of Twitter and Tear Gas is that social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, provide features or affordances that allow digitally networked social movements to organize and build certain capacities very quickly. At the same time, this speed comes at the cost of not developing other capacities needed to sustain a long-term struggle. As a result, these movements are often unable to send meaningful signals of their ability to seriously challenge established authorities.

Affordances, capacities and signals are the core concepts that Tufekci develops throughout the book. It sounds dry and academic, and in some places it is, but Tufekci brings these ideas vividly to life by taking us inside important protests through her personal recollections and her interviews and conversations with dozens of activists who were directly involved.  She spends a great deal of time analyzing the 2013 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, her home town. She also looks at the protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements in the US, the Zapatista protests in Mexico and even the rise of the Tea Party.

This is all intermingled with a deep analysis of the impact and limitations of social media on protest movements. 

The internet and social media have been powerful catalysts for protest movements. They enable people with similar views and interests to find and connect with each other and they help bridge geographic, cultural, religious, and social divides. (Nerd note: they connect disjoint graph components.)  These technologies change the “architecture of connectivity” within a society, Tufekci says, even for people who are not on social media themselves.

Digital technologies empower networked protest movements to organize quickly and cheaply, communicate globally and evade censorship and traditional media gatekeepers. This enables them to control their own narratives – one of the key capacities that Tufekci argues are critical for movement success. (The other critical capacities are the ability to influence electoral or institutional change, and the ability to disrupt normal operations of society using tactics like boycotts and barricades.)

At the same time, she explains, modern protest movements typically have a deep distrust of traditional structures of authority including representational democracy. They are often deliberately leaderless. Social media facilitates this decentralized, horizontal structure, but it leaves these organizations with no agreed-upon processes for decision making. As a result, they often cannot formulate a clear set of demands, are unable to negotiate with the authorities, and most debilitating of all, they often become trapped in a “tactical freeze” which leaves them unable to adapt to changing threats and circumstances.   

This is the part that puzzles me: why go to all the effort, not to mention personal risk, of organizing and participating in these sorts of protests when they don’t have lasting impact? Tufekci explains that, in many ways, the connection formed through protest is the objective:

“Whatever their context, be it saving a park in Istanbul or protesting inequality in New York or overthrowing a dictator in Egypt, these protests are characterized by a desire for nonmarket human connections, participation, voice, agency, community, and diversity. It is not that today’s protesters do not care about the moment beyond the protest, or that they do not take policy goals seriously. Rather, many of these protests spring from a deep lack of faith that they will be able to achieve these goals through institutional or electoral means. These types of protests cannot just increase their instrumental side, focusing more on elections, for example, and remain what they are. Their profound alienation from ordinary politics is inseparable from their commitment to protest, and this affects all levels, from the top to the bottom. Their desire for participation creates challenges, especially to tactical decision making and shifts, but it is also part of the bedrock of the movement they want to participate in precisely because they are seeking a voice and a community.” [p. 112]

Tufekci contrasts these networked movements with the Black activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The March on Washington took about a year to organize. The activists had many internal disagreements along the way. But by doing the slow, painstaking work of planning and building an extensive organization, they developed processes for making decisions and changing tactics when necessary. Most importantly they developed trust in each other. Tufekci calls these “network internalities” which endow an organization with resilience, longevity and the capacity to signal a sustained challenge to authority.

Unsolicited Feedback

Throughout the book, Tufekci’s arguments are nuanced and balanced. She sees the benefits of social media for protest movements, but also their drawbacks. She discusses in some detail how social media policies, business models and algorithms can both help and hinder protesters, and the governments they are challenging.  She calls out, correctly in my opinion, that the online world – cyberspace – isn’t some separate place disconnected from the offline world. The two are deeply connected and must be understood as influencing each other.

Twitter and Tear Gas is not an instruction manual for how to build a successful social movement. As Tufekci repeatedly notes, there are no easy answers to help movements overcome the limitations of social media and to build the capacities they need to achieve long term change. But the book does provide lively discussion, an insider’s perspective, and a conceptual framework for understanding how social media has dramatically affected the trajectories of networked social movements.

If you’ve read Twitter and Tear Gas or other books on similar topics, please let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

Zeynep Tufekci on Systems Thinking
Transcript of February 2, 2021 interview with Ezra Klein of The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci on the Sociology of the Moment
August 25, 2021 interview with Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution

This entry was posted in Books, Computers and Internet, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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