I’ve been reading articles, blog posts, and tweets by Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish-born scholar who works at the North Carolina School of Information and Library Science and is a long-time Berkman Center figure, for some time, enjoying her commentary on digital platforms and on political happenings around the world. I was excited to learn she had a book coming out that would expand on her analysis of how networked protest uses the internet to advocate for change – and how the powerful use it to surveille dissidents and undermine their messages.
Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (Yale UP) is a very good book – academically rigorous, fun to read, and informed by a wide-ranging knowledge of both protest movements from the Zapatistas to today’s mass marches and the ways that technology Is shaping (and is shaped by) the people who use it to organize. She quotes historian Melvin Kransberg:
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
We have a habit of thinking technology will work miraculously on our political lives as a democratizing force – or, conversely, will make us all stupid. Tufekci’s research reveals how complex the reality is and how the capacity of social networks to spread calls to action quickly and organize massive protests without requiring an established organizational infrastructure contains a hidden weakness: it’s difficult to sustain a movement if it didn’t go through the hard work of negotiating decision-making and building trust and the hard-won strength to respond to new challenges.
Many new protest movements are leaderless by design, with some activists knitted together through friendship and solidarity networks, but when a massive number of people linked by the weak ties of social networks come together, leaderlessness can lead to a few loud voices holding outsized power to prevent forward movement or things can disintegrate into internecine bickering. Many movements that scaled up quickly found themselves facing a “tactical freeze” when circumstances demand a decision be made or some new challenge faced. Movements need a repertoire of capacities to flourish. They can be skilled at communicating a powerful narrative, such as Occupy shining a light on inequality; they can push their cause through disruption – Tahrir Square in Cairo is a major chokepoint for a busy metropolis and filling it with protesters has an effect – or they can engage in political systems to force change, something the Tea Party movement did with great efficacy, partly with funding from deep-pocketed sources but largely because they believed they could capture the flag – and it was worth capturing. Gaining enough faith in existing systems to put in the work of changing them is a challenge many movements don’t think is worthwhile, but is now being addressed by new electorally-focused left-wing movements such as Indivisible.
States that want to preserve their power have also adjusted to the new affordances and constraints of the networked public sphere and have shifted from cutting off internet access (which, it turns out, doesn’t work) to new strategies that take advantage of a major currency of internet communication: attention. Rather than try to squelch protest messages, they now are likely to use multiple strategies to make it hard for a message to get through.
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 (that is increasingly difficult) but to produce resignation, cynicism, and a sense of disempowerment among the people. This can be done in many ways, 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, especially on social media which tends to be harder for a government to control like mass media.
This is a fascinating and timely book in the way it examines political movements, including first-person views of events in Egypt and Turkey, and even internet-only protests such as the mass opposition to SOPA and PIPA, two bills that faced a wave of online opposition that led some to conclude “the internet is angry.” (It was actually more complicated than that.) We can learn a lot from this book about the ways our digital platforms shape and are shaped by people and the decisions they make: whether to have a “real names” policy, whether to use an algorithm to choose what news is fed to whom and in what order, how platforms respond to harassment and mobbing and how people manipulate those design decisions for their own ends.
If you’re interested in what’s happening in the world today, this book is a fascinating read. Even if you’re not, it’s an unusually informative book about digital platforms usually examined apart from political life. Social interactions in the digital world in the context of political activity is insightfully explored through this wonderfully readable academic study.