The Way We Protest Now: Zeynep Tufekci on activism in the age of social media

On January 28, 2011, a man on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street, near Tahrir Square, tries to pick up and throw back a tear-gas canister.

On January 28, 2011, just days after the first protest gathering, a man on Cairo’s Talaat Harb Street, near Tahrir Square, tries to pick up and throw back a tear-gas canister. (Photo by Alisdare Hickson. Original image here. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

For the better part of a decade, we’ve been watching protest movements arise around the world and wondering what role was played by Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Did Facebook bring down the Egyptian government in 2011? How did the Tea Party movement in the United States elect sympathetic legislators while the Occupy Wall Street movement did not? Did Chinese government censorship of online platforms thwart the democracy activists in Hong Kong in 2014? Was it their methods or the activists themselves that succeeded in some cases and not in others? In Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist who has been studying and often participating in digitally networked movements since the late 90s, discusses the new technologies, how they’re used by protest movements, and how they’re used as well as countered by governments and opposing groups.

Writing in The New Yorker in 2010, Malcolm Gladwell summarized a fairly common view, which may be even more common now: “The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism.” He went on to dispute that view, arguing that online organizing doesn’t by itself provide leadership or motivation and that it forges only weak ties that may not stand up in the face of danger or adversity. Tufekci doesn’t side with the evangelists or the naysayers as a general position, but she also doesn’t regard social media as simply a set of tools. Her stance is more that of historian Melvin Kranzberg, who once observed, ”Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

Facebook, for instance, does indeed allow us to form many weak ties, but it’s through weak ties that political news and commentary, among other things, can spread: “weak ties may create bridges to other clusters of people in a way strong ties do not.” To put it simply, people who aren’t your friends in a traditional sense—those who wouldn’t help you move, say—may share your Facebook post if it happens to accord with their interests, and their own “friends” may do the same. This is how a protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, became a big thing, whereas previous protests on that day (it was an annual event for a small group of activists) had not. Nor do these initially weak ties necessarily stay that way: people may go to a protest out of curiosity but join in, go back the next day to support new acquaintances, start playing a particular role in the joint effort, and develop a stronger sense of connection precisely because they’ve faced challenges together. This is especially true for protests that occupy physical spaces, as happened in Tahrir Square among other places, but it can also apply to a cause without an encampment, such as the Tea Party.

Tufekci discusses protest movements, mainly from the recent past but occasionally further back, in terms of what she calls signals and capacities. To put it simply, this approach amounts to saying that a protest movement indicates its abilities through its actions, but her analysis is more structured than that. Tufekci views each movement in terms of three capacities: narrative—how it controls the presentation of its story to the wider public; disruptive—how it affects the normal course of events, such as the functioning of a city; and elective or institutional—how it affects governments and other powerful institutions. Thus, the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the shooting of Michael Brown quickly developed a limited narrative capacity, because the events were reported on Twitter, but the protests didn’t initially turn up on Facebook, because of the way that platform’s algorithms shape what it presents to users. That the story gained prominence was partly due to a coincidence involving reporters for TV networks, who had arrived in the region to report on tornadoes. The 2001 protests in Tahrir Square showed a great deal of disruptive capacity—the activists’ growing presence in the square affected normal business and traffic; likewise, the Montgomery bus boycott, which began in December 1955, hit the transit system in its pocketbook. The Tea Party movement, which arose in 2009, explicitly sought electoral capacity from early on and achieved it. On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in September 2011, advanced some specific policy proposals but mainly focused on calling attention to inequality. In that, it succeeded, but Tufekci sees Occupy as an example of “tactical freeze”—once the encampment was dispersed, this leaderless, non-hierarchical movement had no way of deciding what to do next. Occupy exemplifies a broader problem as well. Tufekci concerns herself in this book mainly with antiauthoritarian movements, many of which distrust traditional institutions and electoral systems; their egalitarian structure is part of what draws people to them, but it hampers their decision-making and sometimes leads them to shy away from concerted action in the political arena.

Just as there are differences among wrenches, insofar as social media platforms and other forms of digital communications are tools, there are differences among them too. Tufekci devotes a section of her book to discussing some of the details of these tools, particularly Facebook. Twitter lets users rely on pseudonyms, which isn’t always a good thing, but Facebook’s real-name requirement can lead to problems too: it tends to be enforced only when someone complains, for instance, and it doesn’t allow for a pseudonym that’s a nom de plume, as with Chinese journalist Michael Anti, whose legal name is unknown to his readers and, according to Tufekci, even to his friends.

Facebook’s algorithmic feed—the site doesn’t show you everything your friends post but instead uses programming methods to select what you see—is also problematic. It’s partly a popularity contest, in which posts that are “liked” are shown to more people, and it’s partly a judgment in advance about what will and won’t generate “likes” and keep people on the site, which matters because Facebook wants to keep your attention in order to please advertisers. A demonstration against police brutality isn’t necessarily something that people will like, which is probably why the Ferguson protests showed up on Twitter before they became apparent on Facebook. That you’re not seeing everything from everybody you know on Facebook may be one of those things that you’ll figure out only if you think about it; many adults are probably like the college class Tufekci describes, in which only 2 of 20 students knew their feed was being tailored.

Facebook also has trouble in attempting to eliminate violent or offensive content. For instance, its monitoring operation relies on the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, which includes the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Though Tufekci doesn’t investigate what this list is meant to do, its web page makes clear it’s not intended as a guide for news reporting, but she found that the list is why Facebook blocked PKK-related pictures from a protest. Yet the photos had nothing to do with inciting violence and had elsewhere been judged worthy of publication on the basis of news value. On another occasion, Facebook deleted a post that included a photo of a naked girl. Reasonable, you might think, but this particular photo had been made during the Vietnam War, it showed the result of a napalm attack, it had won a Pulitzer Prize, and it’s recognized by many as an emblem of the horrors of war. The post was reinstated only after widespread complaints. As Tufekci argues, Facebook’s monitoring process needs a larger staff (after her book went to press, Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg announced that the company would add 3,000 people to the 4,500 already on the job), but the egregious cases of live-streamed murder, suicide, and rape that occurred recently, which prompted the staff expansion, are no more important than the influence wielded by social media and other digital tools, such as Google search results, in shaping users’ view of what’s happening in the world. Decisions about what to block, what to allow, and what to feature require judgment that has often been lacking, as Tufekci says more than once, but judgment isn’t something you can easily go out and hire. It’s clear from her discussion, though she doesn’t put it in so many words, that Facebook needs also to reconsider its nature, its purpose, its role; what began as a diversion, a kind of screen-based happy pill, for a small number of users is now relied on by more than a billion people, and the genuine news that it doesn’t spread matters as much as the fake news that it does.

Governments have sometimes been clumsy in responding to the new digital tools, but they’re catching on. In 2011, the Egyptian government rather crudely responded to the Tahrir Square protests by shutting down cell-phone and Internet service for a while. But it left one ISP unblocked, and its heavy-handed attempt itself generated news. China simply blocks outside sites, allows citizens to rely on internal platforms that it can control, such as the microblogging site Sina Weibo, and mainly censors things that seem to call for action. But this isn’t possible in most countries, which lack indigenous platforms. The most effective government response is counterattack: distraction and disinformation and doubt, spread via social media as well as traditional mass media. The governments of China, Russia, and other countries use these methods; individuals and groups can use digital platforms themselves, to throw their weight behind a government or against a protest movement. (The sixth season of the Showtime series Homeland showed a large operation geared toward a similar purpose, but it doesn’t need to be anywhere near that big to be effective.)

Anyone with a taste for irony will find it in this book. Protest movements that are antiauthoritarian, anticentralization, and anticapitalist find themselves relying on huge capitalist operations that are, despite their reliance on user-generated content, highly centralized and that are, despite being publicly owned in the stock-market sense, largely private. The movements’ deliberately leaderless structure sometimes allows for a tyranny of the minority; Tufekci describes more than one way this can happen. Possibly the choicest irony in the book is the way the Turkish government responded to the attempted military takeover in July 2016: President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a FaceTime call to a TV station, asking citizens to take to the streets and block the military, and that was essentially the turning point. That he used FaceTime was crucial—something that sounded like Erdoğan’s voice wouldn’t have been trusted, because it was often imitated, whereas his image was instantly recognized—but the old-fashioned mass medium of TV was crucial too. You can’t be surprised that a government which had previously restricted the mass media relied on TV when it was convenient, nor can you be surprised that the citizenry had little taste for military rule, having experienced it only a few decades before. And yet it has become increasingly clear since Tufekci’s book went to press that the result was, in effect, a successful coup in reverse.

Unfortunately, the text and the writing leave something to be desired. There are frequent typos, misplaced punctuation, stock expressions instead of concrete descriptions (surely the Kurds of southern Turkey should be introduced as more than “a minority group”), sprinkles of academic jargon, and unclear wording. In a few cases, the text is garbled enough to be hard to interpret. An example: “Another line of reasoning has been that internet is a minority of the population.” However many, or few, people worked on the text, one more wouldn’t have hurt.

There are occasional problems with the discussion as well. Radical and extremist movements such as ISIS use the same digital tools Tufekci describes and raise another set of judgment issues; a look in that direction, in her conclusion if not elsewhere, would’ve been welcome. When Tufekci has a story to tell, she usually does it well, and now and then, as with the development of the Istanbul-based citizen-journalism collective called 140journos, there are gripping moments. But some of her tales fall short. In recounting the Montgomery bus boycott, she describes the effort that went into preparing the initial flyers, via good old-fashioned mimeograph machines, but gives no corresponding detail on how they were distributed, leaving the story feeling incomplete. The story of the Zapatistas seems never even to begin. She refers to them on the first page of the book, calling them “the earliest global social movement of the internet era.” She nods to them again at various later points, but beyond saying that they hoped to protect “communal tribal lands” in the face of some kind of threat from NAFTA, she never makes clear what they wanted, how they formed, what actions they took, what they accomplished. And she repeatedly describes them as a group of “indigenous peasants.” The noun can sound demeaning to American ears; wouldn’t “subsistence farmers” have served?

The chapter of Twitter and Tear Gas devoted to movement cultures is fascinating in its details; that she has visited the encampments and interviewed activists in many countries gives her book a rich grounding in the actual practice of protest that’s the basis for much of its authority. But something is lacking when she steps back to summarize. She reports, “This intense sense of, and desire for, belonging in protest is not an aberration; it is an integral part of the reasons that people protest and rebel.” She expands the point only a little when she says, later on the same page, “This affirmation of belonging outside money relationships and of the intimacy of caring for people is the core of what motivates many to participate in protests.” The desire to belong to something would explain why people join almost anything at all. The anticapitalist, collectivist element that Tufekci mentions here isn’t a universal part of protest; it doesn’t obviously apply to Black Lives Matter and pretty certainly doesn’t apply to the Tea Party. And does it matter that most of the movements she analyzes are left-leaning?

Protests are old; digital technologies are new; the interplay between the two has produced a complex and ever-changing situation that’s both familiar and strange. I know of no better guide to The Way We Protest Now than Twitter and Tear Gas. If one sometimes longs for more detail or greater breadth, it’s only because one wants more of Tufekci’s informed and insightful thinking.

Readers who want a crack at this book but are deterred by the price—students, perhaps, or poorly supported activists, or citizens of developing countries—can obtain a free, Creative Commons–licensed version online, thanks to an arrangement between Tufekci and the Yale University Press. She explains that choice here; you can find a link to the CC version as well as links to a few reviews on the book’s website. For the record, I bought a copy at full list price from the publisher.


2 thoughts on “The Way We Protest Now: Zeynep Tufekci on activism in the age of social media

  1. Thought-provoking discussion, John. I hope you’re posting this on Goodreads too. (Let me know if you do and I’ll comment there as well, to get a discussion going — something that WordPress comments don’t lend themselves to unless you have alternate personae among your followers.


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