By Alex Hanna
In 2011, as Egypt’s Tahrir Square filled with throngs of newly minted activists, New York’s Zucotti Park with the echoes of the mic check, and the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison with heart-shaped signs and singing teachers, speculation about what spurred this wave of protest events was shared by pundits and academics alike. Popular thinkers and journalists suggested that the activation of thousands of protesters in public squares could be laid at the feet of social media and online technologies such as Facebook and Twitter. On the other hand, it wasn’t too long ago that the sentiment seemed to lie in a completely opposite direction, suggesting that the “revolution will not be tweeted” and that engagement in high-risk activism (McAdam 1986) – especially within the repressive regimes of Egypt and Tunisia – required the strong ties that we would see in the Freedom Summer-era US South. The latter sentiment is still prevalent within social movement scholarship.
Zeynep Tufekci’s book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest is a strong response to both of these positions. Tufekci’s book looks at the protest cycle beginning in 2011 in the Middle East, traveling through Egypt, Tunisia, and her home country of Turkey with the 2013 occupation of Gezi Park, and ends in the modern era as many of the movements for social and political rights in these countries have been severely hampered by the retrenchment of the deep military state. Based on in-person interviews, digital ethnographies, and participant observation, Tufekci attempts to disentangle the many different pieces of the digital activism puzzle. She looks into several different aspects of “networked protest”, including the differences between digitally-born and pre-digital movement emergence, the effects that organizing digitally has on movement longevity, the specific intramovement outcomes which emerge through organizing online, the political cultures associated with digital activism, and the ways that social media platforms enable and constrain action. She also looks into the ways that governments engage in new forms of repression and censorship in the digital activism era.
There are multiple important conceptual distinctions which the book lays out for both social movement theory and how we think about online organizing on a day-to-day level. The book does an excellent job teasing out what digital movements are good at and what they’ve yet to figure out.
One of the main arguments is about the life cycle of a digitally-enabled movement. The argument goes like this: digital tools are often able to solve the collective action problem – we can avoid the problem of pluralistic ignorance and preference falsification under authoritarian regimes (Kuran 1991) because we have semi-public guarantees that a sufficient number of people will attend a protest. This avoids the social costs of being the only one who shows up and the political and embodied costs of encountering state repression and violence. What results is a mass mobilization, often an occupation of a public space. The occupation of the public space has its own intrinsic benefits: people who may have never attended a protest now have a space of collective effervescence in which they can express themselves politically for possibly the first time in their life. However, the decentralized nature of the mobilization itself doesn’t lend itself to adaptability, both tactically and politically. The pre-digitial era of political organizing required an incredible amount of coordination. Tufekci gives as an example an exposition of the sheer amount of work it took to pull off the 1963 March on Washington. The process of organizing has a number of “network internalities”, that is, extra benefits which come from the process of forming networks. Because of the lack of networked infrastructure and the political cultures of horizontalism through which these digital protests are born, these movements are not able to respond effectively to political challenges by the state. They are without leaders who have the authority to speak on behalf of the whole movement and exhibit a “tactical freeze” since the only tactic which they regard as effective is the occupation of public space.
The idea that movements with lack of structure have severe weaknesses is not new (Freeman 1972) within movement studies. But the insight is that this nascent style of digital organizing often takes that character. Much of this argument gels with my experience speaking with Egyptian activists in the summer 2011. Many of them were not sure what would be next for “the revolution” (they would refer to the revolution as sort of political current, as well as an event). They felt wary of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) or of possible takeover by the ikhwaan (the Muslim Brotherhood) and unsure of how to create a political counterbalance. I attended some events, including several open discussion events called “tweet nadwas,” organized by the long-time (and now imprisoned) activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah. There was a rush of new organizations and collectives forming, but none resolving into an organized and effective political force. The Egyptian political future seems bleak for “the revolution,” with Sisi, a military strongman who may be more repressive than Mubarak, currently in charge.
A second important theoretical innovation which Tufekci develops is the idea of signals and capacities. Movements, and especially digital movements signal their particular capacities to political and economic elites. The idea of capacity, borrowed from the field of human development, is ability of activists to foment social change. Typically, we think of capacities in an electoral or policy sense (Amenta et al., 2010). But Tufekci includes two more possible capacities: narrative and disruptive. Narrative capacity refers to agenda-setting and framing abilities of the movement (think Occupy), while disruptive capacity refers to ability to disrupt operations of systems of authorities (think labor strikes). One of the new aspects of digital media, then, is how they can signal the potential for any one of these capacities.
There’s much more to this book, which does a very good job summarizing much of the recent research on the implications of platforms and algorithms, of how modern states engage in censorship and repression, and how these strategies are being entangled with modern American electoral politics. For everyone in your life who claims “it’s easy to click ‘Like’ on a Facebook page, but they aren’t in the streets”, get them to read Twitter and Tear Gas.