Twitter and Tear Gas

by Zeynep Tufekci

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Publisher: Yale University Press
Copyright: 2017
ISBN: 0-300-21512-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 312

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Subtitled The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Twitter and Tear Gas is a close look at the effect of social media (particularly, but not exclusively, Twitter and Facebook) on protest movements around the world. Tufekci pays significant attention to the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party in the United States, Black Lives Matter also in the United States, and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico early in the Internet era, as well as more glancing attention to multiple other protest movements since the advent of the Internet. She avoids both extremes of dismissal of largely on-line movements and the hailing of social media as a new era of mass power, instead taking a detailed political and sociological look at how protest movements organized and fueled via social media differ in both strengths and weaknesses from the movements that came before.

This is the kind of book that could be dense and technical but isn't. Tufekci's approach is analytical but not dry or disengaged. She wants to know why some protests work and others fail, what the governance and communication mechanisms of protest movements say about their robustness and capabilities, and how social media has changed the tools and landscape used by protest movements. She's also been directly involved: she's visited the Zapatistas, grew up in Istanbul and is directly familiar with the politics of the Gezi Park protests, and includes in this book a memorable story of being caught in the Antalya airport in Turkey during the 2016 attempted coup. There are some drier and more technical chapters where she's laying the foundations of terminology and analysis, but they just add rigor to an engaging, thoughtful examination of what a protest is and why it works or doesn't work.

My favorite part of this book, by far, was the intellectual structure it gave me for understanding the effectiveness of a protest. That's something about which media coverage tends to be murky, at least in situations short of a full-blown revolutionary uprising (which are incredibly rare). The goal of a protest is to force a change, and clearly sometimes this works. (The US Civil Rights movement and the Indian independence movement are obvious examples. The Arab Spring is a more recent if more mixed example.) However, sometimes it doesn't; Tufekci's example is the protests against the Iraq War. Why?

A key concept of this book is that protests signal capacity, particularly in democracies. That can be capacity to shape a social narrative and spread a point of view, capacity to disrupt the regular operations of a system of authority, or capacity to force institutional change through the ballot box or other political process. Often, protests succeed to the degree that they signal capacity sufficient to scare those currently in power into compromising or acquiescing to the demands of the protest movement. Large numbers of people in the streets matter, but not usually as a show of force. Violent uprisings are rare and generally undesirable for everyone. Rather, they matter because they demand and hold media attention (allowing them to spread a point of view), can shut down normal business and force an institutional response, and because they represent people who can exert political power or be tapped by political rivals.

This highlights one of the key differences between protest in the modern age and protest in a pre-Internet age. The March on Washington at the height of the Civil Rights movement was an impressive demonstration of capacity largely because of the underlying organization required to pull off a large and successful protest in that era. Behind the scenes were impressive logistical and governance capabilities. The same organizational structure that created the March could register people to vote, hold politicians accountable, demand media attention, and take significant and effective economic action. And the government knew it.

One thing that social media does is make organizing large protests far easier. It allows self-organizing, with viral scale, which can create numerically large movements far easier than the dedicated organizational work required prior to the Internet. This makes protest movements more dynamic and more responsive to events, but it also calls into question how much sustained capacity the movement has. The government non-reaction to the anti-war protests in the run-up to the Iraq War was an arguably correct estimation of the signaled capacity: a bet that the anti-war sentiment would not turn into sustained institutional pressure because large-scale street protests no longer indicated the same underlying strength.

Signaling capacity is not, of course, the only purpose of protests. Tufekci also spends a good deal of time discussing the sense of empowerment that protests can create. There is a real sense in which protests are for the protesters, entirely apart from whether the protest itself forces changes to government policies. One of the strongest tools of institutional powers is to make each individual dissenter feel isolated and unimportant, to feel powerless. Meeting, particularly in person, with hundreds of other people who share the same views can break that illusion of isolation and give people the enthusiasm and sense of power to do something about their beliefs. This, however, only becomes successful if the protesters then take further actions, and successful movements have to provide some mechanism to guide and unify that action and retain that momentum.

Tufekci also provides a fascinating analysis of the evolution of government responses to mass protests. The first reaction was media blackouts and repression, often by violence. Although we still see some of that, particularly against out groups, it's a risky and ham-handed strategy that dramatically backfired for both the US Civil Rights movement (due to an independent press that became willing to publish pictures of the violence) and the Arab Spring (due to social media providing easy bypass of government censorship attempts). Governments do learn, however, and have become increasingly adept at taking advantage of the structural flaws of social media. Censorship doesn't work; there are too many ways to get a message out. But social media has very little natural defense against information glut, and the people who benefit from the status quo have caught on.

Flooding social media forums with government propaganda or even just random conspiratorial nonsense is startlingly effective. The same lack of institutional gatekeepers that destroys the effectiveness of central censorship also means there are few trusted ways to determine what is true and what is fake on social media. Governments and other institutional powers don't need to convince people of their point of view. All they need to do is create enough chaos and disinformation that people give up on the concept of objective truth, until they become too demoralized to try to weed through the nonsense and find verifiable and actionable information. Existing power structures by definition benefit from apathy, disengagement, delay, and confusion, since they continue to rule by default.

Tufekci's approach throughout is to look at social media as a change and a new tool, which is neither inherently good or bad but which significantly changes the landscape of political discourse. In her presentation (and she largely convinced me in this book), the social media companies, despite controlling the algorithms and platform, don't particularly understand or control the effects of their creation except in some very narrow and profit-focused ways. The battlegrounds of "fake news," political censorship, abuse, and terrorist content are murky swamps less out of deliberate intent and more because companies have built a platform they have no idea how to manage. They've largely supplanted more traditional political spheres and locally-run social media with huge international platforms, are now faced with policing the use of those platforms, and are way out of their depth.

One specific example vividly illustrates this and will stick with me. Facebook is now one of the centers of political conversation in Turkey, as it is in many parts of the world. Turkey has a long history of sharp political divisions, occasional coups, and a long-standing, simmering conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurds, a political and ethnic minority in southeastern Turkey. The Turkish government classifies various Kurdish groups as terrorist organizations. Those groups unsurprisingly disagree. The arguments over this inside Turkey are vast and multifaceted.

Facebook has gotten deeply involved in this conflict by providing a platform for political arguments, and is now in the position of having to enforce their terms of service against alleged terrorist content (or even simple abuse), in a language that Facebook engineers largely don't speak and in a political context that they largely know nothing about. They of course hire Turkish speakers to try to understand that content to process abuse reports. But, as Tufekci (a Turkish native) argues, a Turkish speaker who has the money, education, and family background to be working in an EU Facebook office in a location like Dublin is not randomly chosen from the spectrum of Turkish politics. They are more likely to have connections to or at least sympathies for the Turkish government or business elites than to be related to a family of poor and politically ostracized Kurds. It's therefore inevitable that bias will be seen in Facebook's abuse report handling, even if Facebook management intends to stay neutral.

For Turkey, you can substitute just about any other country about which US engineers tend to know little. (Speaking as a US native, that's a very long list.) You may even be able to substitute the US for Turkey in some situations, given that social media companies tend to outsource the bulk of the work to countries that can provide low-paid workers willing to do the awful job of wading through the worst of humanity and attempting to apply confusing and vague terms of service. Much of Facebook's content moderation is done in the Philippines, by people who may or may not understand the cultural nuances of US political fights (and, regardless, are rarely given enough time to do more than cursorily glance at each report).

Despite the length of this review, there are yet more topics in this book I haven't mentioned, such as movement governance. (As both an advocate for and critic of consensus-based decision-making, Tufekci's example of governance in Occupy Wall Street had me both fascinated and cringing.) This is excellent stuff, full of personal anecdotes and entertaining story-telling backed by thoughtful and structured analysis. If you have felt mystified by the role that protests play in modern politics, I highly recommend reading this.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-05-13

Last modified and spun 2018-05-18