Twitter and Tear Gas

The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests

Zeynep Tufekci’s book spans the Zapatista uprisings in Mexico, the Occupy movement a Turkish coup, Arab Spring, fake news, and more—and provides the most lucid analysis of the ways digital networked media has both enabled social justice movements and been used to thwart them. Where much of the writing on this topic is facile—proposing that social media is either a means to utopia or else a dangerous distraction—Tufekci carefully and patiently disects how movements have used Twitter and other networks to rapidly convene powerful protests, as well as how that rapid development has left many a social movement without the organizational power to move beyond its initial success. Moreover, the same tools are available to progressive protestors and oppressive regimes, and the latter are just as adept at learning and making use of them as the former. Required reading.

Reading notes

Social media curatorial journalism

In May of 2013, a protest broke out in Instanbul’s Gezi Park in response to an urban development plan that called for demolishing the park. As international attention about the Gezi Park protests grew, the state-sanctioned media in Turkey maintained an official blackout. At one point, Tufekci explains, CNN International was broadcasting about the protests while CNN Turkey aired a documentary about penguins. In response, a group of four young journalists created a collective called “140journos” and attempted to fill the void that the mainstream press had left behind:

The role that 140journos sought did not come with a script. In fact, much of what its founders knew about news and journalism wasn’t helpful at all. Their first impulse was to become volunteer journalists. They started going to events, including significant political court cases, that they thought were newsworthy but were not being reported on, and they would tweet from them. They would often be the only reporters remaining in the room after the judge would throw out all the traditional journalists. What could a few youngsters be doing on their phones? They also started going to observe protests and other events across the political spectrum just so they could report on them.

When I first met these young people, early in their journey, I told them that I noticed they were acting like journalists who happened to be citizens rather than capitalizing on the special capabilities of the tool. Often, they traveled to various venues—important court cases, demonstrations, and other events—and reported from the scene. This clearly limited what they could do because they could report only from where they were.

They soon decided to shift course. Replicating old-style journalism and merely using social media were not going to harness the potential of having so many connected phones in so many ordinary hands.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 41

140journos evolved new tactics where they observed activity across social media, curating and verifying information from a vantage point where they could see more than any individual could spot on the ground. In other words, rather than view the vast number of people with connected phones as an audience they needed to reach, they saw them as a network of sources they could sift through to understand what was actually going on. Tufekci defines this style of journalism as social media curatorial journalism:

Traditional journalism tries to solve a problem of scarcity: lack of cameras at an event. Social media curatorial journalism tries to solve a problem of abundance: telling false or fake reports from real ones and composing a narrative from a seemingly chaotic splash-drip-splash supply of news.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 42

Two years later, in the summer of 2015, violence erupted between Kurdish insurgents and the Turkish government. This time, the Turkish mass media did report on the event, but their version of events was unreliable. So people again turned to their phones, where things were even more confusing:

The news seemed awful. People posted pictures of women and children who had been shot, houses that had been destroyed, and streets that were littered with ammunition. Every picture that went viral, though, was immediately met with the claim that it was either a hoax, a Photoshopped picture, or that it came from another war or another location, such as Gaza, Chechnya, or Egypt. The locations were always claimed to be someplace else—anywhere but Turkey.…

I talked to other journalists, including the team at 140journos…whose members had developed some of the most advanced methods I had seen for verification of citizen media in Turkey. They were also stumped. There was rarely enough information to do the kind of thorough checking they can do when citizen journalists are reporting from the ground. The round-the-clock curfew had made most of their ordinary methods useless. Unable to verify, they, too, resorted to “here are some claims and here are some counterclaims” style of reporting, which did not offer any clarity. The only options were to believe whatever you might have believed initially or to give up trying to make sense of it all.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 245

So a set of tactics that had been useful for breaking through government censorship and bringing attention to social movements was felled by a different kind of censorship—that from a glut of unverified and chaotic information. Elsewhere in the book, Tufekci compares this to a denial of service attack—a method where you can take a site or server down by flooding it with too many connections, often using robots or machines that have been commandeered to serve that purpose. I’ve heard similar comparisons, and thought of it often in light of the news cycle leading up to and following the US election. Flood the network with too much information, cast doubt on any information that is shared, and you make it too hard to find the truth in the noise. You may even convince people that there is no truth—that nothing can be believed. Technical denial of service attacks are challenging to deal with, but there are methods that work; but we don’t really have good strategies for dealing with information denial of service—at least, not yet.

Design affordances

On how digital tools can facilitate or impede organizing, in the case of @TahrirSupplies, a Twitter account set up to coordinate supply needs during the Tahrir Square protests in 2011:

Digital tools are not uniform. Rather they have a range of design affordances that facilitate different paths….For the moment, I focus on Twiter, Tahrir Supplies’ tool of choice. A common misconception about Twitter is that one must already have a high follower account to gain attention. In fact, two key features of Twitter enable anyone with compelling content to gain a whirlwind of attention…Twitter provides a “mentions” column that shows any user of your Twitter handle in a post by another user, providing a record of how people are interacting with you. Since anyone may “@mention” or “tag” you, this feature provides an opening for people to mention you even if you do not know or follow them. You can, of course, ignore your mentions, but most people look at them since that is how people talk to them. @TahrirSupplies used @mentions to access high-follower users and, through them, to quickly reach thousands or even millions of people. In contrast, Facebook is designed more for communiction by mutual consent—you mostly talk to people who have agreed to be your Facebook friends, especially if your privacy is set at a high level. This makes Facebook more suitable to conversations among presumed equals, where both parties agree to the conversation in advance. As a result, Facebook has different affordances for political organizing than Twitter’s ability to ping anyone.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 55

Of course, the same affordances on Twitter that facilitate organizing also make Twitter users more susceptible to abuse. If you can ping anyone, you can hurl death threats as easily as you can a request for help. And the platform doesn’t distinguish between organzing for social justice versus organizing for white nationalism. Figuring out how to design for the former while not the latter is a real challenge.

Tactical freeze

Tufekci notes how networked protests can build up very quickly—often appearing overnight, even—but that early organizing power doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term strength.

This Gezi Park moment, going from almost zero to massive movement within days, clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools. However, with this speed comes weakness, some of it unexpected. First, these new movements find it difficult to make tactical shifts because they lack both the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions. Often unable to change course after the initial, speedy expansion phase, they exhibit a “tactical freeze.” Second, although their ability (as well as their desire) to operate without defined leadership protects them from co-optation or “decapitation,” it also makes them unable to negotiate with adversaries or even inside the movement itself. Third, the ease with which current social movements form often fails to signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 71

Elsewhere, Tufekci mentions Jo Ann Freeman’s Tyranny of Structurelessness in referring to the challenges of networked protest movements, connecting the problems of current leaderless movements to those of consciousness-raising groups during second-wave feminism. The similarities are striking.

The flawed but real elections that took place in Egypt after Tahrir were, for the most part, not popular with many of the young people who had played a major role in the protest.

Many of these young activists boycotted the first elections held in the country. “Elections will never change anything,” some of them told me, with the same distrust of electoral politics as their seasoned counterparts in the West even though they had not experienced a single election or duly elected government in their lifetime. “How do you know?” I would ask them, somewhat bewildered that they were so firm in making up their mind about elections in a country without elections. They would confidently repeat that they knew elections never changed anything. Their values were already aligned with the mistrust of representation that was widespread in global movements elsewhere, and also stemming from their own local experience with an autocracy.

It was globalization from below: the protest culture wrapped up with the shortcomings of electoral politics in more advanced countries was affecting how activists in Egypt responded to conditions in their own country. “What’s the way forward then?” I would ask. The answer almost inevitably came back to Tahrir. It was a freeze: tactically, politically and emotionally. Tahrir or bust.

Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas, page 80

It may well be that protestors are already learning the lessons from this phase of networked protests. At several events I attended following the inauguration this year, speakers repeated a statement to the effect of, “if you leave this protest unaffiliated with an organization, you have fucked up.” At a few events, the list of organizations involved took a noticeable amount of time to announce. Some of those orgs will falter or lose steam, but if even a few of them persist and develop, we may be able to avoid the tactical freeze that Tufekci describes.