Empowerment and Fragility

Zeynep Tufecki’s book, Twitter and Tear Gas, is an insightful analysis of the impact of social media on protests and social movements in today’s radically networked societies.

Most of the commentary about the role of social media in creating political communities either glorifies these media platforms (think Arab spring) or vilifies them for their propensity to spread fake news and to create echo chambers (think Trump’s election campaign). Zeynep Tufecki’s book, Twitter and Tear Gas, however, provides a much-needed nuanced analysis on how digital platforms have altered the way in which a social movement’s dynamics plays out. With the aim of understanding the challenges and strengths of digital activism, Tufecki tells a fascinating story of how social media empowers protests while simultaneously also exacerbating the fragilities of these movements.

It is well known by now that the primary strength of networked public protests is the speed with which large number of people and resources can be mobilised. This is because social media makes it easy to find people who share your political viewpoints even across geographical boundaries. What is not obvious, however, is that the speed and ease of participation also becomes a weakness of the networked movements. This is because ad hoc planning doesn’t allow for building capacities among protesters, which is needed to sustain a movement in the long-term. Often this results in the networked movements facing a tactical freeze in the face of changing circumstances.

For example, Tufecki provides a very moving and detailed account of the sheer intensity of planning and organisation involved in the 1963 Civil Rights march in Washington. She contends that intensive planning helped establish bonds of trust and mutual respect, as well as a natural hierarchy, between members. We do get an in-depth view of how Twitter hashtags were used to meticulously organise the Tahrir square uprisings of Egypt, the Gezi park protests in Turkey, and the Occupy movement in the USA (which then spread to the rest of the world). However, owing to the lightning-fast speed at which these networked protests were organized, the protesters did not build resilience and a capacity for collective decision-making and action.

Although the participatory nature of digital platforms allows for the horizontalism that most social protests aim for, the lack of leadership implies that no one is in-charge of making decisions and no one can be held accountable. This, Tufecki argues, contributes towards “an inability to negotiate and delegate when necessary”. The Governments, as in Gezi park protests, also exploit this lack of structure to their advantage and can negotiate decisions that undercut the movements’ objectives.

In the past, mass media held a monopoly on attention. A protest got coverage based on the decisions of the gatekeepers (editors and owners) of mass media. Had it not been for the pictures of protesters going viral on social media, the world would not have known about the large number of people gathered in Gezi Park in Turkey. Indeed, at the time when CNN International was showing live Gezi protests, CNN Turkey was broadcasting a documentary on penguins! Other Turkish mass media too had censored the protests. However, censorship has acquired new meanings in the age of social media and the tactics for grant (or denial) of public attention play out very differently.

While citizen journalism, facilitated by WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, etc., can be a force for the good (as in Tahrir Square and Gezi park protests), it also leads to the problem of abundance of issues vying for people’s attention. To ensure that a social movement gets large-scale public attention, it becomes crucial to separate “fact from fiction, news from deliberate fraud, and noteworthy information from the glut.” In fact, Tufecki provides many examples of how repressive regimes deny attention to social protests by sowing confusion and planting fiction using troll armies. This technique to inundate people with useless distraction often paralyses citizens into inaction.

In addition to characterising the strengths and challenges of social media led movements, Tufecki develops an interesting theoretical framework to analyse the power of such movements. She uses a signals and capacities approach, and argues that in order to assess the power of a protest, indicators like sizes of crowds and number of rallies are insufficient. Instead, for a protest to be perceived as worthy of attention by the political brass, it must signal three capacities – narrative, disruptive, and institutional or electoral. Using this framework, she then analyses many anti-authoritarian movements and points out the successes and failings of each.

Zeynep Tufecki is a powerful storyteller with the ability to explain complex sociological concepts using easy-to-understand analogies. This book covers a lot of theoretical ground and presents original scholarly concepts, but never loses the interest of a lay reader. Read Twitter and Tear Gas to get a worm’s-eye view of the role Twitter and Facebook played in the Arab uprisings of the Middle East and North Africa. Read it to develop an understanding of the sociology of mass participation and rebellion. Most of all, read it because it’s by far the most fascinating account of the fragility and empowerment that the networked public sphere provides to social movements.

About the author

Nidhi Gupta

Nidhi Gupta is Head, Post-Graduate Programmes at the Takshashila Institution. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research interests lie in behavioural economics and in origins of public opinion.