Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2017, xxxi+ 326 pp. (hardcover), 978-0-300-21512-0. https://www.twitterandteargas.org/
Originally published in Internet Histories.
In August 2014 I took part in a panel conversation at the Society of American Archivists meeting in Washington DC that focused on the imperative for archivists to interrogate the role of power, ethics and regulation in information systems. The conference itself stands out in my memory, because it began on 10 August, the day after Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. I distinctly remember the hand that shot up immediately during the Q&A period to ask what, if anything, we will remember of the voices from Ferguson in social media, that raised awareness of the injustice that had occurred there. Before anyone had much of a chance to respond another voice asked whether anyone had seen the blog post about how radically different Twitter and Facebook’s presentations of Ferguson were. The topic of power, ethics and regulation were not simply academic subjects for discussion, they were demands for understanding from information professionals actively engaged in the work of historical production.
The blog post mentioned that day was What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson by Zeynep Tufekci. It was published on the social media platform Medium, as the sustained protests in Ferguson began to propel the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter into many Twitter timelines and newsrooms around the world. Like so much of her work, Tufekci’s post asked her readers to think critically about the algorithmic shift we have been witnessing in our media and culture since the advent of the web and the rise of social media. Tufekci is a consummate public scholar, who uses online spaces like her blog, Twitter, Medium, TED talks and editorials in the The Atlantic and The New York Times to advance a crucial discussion of how the affordances of information technology are both shaped, and being shaped, by social movements and political infrastructures. It is a pivotal time for scholars to step out from the pages of academic journals and into the World Wide Web spaces that are grappling with the impact of post-truth politics and fake news. It is into this time and place that Tufekci’s first book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest is launched.
Tufekci’s book is divided into three main parts 1) Making a Movement, 2) A Protester’s Tools, and 3) After the Protests. While these suggest a chronological ordering to the discussion, the different parts, and the ten chapters found within them, reflect a shifting attention to the specifics of networked social movements. Part 1 provides the reader with a general discussion of how the networked public sphere operates with respect to social movements. This is followed by Part 2 which takes a deeper dive into the specific affordances and sociotechnical logics of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google. And finally, Part 3 integrates the previous discussion by articulating a theory for how social movements function in, and through, online spaces.
Throughout the book Tufekci focuses on the specifics of protest and counter-protest, while stressing that social media spaces are not disembodied and virtual phenomena, but are actual, contingent configurations of people, technology and power. In teasing out the dimensions of networked public sphere Tufekci reminds me of Kelty’s concept of a recursive public in which the public’s participants are actively engaged in the maintenance, modification and design of the technical and material means that sustain the public itself (Kelty, 2008). In many ways Twitter and Tear Gas hacks the sociopolitical systems that it describes. It’s no mistake that the book is licensed with the Creative Commons and is freely downloadable from it’s companion website.
Prior to her academic career, Tufekci worked as a software developer at IBM where she first encountered the information infrastructure we call the Internet. You can sense this training and engagement with practice in her work which always seems to be pushing up against, but not overstepping, the art of what is possible. As a sociologist she brings the eye of an ethnographer to her study of protest. Tufekci is not a distant observer, but a participant, with actual stakes in the political outcomes she describes. She is pictured on the dust jacket wearing a helmet to protect her from tear gas canisters that were shot into the crowd that she was a part of in the Gezi Park protests. The book sits on the solid foundations of her own experience as well as the experiences of activists and organisers that she interviews. But Twitter and Tear Gas also significantly engages with sociological theories to bring clarity and understanding to how social media and social movements are co-produced.
In the pages of Twitter and Tear Gas you will find scenes of protests from around the world that are put into conversation with each other. From Zapatista solidarity networks, to the disruption of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the global anti-war protests after 9/11, to [Occupy]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_movement) in Zuccotti Park, the Egyptian Revolution in Tahrir Square, the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, the Indignados in the Plaza del Sol, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and BlackLivesMatter in Ferguson, Missouri. Twitter and Tear Gas functions as a historical document that describes how individuals engaged in political action were empowered and inextricably bound up with social media platforms. While it provides a useful map of the terrain for those of us in the present, I suspect that Twitter and Tear Gas will also be an essential text for future historians who are trying to reconstruct how these historical movements were entangled with information technology, when the applications, data sources and infrastructures no longer exist, or have been transformed by neglect, mergers and acquisitions, or the demands for something new, into something completely different. Even if we have web archives that preserve some “sliver of a sliver” of the past web (Harris, 2002) we still need to remember the stories of interaction and the technosocial contingencies that these dynamic platforms provided. Despite all the advances we have seen in information technology a book is still a useful way to do this.
One of the primary theoretical contributions of this text is the concept of capacity, or a social movement’s ability to marshal end effect narrative, electoral and disruptive change. Tufekci outlines how the affordances of social media platforms make possible the leaderless adhocracy of just-in-time protests, and how these compare to our historical understanding of the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The use of hashtags in Twitter allow protesters to communicate at a great speed and distance to mobilise direct action in near real time. Planning the Civil Rights Movement took over a decade, and involved the development of complex communication networks to support long term strategic planning.
Being able to skip this capacity building phase allows networked social movements to respond more quickly and in a more decentralised fashion. This gives movements currency and can make them difficult for those in power to control. But doing so can often land these agile protests in what Tufekci calls a tactical freeze, where, after an initial successful march, the movement is unable to make further collective decisions that will advance their cause. In some ways this argument recalls Gladwell (2010) who uses the notion of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) to contend that social media driven protests are fundamentally unable to produce significant activism on par with what was achieved during the civil rights era. But Tufekci is making a more nuanced point that draws upon a separate literature to make her argument, notably the capacity in development work of Sen (1993) and the capability theory of justice of Nussbaum (2003). Tufekci’s application of these concepts to social movements, and her categories of capacity, combined with the mechanics of signaling by which capacities observed and responded to operate as a framework for understanding why we cannot use simple outcome measures, such as numbers of people who attend a protest, when trying to understand the impact of networked social movements. For those who are listening she is also pointing to an area that is much in need of innovation, experimentation and study: tools and practices for collective decision-making that will allow people to thaw these tactical freezes.
Another significant theoretical thread running through Twitter and Tear Gas concerns the important role that attention plays in understanding the dynamics of networked protest. Social media is well understood as an attention economy, where users work for likes and retweets to get eyes on their content. Social and financial rewards can follow from this attention. While networked protest operates in a similar fashion, the dynamics of attention can often work against its participants, as they criticise each other in order to distinguish themselves. Tufekci also relates how the affordances of advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook made it profitable for Macedonian teenagers to craft and spread fake news stories that would draw attention away from traditional news sources, generate clicks and ad revenue, and as a side effect, profoundly disrupt political discourse.
Perhaps most significant is the new role that attention denial plays in online spaces, as a tactic employed by the state and other actors seeking to shape public opinion. Tufekci calls this the Reverse-Streisand Effect, since it uses the Internet to funnel attention to topics other than a particular topic at hand. She highlights the work of King, Pan, & Roberts (2013) that analysed how China’s so-called 50 Cent Army of web commenters shapes public opinion not simply by censoring material on the web, but by drawing attention elsewhere at key moments. Social media platforms are geo-political arenas, where bot armies are deployed to drown out hashtags and thwart communication, or attack individuals with threats and volumes of traffic that severely disrupt the target’s use of the platform. When people’s eyes can be guided, or pushed away, censorship is no longer needed. It is truly chilling to consider the lengths that those in power, or seeking power, might stoop to, in order to provide these events when needed.
As significant as these theoretical contributions are, it is Tufekci’s personal voice combined with flashes of insight that I remember most from Twitter and Tear Gas. Details such as the use of the use of Occupy’s human microphone to amplify speaker’s voices and shape speech is a poignant metaphor for Twitter’s capacity for amplifying short message bursts that cascade through the network as retweets. In another Tufekci considers why so many protest camps set up libraries, and connects the work being done in social media to the work of pamphleteers throughout history. She describes the surreal experience of watching pastel hearts float across Periscope videos from Turkish Parliamentarians that were preparing to be bombed during an attempted coup. Near the end of the book she draws an analogy between the rise of fake news fueled by social media, and the ways in which Gutenberg’s printing press escalated the Catholic Church’s distribution of indulgences, opening itself up to the criticism found in Luther’s 95 theses–which were also printed. The stories work is generative of a humanistic outlook that does not deny or celebrate big data:
There is no perfect, ideal platform for social movements. There is no neutrality or impartiality–ethics, norms, identities, and compromise permeate all discussions and choices of design, affordances, policies, and algorithms on online platforms. And yet given the role of the these platforms in governance and expression, acknowledging and exploring these ramifications and dimensions seems more important than ever. (p. 185)
In fact, saying that Tufekci’s book has an explicit narrative arc is an oversimplification. It functions more like a fabric that weaves theory, observation and story, as topics are introduced and returned to later; there is no set chronology or teleology that is being pursued. On finishing the book it is clear how the concepts of attention and capacity are present throughout. But Tufekci makes these theoretical connections not with over abstraction and heavy citation, but by presenting scenes of protest where these concepts are being enacted. While there are certainly references to the supporting literature, the text is not densely packed with them. Finer theoretical manoeuvres are reserved for the endnotes, and do not overwhelm the reader as they move through the text. If you are teaching a course that surveys either communications, sociology or the politics of social media platforms and information infrastructures more generally Twitter and Tear Gas belongs on your syllabus. Your students will thank you: they can download the book for free, they can follow Tufekci on Twitter and Facebook, and her book speaks directly to the socio-political moment we are all living in.