To the barricades: Has protesting become too easy?

Isaac Chotiner

Book Review: Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Interview with author Zenep Tufekc. First posted on Slate May 8, 2017.

In her new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Zeynep Tufekci offers a firsthand account of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013, in which demonstrators clashed with the Turkish government over its urban development policies and increasingly autocratic tendencies. “I had become much less optimistic and significantly more cognizant of the tensions between these protesters’ digitally fueled methods of organizing and the long-term odds of their having the type of political impact, proportional to their energy, that they sought,” she writes. “Both the latent weaknesses of these movements and the inherent strengths of their opponents had substantially emerged.”

Tufekci, a social scientist (and former computer programmer) currently at the University of North Carolina and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, worries that today’s “digitally-fueled” protests and movements, if they lack “organizational and other collective capacities,” will be significantly less successful than people once hoped.* Similarly, their reliance on powerful corporations like Twitter and Facebook puts them at the mercy of algorithms and the bottom lines of for-profit enterprises.

I spoke by phone with Tufekci, who grew up in Turkey, recently to discuss a range of protest movements across the globe. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the threats Facebook poses to organized protest, the successes and failures of the resistance to Trump, and the best way to save Obamacare.

Isaac Chotiner: What is your primary concern about networked protests?

Zeynep Tufekci: The thing that I worry about isn’t that they’re going to be less effective. It’s more like they’re going to be not as effective or as powerful in proportion to the energy they can garner, and proportional to the legitimacy they enjoy. And, maybe worse, there are forms of these protests that appear very empowering but are actually introducing new weaknesses.

What’s an example of such a weakness?

One of my big examples is the big march. A lot of people think that if you can pull off a big march, then that’s a huge sign of success. I thought that for a long time. I remember very distinctly being in New York for the big anti-war march in February of 2003 right before the Iraq war started. I thought, “surely they can’t ignore this, this is a huge demonstration of strength.” And Bush just said, “Why should I pay attention to a focus group?” He called it a focus group. Now, at the time, I was offended. But on the other hand, he had a point. The point was: What do these million people mean? Who are these million people, and what else can they do? Already in 2003 we’re talking about the digital technologies being pretty essential to organizing. Right now, they are even more essential. The Women’s March went from a Facebook post to a million people.

Now here’s the problem if you do things this way. In the past, if you wanted to hold a million-person march or a large march, say, the 1963 March on Washington, it took 10 years of sustained movement-building to get to the point where you could even think about it and then it took six months of organizing to be able to hold that march. When you see the people in Washington and the Mall in 1963 and if you’re a person in power, you look at that, and you’re thinking, “If they can pull this off, they have logistics, they have organizational capacity, they have collective decision-making ability, they sat together and figured all this out and hung together.”

When you look at the Women’s March, it’s clear the current president was annoyed by it, but putting that aside, if you’re a legislator or if you’re a person in power, you kind of know it came together very quickly. You know it came from a Facebook post. It doesn’t mean that the organizers didn’t do a lot of work. I’m not belittling anybody’s work. They did a lot of work. I marched myself. But it’s not the same length of time and the same building of capacities as the 1963 march. While it looks the same, it’s not signaling to the powerful the same thing because digital technologies are said to give us springs on our feet. That’s great, but that means that when you need to do the next thing, you don’t necessarily have the muscle.

People say that technology is just a tool, but in your book you say that’s too simplistic.

Right, so technology as a tool assumes that you can do whatever you want with it, like, it’s open to the full range of uses. Now in some sense, obviously, technology is a tool, so there’s a modicum of truth there, but it’s not this unlimited tool. If you have a tool like Twitter that gives everybody the ability to speak, but in 140 characters at a time, it’s almost inevitable that it’s going to encourage some forms of bickering. One-hundred-and-forty characters is prone to misunderstanding. There are real limits to how this thing functions. Now you’re going to say, well, we could design Twitter some other way. We could, but you know what? There’s also these other realities. There’s the business model, which is a social fact in and of itself. There’s the world you live in. There are some features of these technologies that are very material.

I object to the technology as a tool formulation not because it doesn’t have some truth in it, but it’s more like it’s so simplistic that it makes it sound like we can just change our mind and do something else with it and be fine and it doesn’t work that way. It has its own power.

You had a long Twitter thread about how people should have dealt with the House vote to repeal Obamacare. You said you worry the impact of street demonstrations and even phone calls to Congress is declining and that setting fundraising targets is smarter. Why?

I want to be clear: I don’t have any problem with people marching, calling, texting. Probably those are baseline acts to do because if you don’t do them, that probably signals weakness, but in this day in age, when there’s so many automated tools to help you call … I was just looking at one. You send them a text, they find your representative, they forward it. There are all these tools to automatically connect you to the congressperson. When it is easier it doesn’t convey the same threat. A lot of congresspeople are looking at it and saying, “You know what? This took them two minutes, and I don’t know if they’re going to work for three hours against me. I don’t know if they’re going to put in weeks.” The flooding them with phone calls kind of scares them, but they think it doesn’t mean the same thing it did before because there are all these tools to make it easier, and there’s a question of constituent versus nonconstituent calls.

I was thinking that if you really wanted to put a real scare into the 20 or 30 Republicans [in particularly vulnerable districts], if you put up a fundraising page, a single fundraising page, and I raise a huge amount very quickly, it sends a signal. Money is a little more costly, obviously, than sending a text. It’s also sending a signal that we can organize this and we can put in large numbers and we’re going to spend this against you. And I don’t mean this to say that the other forms don’t work. It depends on how you organize them. If, for example, congresspeople go back to town halls and they meet enormous crowds that just are sticking there and that this thing doesn’t die down and it appears clear that people are going to spend a lot of effort to defeat you, that’s going to spook legislators because their jobs and their future is pretty significant to them.

One thing about the March on Washington and the demonstrations at airports after Trump’s proposed Muslim ban that I thought was interesting is that those seemed to have some effect on elites, including people in Congress.

Absolutely. I thought the airport protests absolutely had a huge impact, multiple impacts. One, it was completely unexpected. It was like people around the country just jumped up. It kind of showed you there were a large number of people willing to go and fight to rescue refugees from detainment. Until now there has been all this trash talk about refugees and how they’re snakes and all of that and there hadn’t been a single demonstration of the fact that a lot of Americans actually want to give refuge to people fleeing war and that was the first one, so you saw that. The second thing was there was a major legal effort organized, that people just filed habeas corpus one by one, so there was a real demonstration of “We’re going to sue you one by one.” The [American Civil Liberties Union] raised I forgot how many tens of millions like in one day. It was this multiprong thing that was surprising, that was a demonstration that large numbers of Americans care. It was held in all sorts of places. Nebraska had one and all these little places with tiny airports had one.

So the argument isn’t that demonstrations don’t have power. The argument is they work differently than before and in the right moment they could be very powerful, but just a routine march by itself should be seen as the first step. Lawmakers, sometimes they get surprised by something and they assess it to be powerful even when it’s not really signaling that kind of capacity. A movement has to say, “All right, we kind of pulled of this thing with the help of digital technologies that gave us a lot of the lift, but now we need to build the longer-term capacity; otherwise, the powerful are eventually going to figure this out and not take us to be a threat. We managed to imply a threat, but now we have to make sure it is real.” This happens a lot.

How did these ideas you are expressing manifest themselves in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt?

I have a lot of friends in jail in Egypt right now, and I don’t know, maybe they never stood a chance. What I do know is that they found it difficult to tactically move forward after Tahrir Square. They found it difficult to make an electoral transition. They found coalition-building difficult.

If you can’t collectively make decisions, it ends up you’re just bickering on Twitter because there’s no mechanism to make the decision and bickering on Twitter is not a decision-making system. It’s a very destructive way, anyway. So that happens to a lot of movements. They can’t make decisions because they don’t have a mechanism and the disagreements that every movement naturally has just turn into this internal strife, which movements have always had, but right now we have the internal strife playing out in public through retweets and likes and angry emoji and that’s very destructive.

Another inherent problem is that these online protests are by definition happening on platforms run by very large companies, which gives those companies some control. How big a fear is this in the future, especially with Facebook?

If you’re on Facebook and you’re trying to reach out, you really have to figure out how to feed and please its algorithm. If you don’t, people aren’t going to see your stuff because the algorithm is not going to show it to them. A lot of activist movements, they turn to feeding Facebook’s algorithm and they turn to feeding whatever they think will make people share more, so Facebook’s algorithm and people’s own cognitive biases are kind of intertwined. What I see a lot of times in, say, Facebook, if you want to look at the left side of it, you see the kind of conspiracy left emerging because, well, I mean people share it either to argue with it or to agree with it. In the end, the sharing and the algorithm likes that stuff so it spreads even more.

In the early days after the Ferguson protests broke out, Facebook’s algorithm was instead favoring the Ice Bucket Challenge at the time. The algorithm loved it. I loved it too, right? It’s a great thing. My friends are donating to this under-researched disease. It’s summer, August, cold water, people shrieking and then you get tagged. But there’s only so much attention in the world and the feed is going to show you one thing or the other and if you have that as the thing that the algorithm is pushing, it is crowding out the Ferguson stuff partly because the Ferguson news wasn’t likable. A teenager had gotten killed in murky conditions. It was horrible. How could you click on “like”? And at the time all you could click on Facebook was “like.” I couldn’t like it. Nobody could like it and then you couldn’t signal to the algorithm that this is important. It kind of got smothered, algorithmically.

So another thing for movements is that the structure and technology that you have available, if it’s only likes or if it’s only retweets as on Twitter, it limits the kind of signal you can send to the algorithm to get it shared, and it’s just inevitable that the movements start playing to the signal, or get ignored.

When you look at the resistance to Trump so far, how do you evaluate it, and what has surprised you or not surprised you?

Well, I think it’s so early. I think there’s great energy. I think there is great legitimacy that they enjoy. What is probably going to happen now, which I’ve seen with a lot of movements, is that after the initial phase and after the initial euphoria, it becomes … There’s a moment where you kind of realize, “whoa, this isn’t really going to be easy” because it’s not. Then disillusionment can set in and that’s when you need the understanding that, you know, things take time. Digital technology can empower in some sort of ways, but it’s not some gimmick. The question becomes will people continue sticking with it and building capacity or not?

This is a reality-check moment, right? The [Obamacare] repeal vote has happened today, as we’re speaking. Trump is not going away in some magical impeachment. That kind of stuff won’t happen unless the Republican legislature get really scared, and that’s probably not going to happen before the 2018 elections. These things are here for a while, so is there the energy for sustained capacity building or not? That’s kind of this moment of collective decision.

This post first appeared on May 8, 2017. Read interview on Slate

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