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Wed, Jun. 7th, 2017, 12:09 pm
Twitter and Tear Gas

Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest: Tufecki’s important and sobering thesis is that the very affordances of new technologies that make them useful for organizing also make them dangerous—they allow people to skip the hard, grinding work of building capacity and making connections that last for the long term, and movements need to be able to work in the long term. Things like protests are, she argues, symbols to politicians of the group’s power to do other things (such as vote or revolt for real) and so if they become really easy to organize they lose that coercive/persuasive force. She argues that “tactical innovation is crucial for movements over the long term,” using the civil rights movement from 1955-1964 as an example, which shifted from bus boycotts to sit-ins to freedom rides to large-scale protest and more. By contrast, modern internet-enabled movements have been able to “devise initial innovative tactics and pull off a spectacular action, but they were unable to change tactics along the way.” Because they succeeded initially so quickly, they hit their first real challenges fast, “with little or no prior experience in collective decision making and little resilience.” Thus it’s possible for a movement to be powerful and large, but at the same time “underprepared and fragile.” Among other things, people who suddenly find themselves de facto leaders or spokespeople lack real influence among other members of the movement, and have few ways to resolve differences or make decisions. Because disputes occur in public in real-time, moreover, they are harder to paper over and forget about in the interest of moving forward. (Tumblr, I’m looking at you.) If you’ve read Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm which Tufekci cites, you’ve seen a lot of this story before, the difference being that attacks from within are made in public, deepening polarization and “exposing the most visible people to attacks from outside the movement.”

Tufekci's stories about how people came to activism from other activities online sounds a lot like some fannish trajectories I’ve seen; she also documents examples of creativity and innovation that came from taking non-activist online strategies—like viral promotion of cupcakes—and turning them to political ends. Digital technologies allow people to “start building, and ask questions later.” Someone not even in the country could effectively help coordinate a response to events there, and could also curate and correlate individual tweets etc. to get a better picture of what was happening on the ground than an individual journalist who was present. (At least at first.) All this can occur without any traditional forms of organization or preexisting institutions. And this changes the balance of power between government and protestors; government used to have a monopoly on easy communication and organized medical interventions.

Tufekci covers the stresses and dangers of such organizing, and also the joys of protest—the way that protest brings people together and makes them feel like part of something bigger, in a way that’s difficult to achieve by other means. I felt this myself at the Women’s March. “Many people are drawn to protest camps because of the alienation they feel in their ordinary lives as consumers. Exchanging products without money is like reverse commodity fetishism: for many, the point is not the product being exchanged but the relationship that is created …. [T]he conspicuous lack of money is less about resources than about taking a stance regarding the worth of human beings.” She argues that free libraries, a staple at modern protests of this type, and protestors’ common practices of cleaning the spaces they’re occupying almost to excess, both express something crucial about protestors’ self-concepts, which reject (solely) capitalist interactions and often even regular politics—the latter very much to their (and our) detriment. In Turkey, for example, while the Gezi protest movement against the demolition of a popular park, which was to be carried out at the behest of rich developers, was initially effective, government-favoring groups organized and mobilized with an eye towards elections. And they won, as did the Tea Party groups that, with substantial funding from rich donors, did the same in the US. “Elections will never change anything,” she says Egyptian activists told her, even though they hadn’t had a free election in their lives. “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 autocracy.” But what then is the way forward? She says that they answered with references back to Tahrir Square. “It was a freeze: tactically, politically, and emotionally…. There was no organizational structure or leadership in place that was strong enough to overcome this freeze.”

Tufekci calls the long-term capacities developed by working together “network internalities,” analogizing them to the more well-known “network externalities” of networks that gain in value as more people join. These internalities require “the constant work of negotiation and interaction.” They build trust and allow groups to change position and negotiate with other groups—she analogizes this to building muscles that allow groups to do more later.

Tufekci also investigates the difficulties caused by relying on commercial platforms, specifically Facebook and its real-name policy. This policy, which is only enforced when someone else complains, can endanger activists, and even when it doesn’t, it provides an easy means of harassment by pro-government forces. Facebook’s response, to allow use of another name when it’s in common use, usually requires people to provide documents like school IDs—which Tufecki points out are most likely to be available to people in relatively privileged positions in developed countries, thus muting their protest but leaving similar people without such forms of ID exposed. Facebook’s content moderation may also be politically ignorant, or worse: “in almost any country with deep internal conflict, the types of people who are most likely to be employed by Facebook are often from one side of the conflict—the side with more power and privileges.” Facebook’s team overseeing Turkish content, in particular, is in Dublin, disadvantaging non-English speakers and women (whose families are less likely to be willing to relocate for their jobs).

The media also likes to focus on the most flamboyant members or actions of a group; Tufecki argues that this creates dangers without a structure behind those highlights, because individuals can easily be prompted to be more and more extreme for attention, whereas successful groups like ACT-UP followed up their stunts with political and administrative pressure. Stunts that get lots of attention “can interfere with the movement’s control of the narrative.” The alternative (and this is something that I think about with the OTW) is to form NGOs that “play[] as nicely as possible by media rules,” though that requires “large amounts of resources and cultural capital.” As a result, spokespeople tend to come from higher social strata, increasing tensions within a movement.

Effective government responses have also changed from traditional censorship to what we saw in 2016 in the US—demonizing opponents, “mobilizing armies of supporters or paid employees who muddy the online waters with misinformation, information glud, doubt, confusion, harassment, and distraction, making it hard for ordinary people to … sort facts from fiction, truth from hoaxes. Many governments target dissidents by hacking and releasing their personal and private information to try to embarrass or harass them, rather than acting directly on their political communication.” Coordinated harassment can drive activists away from public life, and lies can make potential supporters think that everyone is equally corrupt (but her emails). Those currently in power only need to make people disgusted and uncertain, since lack of action favors the status quo: bread and circuses, now “her emails.” Governments may therefore have the advantage by making information unusable, even if available. As Saara Jantunen says, “They fill the information space with so much abuse and conspiracy talk that even sane people start to lose their minds.” We end with “a frayed, incoherent, and polarized public sphere that can be hostile to dissent because the incoherence displaces politics. Unlike mass media failures, it is often not even clear who to hold responsible, or how to improve the situations.”

Tufekci suggests that the response of countries like China, pervasive but light-touch censorship that focuses only on erasing any call to collective protest or action, even in favor of the government, may only be possible for countries large enough to build their own internet. So we can expect more of the disinformation we’ve seen instead from other autocracies. Meanwhile, China’s government may be strengthened by the provision of useful feedback to the central government via citizen complaints, which were often suppressed by autocracies in the past. China also, it turns out, uses distraction techniques—the posters paid by the government don’t necessarily respond to criticism or attack critics, but instead post at high volumes about things the government doesn’t care about, in a coordinated manner, to create other focal points than a politically sensitive issue or anniversary.

The book is incredibly rich and, for those who can’t afford to buy it, she has also made a Creative Commons version available, https://www.twitterandteargas.org/downloads/twitter-and-tear-gas-by-zeynep-tufekci.pdf, but she urges people to at least ask their libraries for it in order to make the book more algorithmically visible.

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