The lim­its of in­stant ac­tivism

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Name a lefty anti-au­thor­i­tar­ian move­ment of the past quar­ter­century, and chances are Zeynep Tufekci has been there — march­ing with it or study­ing it, or both. The Za­p­atista move­ment in south­ern Mex­ico, born with and against the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment? Check. The Bat­tle in Seat­tle? The Iraq War protests? Egypt’s Tahrir Square up­ris­ing? Oc­cupy Wall Street? The Gezi Park protests in her na­tive Is­tan­bul? Check, check, check, check, check.

It is Tufekci’s per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence in the squares and streets, melded with her schol­arly in­sights on tech­nol­ogy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion plat­forms, that makes “Twit­ter and Tear Gas” such an un­usual and il­lu­mi­nat­ing work. Tufekci clearly sym­pa­thizes with the move­ments she chron­i­cles, but she keeps enough aca­demic dis­tance to re­main skep­ti­cal of their im­pact. While de­bates over the re­la­tion­ship be­tween tech­nol­ogy and protest have of­ten de­gen­er­ated into praise of Face­book rev­o­lu­tions or an­ti­s­lack­tivism di­a­tribes, this book of­fers a more pro­duc­tive tension: The tech­nol­ogy that helps mod­ern move­ments or­ga­nize high-pro­file protests, Tufekci con­cludes, can also keep them from de­vel­op­ing the stay­ing power to achieve their long-term goals. And the lead­er­ship prin­ci­ples of con­tem­po­rary move­ments aren’t help­ing much, ei­ther.

So don’t be too im­pressed by the size of an anti-Trump march or the speed with which a protest comes to­gether. “Some­what para­dox­i­cally,” Tufekci writes, “the ca­pa­bil­i­ties that fu­eled their or­ga­niz­ing prow­ess some­times also set the stage for what later tripped them up, es­pe­cially when they were un­able to en­gage in the tac­ti­cal and de­ci­sion­mak­ing ma­neu­vers all move­ments must master to sur­vive.”

The au­thor con­trasts to­day’s ef­forts with the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment of the mid-20th cen­tury, whose par­tic­i­pants and or­ga­niz­ers could not rely on a Face­book call­out to launch, for ex­am­ple, the Mont­gomery bus boy­cott or the March on Wash­ing­ton. But it was pre­cisely the early, painstak­ing work of plan­ning and co­or­di­nat­ing and re­cruit­ing that helped the move­ment en­dure. “Af­ter both long-term or­ga­niz­ing and work­ing to­gether dur­ing the boy­cott to take care of a myr­iad of tasks,” Tufekci writes, “the move­ment pos­sessed a de­ci­sion-mak­ing ca­pa­bil­ity that saw it through chal­lenges as they came up, and one that was strong enough to sur­vive out­side pres­sures and in­ter­nal strife.” In this light, the 1963 March on Wash­ing­ton wasn’t sig­nif­i­cant just be­cause of what was done and said that day, “but for the means through which it came to be — a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the vast or­ga­niz­ing ca­pac­ity that the civil rights move­ment had built over many years.”

Com­pare that with the move­ment that spread across Tur­key in 2013, sparked by au­thor­i­ties’ plans to bull­doze Is­tan­bul’s Gezi Park in fa­vor of com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion. The gov­ern­ment and com­pli­ant me­dia out­lets sought to min­i­mize the ini­tial back­lash, but Face­book and Twit­ter spread the news, along with im­ages of clashes be­tween po­lice and pro­test­ers in the park, and the move­ment grew in num­bers and in in­ter­na­tional no­to­ri­ety. Tufekci was there, of course, and her sto­ries of sol­i­dar­ity among those set­ting up tents, pro­vid­ing med­i­cal care, cooking meals and in­ces­santly up­dat­ing so­cial me­dia are among the book’s most com­pelling mo­ments. She shows how protests are not just ef­forts to change poli­cies, but a way for par­tic­i­pants to bat­tle their own alien­ation and build “com­mu­ni­ties of be­long­ing,” of­ten among wildly dis­parate in­di­vid­u­als and group­ings. (Don’t miss Tufekci’s de­scrip­tion of the de­bates be­tween Turk­ish soccer fans and LGBT pro­test­ers over in­clu­sive chants.)

But the “col­lec­tive ef­fer­ves­cence” of crowds, as Emile Durkheim called it, has prac­ti­cal lim­its. “The Gezi Park mo­ment, go­ing from al­most zero to a mas­sive move­ment within days, clearly demon­strates the power of dig­i­tal tools,” Tufekci writes. “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.” They saved the park, but pro­test­ers later told the au­thor that mo­men­tum to­ward their broader goals, such as more rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy and less me­dia cen­sor­ship, soon fiz­zled.

In a pre-In­ter­net world, a suc­cess­ful protest march was the cul­mi­na­tion of an ar­du­ous or­ga­ni­za­tional process. To­day, it marks just the be­gin­ning. Mod­ern protests have “of­ten faced great­est peril in their in­fancy when they were both pow­er­ful and large, but also un­der­pre­pared and frag­ile.”

Tufekci fo­cuses on three un­der­ly­ing ca­pac­i­ties that so­cial move­ments strive for. Nar­ra­tive ca­pac­ity is the abil­ity to prop­a­gate a par­tic­u­lar world­view; dis­rup­tive ca­pac­ity is the abil­ity to in­trude on the reg­u­lar course of busi­ness, whether through oc­cu­pa­tions, boy­cotts or other in­ter­rup­tions; and elec­toral or in­sti­tu­tional ca­pac­ity is the abil­ity to threaten politi­cians where it mat­ters most to them, at the bal­lot box, un­less they shift key po­si­tions.

Oc­cupy Wall Street dis­played dis­rup­tive power, of course, and en­joyed enor­mous suc­cess in trans­form­ing the lan­guage of our in­equal­ity de­bates. “How­ever, de­spite its im­pres­sive abil­ity to change the con­ver­sa­tion, Oc­cupy had lit­tle or no direct elec­toral im­pact in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math,” Tufekci notes. “Af­ter the oc­cu­pa­tion of [Zuc­cotti Park] was forcibly dis­persed, it was un­able to un­der­take a tac­ti­cal shift.” Its slow, flat and con­sen­su­sob­sessed lead­er­ship style — in which a sin­gle dis­sent­ing voice in a crowd could keep Rep. John Lewis from ad­dress­ing an Oc­cupy gath­er­ing in At­lanta — hin­dered its abil­ity to bat­tle on new fronts. Not un­til the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dacy of Sen. Bernie San­ders, Tufekci ar­gues, did the dis­persed Oc­cupy forces mo­bi­lize once again.

Protest move­ments with a con­gen­i­tal dis­trust of elec­tive of­fi­cials and gov­ern­ment hi­er­ar­chies tend to fa­vor man­age­ment by “ad­hoc­racy,” which Tufekci de­scribes as “deal­ing with is­sues only as they come up, and by the peo­ple who show up.” But that in­cli­na­tion ex­acts a price. The tea party move­ment, by con­trast, was ea­ger to move be­yond town hall protests and win elec­tions, and it pur­posely — and suc­cess­fully — or­ga­nized it­self ac­cord­ingly.

Re­gard­less of their po­lit­i­cal lean­ings, at­ten­tion is the most pre­cious re­source all such groups seek — and gov­ern­ments find in­no­va­tive ways to un­der­cut that quest. Tufekci high­lights Rus­sia’s dig­i­tal troll armies and China’s “50 Cent Party” to show the mod­ern mu­ta­tions of of­fi­cial cen­sor­ship, with gov­ern­ments de­ploy­ing them to fos­ter res­ig­na­tion and cyn­i­cism among the pop­u­la­tion. “This can be done in many ways,” the au­thor writes, “in­clud­ing in­un­dat­ing au­di­ences with in­for­ma­tion, pro­duc­ing distractions to di­lute their at­ten­tion and fo­cus, dele­git­imiz­ing me­dia that pro­vide ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion (whether cred­i­ble mass me­dia or on­line me­dia), de­lib­er­ately sow­ing con­fu­sion, fear, and doubt by ag­gres­sively ques­tion­ing cred­i­bil­ity (with or with­out ev­i­dence, since what mat­ters is cre­at­ing doubt, not prov­ing a point), cre­at­ing or claim­ing hoaxes, or gen­er­at­ing ha­rass­ment cam­paigns de­signed to make it harder for cred­i­ble con­duits of in­for­ma­tion to op­er­ate.”

Af­ter all, why go to the trou­ble of block­ing par­tic­u­lar in­for­ma­tion when you can un­der­mine all in­for­ma­tion? And as we’ve learned re­cently, such prac­tices are hardly re­stricted to coun­tries un­der ex­plic­itly au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes.

Be­yond the threat of gov­ern­ment dis­in­for­ma­tion, Tufekci warns of the fickle cor­po­rate pow­ers be­hind the dig­i­tal plat­forms that pro­test­ers em­brace. “The cur­rent dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions gate­keep­ing ecosys­tem has been re­duced to a very few but very pow­er­ful choke points,” she writes. “So­cial move­ments to­day are largely de­pen­dent on a very small num­ber of cor­po­rate plat­forms and search en­gines,” mean­ing that po­lit­i­cal sto­ries “can be si­lenced by a terms-of-ser­vice com­plaint or by an al­go­rithm.” Which is how, in 2014, Face­book posts about the “ice bucket chal­lenge” over­shad­owed news of the protests in Fer­gu­son, Mo.

Tufekci’s so­cial-sci­ence jar­gon oc­ca­sion­ally over­whelms her ar­gu­ments, as when she ex­plains “why we should ap­proach causal­ity in tech­nol­ogy and so­ci­ol­ogy in­ter­ac­tions as a multi-lay­ered and multi-pronged dy­namic that in­ter­mixes so­cial dy­nam­ics with tech­no­log­i­cal ma­te­ri­al­ity.” (For real.) And her ca­pac­i­ties anal­y­sis can feel a bit too siloed; the links among nar­ra­tives, dis­rup­tions and elec­tions may take longer to de­velop than Tufekci wants to wait.

Even so, this has the feel of a work that will be long cited — and de­servedly so — by ac­tivists, tech­nol­o­gists and oth­ers grasp­ing at the re­la­tion­ship be­tween our causes and our screens. “Twit­ter and Tear Gas” is a book that, su­per­im­posed on a seem­ingly fa­mil­iar land­scape, ut­terly trans­forms the view.


In the pre-In­ter­net age, the hard work of or­ga­niz­ing 1963’s March on Wash­ing­ton helped make the civil rights move­ment stronger, Zeynep Tufekci writes.

TWIT­TER AND TEAR GAS The Power and Fragility of Net­worked Protest By Zeynep Tufekci. Yale. 326 pp. $26.

Car­los Lozada

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