Twitter and Tear Gas: part four of our book club’s reading

Our online bookclub is reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.  With this post we discuss Chapters 6: “Platforms and Algorithms” and 7: “Names and Connections.”

In this post I’ll briefly summarize the text, then add some reflections and questions.  You can participate by writing comments here, or through whichever other means you like (Twitter comments, Hypothes.is annotations, etc.).

If you’d like to check out other moments of our discussion of this book, you can find all blog posts and their associated comments filed under https://bryanalexander.org/tag/tufekci/.

Last week’s discussion saw a string of great ideas and pointers, like Joe Murphy wondering about including Tufekci’s model of digital social activism in college curricula:

to what extent these movement-supporting skills need to be thought of as core skills for citizenship. And if they are, where and when and how should they show up in the curriculum? (And what happens to an institution which teaches its members to organize for effective resistance to power?)

We also learned of Amanda Sturgill’s upcoming book about the Twitter-based resistance from within the American government to the Trump administration.  Good luck with the book!

Since last week: there’s been reporting on the Khashoggi murder, pointing to his interest in using social media to push back against the Saudi state.  For example,

The digital offensive, dubbed the “cyber bees,” had emerged from earlier discussions about creating a portal for documenting human rights abuses in their homeland as well an initiative to produce short films for mobile distribution. “We have no parliament; we just have Twitter,” said Abdulaziz, adding that Twitter is also the Saudi government’s strongest weapon. “Twitter is the only tool they’re using to fight and to spread their rumors.

(thanks to Len Warner for the pointer) Meanwhile, there have been more reports of current French unrest either being organized on Facebook or accelerated by that company’s software and/or administrators.

Summary

These two chapters critique the structure and implications of social media platforms. Overall they argue that social media giants have replaced television as “gatekeep[ers] for access to the public sphere…” (134)

Drawing on a diverse range of examples from America to Turkey and Egypt, chapter 6 focuses on Facebook’s utility for dissenters, finding it a powerful tool rendered problematic by its algorithms, real names policy, and content moderation practices, including “community policing” (143).  Tufekci offers this metaphor:

Communicating primarily in this networked public but privately owned sphere is a bit like moving political gatherings to shopping malls from public squares or sending letters via commercial couriers rather than the US Postal Service; neither shopping malls nor Facebook nor any other private company guarantees freedom of speech or privacy. (137)

This chapter doesn’t point to a good solution for content moderation.  Instead, it finds that “there is no simple, easy-to-implement answer or method that applies uniformly to all cases…” (148)

Chapter 7, “Names and Connections,” dives more deeply into questions of online identity, abuse, free speech, and content control.  Stories include the YouBeMom site, Reddit’s notorious Jailbait subReddit, and the rise of organized, political abuse.   In one sentence Tufekci summarizes a great deal of the book’s approach to technology so far:

[The] rules of community formation in offline spaces also work online, that digital affordances shape the ground rules under which they operate, that reputation has an impact on human behavior online and offline, and that the decisions platforms make about whether to allow pseudonymity, the details of their terms of services and rules of speech, and the ways they construct their business model have significant consequences. (169)

Reflections

Digital dualism isn’t addressed by name here, yet the author’s critique of it seems to continue.  The problems she identifies intertwine the analog and digital worlds.

These chapters trace an arc of decline or decay in social media, after the previous chapters’ narration of empowerment.

Questions

  1. At one point the author mentions using one social media platform (Twitter) to go around problems from another (Facebook) (155).  Is there a version of this tactic that can work now?
  2. Tufekci doesn’t see a clear solution to the problem of online abuse, yet since the book appeared there has been increasing pressure on social media giants to control content.  Do you think this is the solution we’re settling upon?
  3. What role can digital literacy have in mitigating the problems identified in these two chapters?
  4. If social media have become such problematic venues for activism, what’s the next step for dissidents?

Now it’s over to you!  What did you make of the book so far?

Coming up next week, on December 17: Chapters 8 (“Signaling Power and Signaling to Power”) and 9 (“Governments Strike Back”).

Coming up next week, on December 17: Chapters 8: “Signaling Power and Signaling to Power” and 9: “Governments Strike Back”.

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2 Responses to Twitter and Tear Gas: part four of our book club’s reading

  1. There’s evidence that private and messaging is taking the place of social media organizing for some groups (Gen. Z and people with more fringe beliefs, for example). And some recent news makes it seem that the problems are following too, and are just harder to see.

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