Our online bookclub is reading Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. With this post we discuss the Preface, Introduction, and chapter 1, “A Networked Public.
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/.
Professor Tufekci begins by outlining the recent history of global protest, from the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, Zapatistas, Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring, Geri Park protests. Also mentioned are Sanders and Trump supporters in 2016, as well as protests from Ukraine to Hong Kong. These constitute the terrain she will explore, based in part on her personal interactions with many of these events and their participants. Tufekci signals that she will contrast these movements with the American civil rights movement (xviii).
The opening section also lays out come key concepts for the book, including social movement capacities (“social movements’ abilities”) and signals (“their repertoire of protest, like marches, rallies, and occupations as signals of those capacities”) (xi), as well as the problem of tactical freeze (“the inability of these movements to adjust tactics, negotiate demands, and push for tangible policy changes”) (xvi).
Chapter 1, “A Networked Public,” dives into the role of digital technology in enabling protest and dissenting organization in the Middle East, with Egypt as a focal point. Here Tufekci invokes Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, the American Tea Party movement, Al Jazeera, the Tunisian revolution of 2011, Wael Ghonim, and the excellent Global Voices organization.
Technologies: blogging looms large, but Facebook ends up becoming the biggest force for connectivity and organizing (19ff). People use television (Al Jazeera) and mobile devices (ah, Blackberries) as well in a media ecology.
Ultimately protestors and dissidents are able to wrangle these emerging technologies to express themselves and organize:
For perhaps the first time, dissidents in the Mideast were able to quasi-broadcast their views, at least to their Facebook friends (and the friends of their Facebook friends, who could easily number in the tens of thousands). (22)
One key argument Tufekci makes criticizes digital dualism, the notion that the digital and offline worlds constitute clearly separate domains. In practice we blend and intertwine the two.
Twitter and Tear Gas clearly sympathizes with protestors and dissidents, and celebrates their achievements. Yet we know from the start that many of their efforts will stall, fail, or be reversed.
- The book intertwines social theory with personal stories. What do you make of that approach?
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- Tufekci takes issue with the charge of clicktivism, perhaps most famously issued by Evgeny Morozov (26-7), the idea that online forms of activism actually disable offline political action. Instead, she sees social movements using digital networks to mobilize. Let’s assume both of these models have been true at different times and places.
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What makes the difference between them, when technology dissuades organization and when it enables action?
- The opening section compares digitally-enabled movements with Everest climbers relying on Sherpas: able to do great deeds, but their achievements are fragile and inflexible, due to reliance on that support (xii). Have we surfaced ways of stabilizing such movements, or are they still so fragile?
Now it’s over to you! What did you make of the book so far?
Coming up next week, on November 26: Chapters 2: “Censorship and Attention” and 3: “Leading the Leaderless”.