Book Review: Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas

In Twitter and Tear Gas, Tufekci offers an insightful analysis of the recent wave of networked social movements. Tufecki grounds her analysis on her personal experiences as a participant, participant observer, and ally in several antiauthoritarian uprisings, including the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, and the Occupy movement in the US. Her analysis is further informed by on-the-ground interviews with activists and protest participants.

Tufekci argues that in order to understand the new movements like the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the Tahrir Square protests of 2011, or the Occupy movement, we have to comprehend the evolving landscape in which political culture and digital technologies interact in complex ways. These new movements may be indiscernible from pre-digital protests like those of the civil rights movements in terms of their visible forms and intermediate outputs (e.g. street protest size), yet they form and operate quite differently from past protests.

A key contribution of this book is the development and application of capacities and signals framework to social movements. Adapting Amartya Sen’s “capabilities” approach from the field of development, Tufekci emphasizes the analytical shift needed from outputs and outcomes (such as protest size and number of protests) to capacities underlying movements. Tufekci in particular highlights three kinds of social movement capacities that are critical to the exercise of collective power: their capacity to set a narrative (narrative capacity), disrupt the operations of an existing system (disruptive capacity), and achieve changes in elections and/or institutions (electoral and/or institutional capacity). Seen through the lens of capacity formation, the Tahrir Square protest of 2011 had strong narrative and disruptive capacities but had weak electoral capacity, partly due to the political culture that is rooted in institutional distrust. Electoral and/or institutional capacity is something that Tufekci sees consistently underdeveloped in the new wave of antiauthoritarian movements. Further, Tufekci suggests that how movements signal their capacities to those in power and how these signals are interpreted matter greatly for movement trajectories.

Tufekci traces the power and weaknesses of newer movements to both the political culture and digital technologies. Tufekci makes an important observation that terms like “networked public sphere” and “networked social movements” do not signify “online only” or even “online primarily.” The dynamics of public spheres and the ways movements operate have been reconfigured by the introduction of digital technologies. This reconfiguration broadly affects not just online activities, but online, offline, and hybrid instantiations of public spheres and social movement activities. To illustrate, in the case of Egypt in 2011, even though only 25% of the population was online, they altered the contours of public discourse across the whole society by sharing  what they saw online with their networks through other means as well (face-to-face conversations, phone calls, or texting).

Tufekci also highlights the ways in which digital technologies have heightened the “attention economy” where human attention has become a scarce, but hotly sought-after commodity in a landscape marked by information glut (see Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchant). Tufekci approaches social movements as a fight for attention, and conceptualizes censorship as denial of attention through various means. Focusing on shifts in attention as a key analytical construct proves to be fruitful in explaining movement trajectories and tactics, as well as government responses to protests. In the years leading up to the Gezi Park protests, social media provided a means of bringing attention to news that were denied attention in the mainstream media. Participants in Black Lives Matter succeeded in shifting the amount of attention paid to police brutality by tweeting images of police violence. In response, some state actors learned to adjust their tactics for containing the protests over time. In China, the government employs tactics that deny and divert attention, for example, by flooding public spheres with other attention-grabbing news in times of protests.

Tufekci discusses how modern networked movements, thanks to social media, can gather momentum and scale up in a matter of few days. In contrast, older movements like the March in Washington in 1963 were organized over long periods of time, during which people learned to work together, build trust, and develop capacities for collective decision-making. Protests in the Gezi Parks or the Tahrir Square did not undergo such a capacity-building process to establish what Tufekci calls “network internalities,” the internal gains achieved by movement networks as network actors learn to act together and develop collective decision-making processes over time.

Such weaknesses are deeply intertwined with the participatory and horizontal culture of modern movements that emphasizes individual expression and eschews formal organizations. The Gezi Park protests, for example, were leaderless by design. Many showed up to the protests representing their own voices and selves, and the point precisely was that they were not being represented by another. When the government of Turkey was ready to negotiate with the people during the Gezi Park protests, the protesters did not have mechanisms to make demands and decisions collectively. Thus, such movements often run into “tactical freezes” after the initial expansion phase, when shifts in tactics are needed at critical juncture points.

This thought-provoking book takes the reader through various social movements with vivid encounters and memorable stories. Tufekci convincingly argues that the defining features of modern networked movements are not merely by-products of technology, but also deeply rooted in the political culture. Key contributions of this book include the many concepts and analytical frameworks the author develops to shed light on longer-term trajectories of networked social movements.

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