The Laboratorium (3d ser.)

A blog by James Grimmelmann

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Anti-Authoritarian Book Club: Twitter and Tear Gas

Amazon recommends that customers who buy Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest also buy a two-factor authentication hardware security key. It’s a fitting connection: anyone serious about activist organizing in today’s pervasively networked world should probably have both. The security key is to keep the government from hacking your email and Face accounts; the book is to tell you how to use them effectively. Twitter and Tear Gas is an academic book, not an on-the-ground organizing guide like Indivisible. But it provides the best framework I’ve seen for thinking about how the Internet changes the dynamics of protest movements.

The short version of Tufekci’s argument is that social media provide powerful ways for activists to organize and to get their messages out, but that the types of activism have their own drawbacks. Ad hoc movements can assemble quickly, both in physical space (Gezi Park) and online (#BlackLivesMatter), and they can deploy powerful viral messages (the Battle of the Camel). This helps them leapfrog over repression, interia, and mass media censorship – but also over much of the institution-building work that allows protest movements to enforce message discipline, switch up their tactics, and lever their momentum into other realms. Their heavy use of platform-based social media also leaves them vulnerable to algorithmic fragmentation, pervasive surveillance, and disinformation campaigns.

None of this is to say that activists should turn their backs on networked protest. Instead, just like police pressure, counter-protests, mass-media indifference, and all of the other familiar challenges protests face, these new characteristics of networked protest are simply part of the landscape protesters have to work with. To be an activist today is to worry about these things, and sometimes to find ways to do something about them.

I could summarize the argument in slightly greater detail, but to be honest, Tufekci’s introduction and epilogue do a better job than I could, and if you want anything longer than that, you should just read the book. Instead, I want to pull out a few ideas and assertions that brought me up short. They’re not the only insights in the book by any means; they’re just the ones I found especially powerful.

  • Social media is not itself the cause of protests or even just a tool; it is a pervasive fact of modern life. Tunisia, Facebook allowed protests that would have taken place anyway to go viral, and enabling them to serve as a focal point for widespread dissatisfaction with the Ben Ali regime. Activists were ready and able to amplify the images of protest and crackdown on social media, which also made it possible for Al Jazeera to broadcast them, and with that, the regime’s control over information collapsed and with it the regime. (This isn’t a new story. The key difference between Jan Hus and Martin Luther was the printing press.)

  • Leaderless networked ad-hoc organizations can adapt very quickly to get necessary things done, whether it’s recruiting new participants through existing social networks, cleaning up their spaces, or obtaining the necessary supplies to run field hospitals. But they have trouble coordinating changes in their tactics, interfacing with more tightly-coupled institutions (both on their own side and on the other), and even in making basic local decisions like who will speak at an assembly. This results in what Tufekci calls “tactical freeze”: they can do the thing that brought them together very well and at scale, but they don’t learn new tricks.

  • Relatedly, the process of organizing builds “network internalities.” These are the social bonds, group wisdom, and organizational structure that protests groups build up by solving logistical challenges. It’s convenient not to have to print up detailed flyers telling rally participants exactly what bus to arrive on and where to march as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’s organizers did, and makes it easier to put on a protest. But precisely because Bayard Rustin and his colleagues had built up an organization capable of doing that, the civil rights movement had an immense advantage in its ability to harness the momentum from the March and to shift its tactics in the face of resistance.

  • Big protests rarely do anything by themselves. They matter because they signal that the social movement behind them is capable of more: it has the capacity to shape public narratives, to disrupt the smooth functioning of the establishment, and to swing elections. Officials aren’t afraid of protests; they’re afraid of losing control of the narrative, the streets, and the electorate. Big turnout is a signal, but it’s a cheaper signal than it used to be. (So is calling your Senator or filing an FCC comment.) The Tea Party was effective at turning its protest energy to electoral power. So far the jury is out on how effective the various anti-Trump protests will be at making this transition. (Tufekci is skeptical: she observes on Twitter that the Tea Party was well-funded and that so far major Democratic donors have not been opening their checkbooks to support grassroots electorally focused organizing.)

  • Platforms are complicated. Algorithmic filtering, real-name rules, anti-abuse policies, and hate-speech rules all have context-specific effects on the ground – ones that thinly-staffed social media platforms rarely understand well outside of the U.S. Any policy directed at users creates an opportunity for censorship by political opponents: report their accounts for having fake names, or for spamming, or for hate speech, or for copyright infringement, and the platform will spring into action on your behalf. But the failure to deal with abuse also leaves activists vulnerable. A coordinated assault from Twitter eggs can leave a victim unable to use Twitter for anything but impersonal broadcast.

  • Censorship is denial of attention. Anything that keeps the people who could be affected by a message from paying attention to it is effective as censorship. That includes preventing speech from happening, filtering it out from the media, persuading people to ignore it (e.g. by demonizing the media that carry it, as the AKP did in Turkey with Twitter), burying it in haystacks of distracting competing messages (some would say this is the normal condition of modern life), or by sowing enough doubt and confusion that people aren’t sure what to believe (Hi, Vladimir!). This is a listener-focused theory of censorship, and I find it more helpful than traditional speaker-focused theories for understanding the last year in political media.

  • Authoritarians survive by thwarting collective action. It’s sufficient for them to preserve the status quo against bottom-up attempts to change it. Leaving people uncertain of what to trust and skeptical about everything is a common authoritarian media strategy: they even don’t need to suppress dissenting messages or get their own messages out if they can leave people with a feeling of paranoia and confused helplessness toward the media. This can come from attacks on the media, from the spread of disinformation, and from creating conditions of general chaos in which people don’t know what to believe. Sometimes these can be emergent features of contemporary media, but often they are deliberately cultivated. (I will say this for filter bubbles: at least their positive feedback can be good for producing coherent shared beliefs and goals.)

Read Twitter and Tear Gas and think about it. Highly recommended.