Twitter and Tear Gas
Zeynep Tufekci: Twitter and Tear Gas. The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, New Haven, London (Yale University Press) 2017
There is a growing interest in understanding how social movements emerge, organize and persist today that has been kindled by recent waves of uprisings as the protests in Tunisia led to the ousting of the president and to new elections, and as a new party called Podemos emerged in Spain in the aftermath of the anti-austerity protests and became the third largest party in the parliament in 2015. Yet many popular uprisings faced with violence and oppression in many places, and were followed by drastic changes in governance and social life such as in Egypt, Syria, and Turkey, among others. The research into social movements of our day inevitably tackle with the question of the impact of Internet and social media in the emergence and maintenance of uprisings and in the formation of organizations during and after these mobilizations. Twitter and Tear Gas sets out to provide a conceptual analysis of the relation between communication technologies and social movements, and a nuanced account on the impact of Internet and social media platforms on the capabilities of social movements. Among the vastly diverse movements that are mentioned are the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Zapatista solidarity networks; anti-globalization protests of 1997–2002; antiwar protests in the US in 2002–03; and the Occupy movement in 2011 and 2012. However, Tufekci draws mostly on her research in Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests of 2011 and Gezi Park protests in Istanbul during the Summer of 2013 for her examples and analysis. Moreover, Tufekci refers to the Civil Rights Movement in the US as a point of comparison in order to lay out the trajectories of networked movements and their dynamics (xviii).
Twitter and Tear Gas consists of nine chapters in three parts, with an introduction and epilogue.1 The first part looks at the «Making of a Movement». Societies have experienced rapid transformations in how individuals connect and communicate with each other, and accordingly, Tufekci inquires how people learned about the news, got information about the protests, and made the decision to go out on the street during particularly in Tahrir and Gezi uprisings. Four chapters in this part investigates «attention» as a resource for social movements; the leaderless and horizontal quality of these recent popular movements; and how networked movements organize and make use of digital technologies.
The second part is titled «A Protester’s Tools» and focuses on the technologies, digital tools and social media platforms. Hence, chapter 5, «Technology and People» introduces the reader to philosophical and methodological questions on how to approach technology, while the next chapter takes a closer look at the widely used platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Youtube), examining their business models, user policies and their interactions with the role they have recently played in relation to the networked public sphere. The last chapter in this section looks at novel possibilities of action that these technologies, devices and platforms provide to users, particularly to activists. This chapter discusses the expansion of the field of action not only for progressive causes but also for attacking or suffocating dissent, such as trolling, surveillance, and using fake news as smoke screen, etc. This section adopts an end-user persceptive of technologies, focusing on what users can do with the tools they are using, rather than conceptualizing the field of technology comprehensively, which would have included not only devices and software, but also infrastructures and service providers within a general political economy of technology.
The last two chapters of the book look at «After the Protests» and study the trajectories of this recent wave of uprisings after the street protests wane, often as a result of violent oppression by the governments. Presenting these uprisings as a struggle between the protesters and the government, Tufekci studies the capacities and signals of these «protest movements»: to what extend these movements have been able to disrupt the status quo and push for change, particularly in the next electoral outcome; and to what extend they have been able to signal their capacities. In the last chapter, Tufekci takes time to look at how governments responded to these movements, how the same possibilities for action have been used against the popular demands for change, particularly by shifting the public discourse.
Twitter and Tear Gas courageously connects diverse issues to widen our understanding of the relationship between societies and technologies but does so by providing exceeding generalizations and evokes more questions than it convincingly answers. I celebrate the author’s courage and accessible narrative style and I hope that readers will be intrigued enough to pursue learning about these uprisings. However, these generalizations lead to misguided conclusions about this recent wave of protests, and leave us with unreliable convictions on the potentials of new technologies for progressive social change and on the capacities of social movements to bring such change.
First and foremost, Twitter and Tear Gas lacks precision on what is meant by «a social movement». It is assumed that the reader shares a conception of «social movement». Tufekci does not address the difference between a social movement and an unrest, or an uprising: Are riots social movements too, or only some of them? How are the Zapatistas an example of a social movement (94)? More particularly, what are the grounds for comparison, for instance in comparing neoZapatismo2 or the Civil Rights Movement in the US with the Egyptian revolution of 2011? What is the reasoning for calling an uprising, such as that of Gezi Uprising in 2013, a social movement? This ambiguous use of «social movements» as an umbrella term to include all kinds of popular mobilizations, from armed struggles against neoliberal capitalism to popular protests against the government, enables arriving at generalizations about the qualities of these recent popular protests and struggles. In this respect, Twitter and Tear Gas accords with the tendency to portray the recent mobilizations, from Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, haphazardly, as spontaneous, leaderless, and as portraying a horizontal organizational character.
The overarching argument proposed in Twitter and Tear Gas is that the Internet and social media platforms facilitated (first assumption) the quick coming-together of people in public spaces in large numbers, coloring these post-2011 «protest movements» with a spontaneity, adhocracy, and horizontality (two assumptions; one on the impact of social media and Internet, one on the character of these movements). Accordingly, Tufekci distinguishes between past movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement in US, which depended on long-lasting labor and deep organizational and logistical capacities to organize direct actions and protests, and the recent protests that use digital technologies to take off (61). Based on this comparison between decades-long Civil Rights Movement that benefited from a range of organizations and diversity of actions and these recent «protest movements», particulary the Gezi uprising and Tahrir Square 2011, Tufekci concludes that these recent movements (1) hardly can make tactical shifts because «they lack the culture and the infrastructure for making collective decisions»; (2) are «unable to negotiate with adversaries» because they lack leadership; (3) fail to «signal an organizing capacity powerful enough to threaten those in authority» (71). But a protest is not a movement; there is no such thing as a «protest movement»; even when sustained for a long time, protests do not make a movement on their own. On the other hand, most social movements, such as the labor movement, the women’s movement, LGBTI movement, etc., have included and still include demonstrations and marches, various forms of public gatherings in their repertoire of actions. And the «Gezi movement», for instance, included the participation of many of these movements, among others. To phrase in another way, the main bias of the book is to start with considering all extra-parliamentary popular mobilizations as social movements, describing the post-2011 uprisings as digitally networked «protest movements», and then moving on to scrutinizing these protests with their organizational capacities, and finally concluding that these protests lack in «resiliance and collective decision-making and acting capacity that emerge from long-term work of negotiation and interaction required to maintain the networks as functioning and durable social and political structures» (269–70).
Without looking closely at the diversity of the actors of these post-2011 uprisings and occupations, and the various forms the protests were carried out, these social mobilizations acquire a mysterious quality: faceless masses pick up a smartphone from the ground and participate to a protest through an invitation on Facebook. Tufekci inadvertently reintroduces a notion of featureless, indivisible «mass» into her analysis of the society and its dynamics. Moreover, once the protesters or occupiers are conceived as a mass, it becomes easier to argue and generalize that these leaderless movements have failed to establish organizational structures through which they can take decisions collectively, to develop tactics to sustain the movement and reach their goals. This line of reasoning starts with portraying the protests as «leaderless and horizontal, valoring direct democracy», with a Google Street View vista of the «activist», and then concludes that these protests didn’t achieve much because they were too horizontal and too leaderless. Twitter and Tear Gas does not elaborate the actors and groups, nor specify the organizations that were active during the protests in Egypt and Turkey in particular, such as professional associations, football fan groups, labor unions, radical leftist groups, student bodies, which all provided a repertoire of possible direct actions, sites of resistance, and circles of solidarity. Accordingly, the book ignores the possible continuities with the past social struggles, both in terms of the forms of struggle and in terms of the continuity of the groups and organizations.
One significant stage of the Gezi Uprising was the formation of neighborhood forums in many parks and squares in many cities, meeting regularly throughout the Summer of 2013 in line with the slogan «Taksim is Everywhere», after the violent evacuationof the Gezi Commune from the Gezi Park after a two-week occupation. Tufekci argues that during this stage «no formal decision-making or organizational mechanisms emerged, and there were no existing networks of civil society that were widely accepted and able to mediate conflict that arose in these spaces» (74). But the neighborhood forums were the organizational mechanism itself, the physical assembly of people. The fact that these neighborhood assemblies did not establish a representative structure doesn’t mean that they were not «formal». Neighborhood forums made decisions by majority vote, and didn’t delegate its decision-making power to any working groups. Moreover, neighborhood forums (in Istanbul) formed a coordinating committee to coordinate between all neighborhood forums. In the end, a «Podemos» didn’t emerge from these neighborhood assemblies; was it because people couldn’t, or they didn’t (want to)? Tufekci dismisses these neighborhood forums and fails to recognize them as another form of occupation. In fact, these forums were a genuine experiment and experience in direct democracy, partially informed and inspired by the Occupy Movement, and could have provided Twitter and Tear Gas a wealthy example for comparison with the Occupy experience in north American and European cities.
Tufekci choses to discuss and compare the uses of communication technologies through particular examples which, she argues, exemplify both the new modes of organizing that is facilitated by these technologies and the dynamics of these «protest movements». Twitter and Tear Gas focuses on «how» people decide and go out on the streets without a regard for the particular reasons «why». Ignoring the reasons that motivate people to protest and the social movements to emerge has adverse effects for the study. First of all, very simply, when particular motivations for a large number of people to go out on streets and risk confronting security forces are ignored, technological capabilities seem to stand out as the main insignia that marks the Arab Spring and the following popular protests, giving technologies and tools a causal significance which they might not deserve. This also puts the book on the side of technological deterministic approaches to changes in societies that aggrandize the democratizing effect of technologies. Secondly, by not taking into consideration the diversity of the actors and groups that were active during these protests, Tufekci in her Twitter and Tear Gas perpetuate the image of an «activist» with a smartphone and a Twitter account, fulfilling the roles of an organizer, a propagandist, or a photojournalist when needed, which was popularized in the early celebratory accounts and analyses of the Arab Spring in the Western media. When seen through the frame of livestream broadcasting by Aljazeera TV network with its cameras on Tahrir Square, and through the English tweets on Twitter, what gets lost from the portrayal of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 is the labor strikes in the cities of Suez and Alexandria3, or the mobilization and attacks against the security forces by the Ultras4, the most active and radical section among the football fan groups, in short, how the course of everyday life had been brought to a halt by different segments of the society. When the news media focuses on the square («maidan» in most MENA countries, as well as in Ukraine) what happens on the back streets, in other cities, in factories, at schools escapes the view. The effort and time of organizing for the action also remain in the shadows of a direct action that is at the front, such as a demonstration or an occupation.5 In the case of the Gezi Uprising, the organization that was called Taksim Solidarity, which called for the initial sit-in protest at the Gezi Park, had been organizing as a small group of people consisting of local residents, shopkeepers, and members of civil society for more than a year, regularly meeting and taking legal action against the urban projects of the municipality both for the Taksim Square and the Gezi Park in advance of the outbreak of the protests. Surely, protests erupted spontaneously and unexpectedly; Taksim Solidarity didn’t have the capacity or outreach to convince or instigate millions of people across the country to go out on the streets and to protest. However, without their initiative and call for the sit-in, the planned urban projects for the area would not have received much public attention in the first place. It was this initial group’s efforts that revealed that the plan for the Gezi Park had not obtained the required permissions. Both during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and during the Gezi Uprising in 2013 in Turkey, there was a diversity of actors and groups who were active during these protests, engaging in a diversity of dissenting action which created a narrative that provided a frame of legitimacy for the protests.
One line of inquiry in the scholarship on social movements has been the role of new technologies in movement-building and in increasing people’s capacities for organizing. One of the examples provided in detail in Twitter and Tear Gas is a group of four young people who started to work together on Twitter to coordinate supplies to make-shift clinics established in Egypt during the protests through the Twitter account @TahrirSupplies (53–60). This is a clear example showing how new tools of communication enable people to connect with each other and to coordinate and organize, without even being at the location, let alone in the same city (only two of the initial four activists were in Cairo, 54). But how about the make-shift clinics on the ground? How were the doctors and health professional volunteers working at these clinics during the protests? Did they use their professional or labor organizations to organize? How did they establish a relationship of trust? Did these volunteers use an alias on the ground? Did they organize on their own, horizontally, or did they depend on any present organization for support in Egypt? The achievement of this kind of activism performed with a smartphone and a Twitter account also depends greatly on the previous networks of these practitioners on the ground. Close relationships and mutual trust becomes crucial in such circumstances. In short, new tools and apps do not emerge in a vacuum. The discussion of this case in Twitter and Tear Gas ignores the «old» modes of connecting and organizing that was going on during these uprisings.
The west-centered celebration of Internet and social media for their role in the popular uprisings in MENA is often accompanied by a disregard for the questions on accessibility. During the Summer of 2013, smartphones were not yet common in Turkey; the brands cheaper than iPhone had not yet penetrated into the market and iPhones were not affordable for many. Egyptian Revolution started in January 2011, more than two years before the Gezi Uprising. The relatively small number of users still had a significant impact on spreading of news and in coordinating people, for sure.6 And the upsurge in the number of new Facebook users after the escalation of protests reveal the crucial role social media play especially when the news media outlets are either complicit with or silenced by an oppressive regime.7 Yet, the numbers on Internet and social media penetration in Egypt in January 2011 begs the question: How was it a digitally networked protest? I provided these numbers against the overinflated focus on Internet and social media which reveal, as Kira Allmann argues, the «Western lens that places the Internet at the pinnacle of ICT potential» whereas «mobile telephony played a more pervasive role» in MENA. Allmann demonstrates that mobile phones, in a convergence of technologies, were used in Egypt for reaching a wider circle of people through SMS messages, providing people a significant mobility.8 In short, new technologies do not emerge in a vacuum and investigating how people combine the older means of communication such as Email listservers, fax, blogs, SMS with newer tools to increase their capacities to connect and organize would provide a much interesting and convincing examination of societies’ relationship with technologies in times of upheaval.
The techno-centered narrative of recent social unrests and uprisings valorize social media «platforms and Internet for providing us means to communicate and connect, but do this ahistorically, as if people were not «networked» before, or did not have good enough tools. On the contrary, these means continue to be used together, merging and converging with what is already available. One of the reasons why social media platforms, and Web 2.0 in general have become indispensible especially during these uprisings is because the state of journalism has been in decline for a couple of decades, deteriorating alarmingly in places where state oppression is high. It is not only freedom of expression that is in peril across the globe, but the profession of journalism in particular has suffered the onslaught of neoliberal corporate concentration that decimated local journalism and smaller news agencies, which were the backbone of news media everywhere. Hence, it is within the larger context of news production and dissemination, in relation to the freedom of expression and freedom to access information, that new tools of communication have provided cheaper and easier means to establish news outlets. Tufekci ignores this larger context of the current state of journalism and pressures on journalists; what she celebrates as new capacities of new technologies, such as the citizen journalism collectives, is for me a sign of the consequence of this long neoliberal attack on journalism, and an evidence of the dire situation of journalism and our access to information.
Allmann, Kira C.: «Mobile Revolution: Toward a History of Technology, Telephony, and Political Activism in Egypt», in: CyberOrient - Online Journal of the Virtual Middle East 8, no. 2 (2014). http://www.cyberorient.net/article.do?articleId=9145.
Hook, Left: «The ‹Ultras› and the Egyptian Revolution – An Interview with Ali Mustafa», in: Left Hook (blog), March 1, 2013. https://lefthookjournal.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/the-ultras-and-the-egyptian-revolution-an-interview-with-ali-mustafa/.
Jerzak, Connor T: «Ultras in Egypt: State, Revolution, and the Power of Public Space», in: Interface 5, no. 2 (November 2013): 240–62.
Mourtada, Racha, and Fadi Salem: «Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter», in: Arab Social Media Report. Governance and Innovation Program. Dubai School of Government, May 2011.
———«Facebook Usage: Factors and Analysis» in: Arab Social Media Report. Governance and Innovation Program. Dubai School of Government, January 2011. https://arabsocialmediareport.com/UserManagement/PDF/ASMR%20Report%201.pdf.
Solty, Ingar: «Canada’s ‹Maple Spring›: From the Quebec Student Strike to the Movement Against Neoliberalism». Global Research - Center for Research on Globalization (blog), December 31, 2012. https://www.globalresearch.ca/canadas-maple-spring-from-the-quebec-student-strike-to-the-movement-against-neoliberalism/5317452.
Thorburn, Elise Danielle: «Social Media, Subjectivity, and Surveillance: Moving on From Occupy, the Rise of Live Streaming Video», in: Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (January 2, 2014): 52–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/14791420.2013.827356.
- 1. Zeynep Tufekci had negotiated a creative commons copy of the book with its publisher, Yale University Press, and made it available as a PDF download on the website of the book: www.twitterandteargas.org. Unfortunately, neither the printed book nor the creative commons version have a bibliography. The author explains in her preface the reason behind excluding the bibliography from the print version of the book to keep it at a reasonable length and announces that the excluded bibliography would be published on the website of the book, but it was not there either.
- 2. «Zapatistas» refer to the members of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) and the indigenous movement of armed resistance who declared war against the Mexican state in 1994 and made a call for international solidarity against capitalism. They take their name in homage to Emiliano Zapata who was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century, and an inspiration for the agrarian movement called Zapatismo. Hence, EZLN call their own movement «neoZapatismo».
- 3. See, for instance, Fahim and Kirkpatrick, «Labor Actions in Egypt Boost Protests»; Alexander, «The Egyptian Workers’ Movement and the 25 January Revolution»; and Ahmed Nour’s poetic documentary Waves (2012) that uses live-action and animation to portray a personal and meditative look at the city of Suez and the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
- 4. See, for instance, Hook, «The ‹Ultras› and the Egyptian Revolution – An Interview with Ali Mustafa»; Jerzak, «Ultras in Egypt: State, Revolution, and the Power of Public Space».
- 5. Québec Student Protests of 2012 against the proposed tuition raise is a good example of long-term organizing and campaigning that took place before the visible collective action. The student organization CLASSE (Coalition large de l’Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante) has started to organize this strike two years in advance. Surely the history of organizing of the particular student organization dates much further back. See, Solty, «Canada’s ‹Maple Spring’»; and, Thorburn, «Social Media, Subjectivity, and Surveillance».
- 6. In December 2010, only a quarter of Egyptian population had Internet access, and only 5.5 percent, around 4.7 million were using Facebook, according to the data provided by International Communication Union and Facebook itself (Mourtada and Salem, «Facebook Usage: Factors and Analysis»). In the first quarter of 2011, the estimated number of Twitter users was 131,204 in Egypt, which had a population of 86 million at the time, with a Twitter penetration of a 0.15 percent (Mourtada and Salem, «Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter»). And between 2011-2012, around nine percent of Egyptian mobile phone subscribers had Internet access on their mobile devices (Allmann, «Mobile Revolution: Toward a History of Technology, Telephony, and Political Activism in Egypt»).
- 7. Between January and April 2011, almost 2 million people signed up a Facebook account in Egypt (compared to 3.6 million new users in Turkey during the same period), (Mourtada and Salem, «Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter»).
- 8. Ibid.