Book Reviews

(Cyber)Power to the People

The vast potential and worrisome limitations of online organizing.

By Maira Sutton

Tagged activismtechnology

Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci • Yale University Press 2017 • 360 pages • $26

In late January, a discussion topic on the anonymous online forum site 4chan went semi-viral. The post claimed that the White House created an online tip form for anyone to out undocumented immigrants to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As proof, attached to the post was a doctored screenshot of a CNN news story that supposedly contained the ICE tip form in question. The story was completely false. But the discussion still got attention.

Just one year before, the hashtag #UndocumentedUnafraid had been used by immigrant-rights groups in an empowerment campaign for people who did not have official legal status to live in the United States. This time, however, the hashtag would be weaponized against them. 4chan readers took to social media—in this case, Twitter—to out undocumented people. About a week later, a group of anti-immigrant 4chan users coordinated a crusade to make the hashtag trend on Twitter. The idea was that if it were used by more people, it would help identify undocumented immigrants whom they could then report to ICE and have them deported. Part of their strategy was to get high-profile activists, in particular, to use the hashtag, ensuring it would go viral.

Though it’s unclear whether anyone actually was deported as a result of this hate campaign, the post garnered enough attention to lead some 4chan users to harass and release personal information about a prominent trans Latina immigration rights activist, whom they had already identified as a target, which was part of their strategy.

This type of organized online attack has become fairly common, particularly against communities and individuals who are vocal about race, gender, and sexual rights issues. For anyone involved in social justice advocacy, barely a week goes by without news of yet another activist becoming the target of a coordinated, anonymous, social media harassment campaign.

The notion of “online bullying” has, not coincidentally, become a widely discussed issue. But until recently, this was not so commonplace. To be sure, online harassment campaigns existed. They simply were not a regular fixture of life; nor did they receive as much media coverage as other social media actions that led thousands of people to flood city streets and topple authoritarian governments. Remember Tunisia. Remember Tahrir Square. Following the dissolution of the Occupy encampments across the United States, some of these activists even organized online to “save” the Internet itself. Such was its crucial relevance to political resistance and organizing at that time.

Just five years before the 4chan campaign, on January 18, 2012, major websites including Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Reddit went black. The websites replaced their standard home pages with a black scheme. Likewise, when people in the United States went to the Google search page, they found a censor bar blocking the logo. These actions were part of a grassroots, Internet-wide protest against a pair of copyright anti-piracy bills that winter. It was, in essence, a coordinated online banner drop.

The bills in question were the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, known together as SOPA/PIPA. The proposed legislation would have blacklisted websites if they were found to be enabling or facilitating the distribution of copyright-infringing content. It was the latest effort by powerful Hollywood studios to beat back new digital platforms that they deemed to pose an existential threat to their industry. Years after the file-sharing website Napster was sued out of existence, Hollywood felt that new means of unauthorized file-sharing of copyrighted media also needed to be dismantled. But the law was so heavy-handed it could have led to mass censorship of websites and severely impaired the entire Web.

On blacked-out pages, the protesting websites posted information about SOPA/PIPA and directed people in the United States to call, email, and sign petitions to Congress urging them to oppose the bills. In total, 4 million emails were sent and 8 million calls were made to U.S. lawmakers. The blackout was a huge success. The protest led congressional support for the legislation to evaporate.

The SOPA/PIPA protest was an unprecedented legislative win that was made possible only through online mobilization. At the time, I was a digital rights activist with one of the key groups to plan the blackout, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). It turned out, though, that the SOPA/PIPA protests were truly exceptional. For one, it was a rare case in which the interests of Internet users and corporate online platforms like Google converged to oppose a single issue. And secondly, lawmakers were taken completely off guard. Everyone had underestimated how much enthusiasm could be garnered through online organizing, particularly to dismantle a seemingly obscure copyright law.

At the time, it felt as though this was the dawn of a new era of technology-enabled organizing: one in which digital tools empowered and strengthened the voice of everyday people, one that could make politicians accountable in a new way. Following the Arab Spring, optimism surrounding the potential of digital organizing was indeed pervasive.

Today, all major protests are enhanced, if not solely organized, through digital platforms. Twitter hashtags help people converge around a topic and add visibility to an issue, even when the mainstream media may be ignoring it. People use Facebook to create events and publicly post the time and location of protests. It has become increasingly clear, however, that the promise and potential of organizing online may not be as auspicious as many had thought.

Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, is a timely examination of this recent digital era of public protest. Moving through her analyses of the social behaviors and technological design that shapes the outcome of these movements, Tufekci provides readers with conceptual tools to examine the efficacy of twenty-first century demonstrations. She animates these analytical concepts with personal stories as well as interviews with activists who experienced these movements first-hand.

Drawing, first of all, from her own experiences online during the nascent stages of the Internet, Tufekci offers an intimate account of how social movements have used online networks over the last two decades. Throughout the book, Tufekci, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, and more recently, a contributing op-ed writer at The New York Times, weaves in her experience as someone born and raised in Turkey, a country that has been besieged by ethno-political unrest for centuries. In this way, she provides a personal perspective about the shifting nature of state power and unrest.

Twitter and Tear Gas explores how digital technologies can be incredibly powerful tools for organizing, while at the same time be disappointingly limited in their ability to enact enduring, institutional change that improves people’s economic and social conditions. The book is not about dismissing digitally networked protest, however, but rather about providing an analysis of this recent history in order to make sense of its capabilities and limitations within broader social and political contexts:

This is a story not only about technology but also about long-standing trends in culture, politics, and civics in many protest movements that converged with more recent technological affordances—the actions a given technology facilitates or makes possible. . . . This is a story of intertwined fragility and empowerment, of mass participation and rebellion, playing out in a political era characterized by mistrust, the failures of elites, and the weakened institutions of electoral democracy.

The most intriguing aspect to this story is how online platforms have brought about a new era of social movements, while at the same time, changing the meaning and symbolism of public protest itself.

Notably, most of the major demonstrations over the last decade were not premeditated. And so Twitter hashtags and Facebook pages have been instrumental in getting many hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. Of course, people were already unhappy with their political realities, but social networks are powerful means of enabling people to find others who feel the same way they do. They help dissolve what is known as “pluralistic ignorance”—situations in which many people privately hold a belief that they incorrectly assume others around them do not share.

This was the case from Tahrir Square in Egypt to Gezi Park in Turkey to the global activation of the Occupy movement. Social media gave an outlet to activists and everyday people to recognize that they were not alone in feeling disenfranchised. It has brought together those who otherwise might have never met. As a collective group, however, they could signal mass discontent to each other, the media, and the powers that be.

This extreme digital connectivity, in turn, is what gives rise to outpourings of anonymous generosity through an unorganized system of “adhocracy,” where needs are fulfilled in an ad hoc manner by anyone who happens to show up. Tufekci illustrates how this works in practice by using the story of Tahrir Supplies, a group that organized the logistics for medical clinics for thousands of people during demonstrations at Tahrir Square in late 2011. Remarkably, it was operated by only four people, two of whom were not even living in Egypt at the time. They leveraged Twitter to get real-time requests and distribute necessary supplies needed by doctors, nurses, and volunteers who were at the Square. She describes how they used Skype to speak directly to those on the ground, and primarily used Google spreadsheets to keep track of all requests, supplies, and means for how they would get to where they needed to go. Tahrir Supplies ended up coordinating the donation and distribution of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of necessities.

A poignant moment in her retelling comes when Tufekci asked the founder of Tahrir Supplies how he and his colleagues came to do this and what inspired them to take on this enormous feat. His answer? Cupcakes. Having witnessed the successful efforts of a local cupcake business in Cairo that started a campaign which led to its product going viral online, he came to believe that he too could harness the power of social media and direct it toward these very different ends.

In the absence of an ordered decision-making system as in the past, this kind of instantaneous, momentary participation is prevalent in modern protests, particularly amongst progressive, anti-authoritarian movements. But this seemingly awesome feature of quick and efficient mobilization is also what tends to lead to their eventual undoing.

Whereas in the past a mass public demonstration was a clear indicator of a movement’s strength, the same is not true today. Tufekci juxtaposes modern protest with some of the largest mobilizations in the United States during the era of the civil rights movement. Before the Internet existed, getting thousands of people to come together for anything, let alone to have them all show up in one place, was a huge logistical feat. She recounts the incredible story of what organizers did to pull off the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955 to 1956, as well as the 1963 March on Washington eight years later. The latter took months of coordinated preparation among hundreds of people across several networks to ensure that tens of thousands of people had access to food, water, toilets, first aid, and a means of transport to get to and from the protest.

This means that, in the past, as Tufekci writes, the coordination of such movements necessitated both formal institutions and informal relationships. Before the Internet, civil rights activists had to work closely, pretty much face-to-face, to plan everything from transportation logistics to the sound equipment set up. The author even introduces a new term, “network internalities,” to reflect how, through sustained direct communication and negotiation, those within a network create an internal social and political structure for a movement.

Network internalities are the benefits and collective capabilities attained during the process of forming durable networks which occur regardless of what the task is, how trivial it may seem, as long as it poses challenges that must be overcome collectively and require decision-making, building of trust, and delegation among a semidurable network of people who interact over time.

If network internalities are like the muscles of a movement, she writes, public protests were a flexing or a display of that underlying strength and capacity. The problem with modern protests are that they often lack this kind of capacity building from the inside out. Oftentimes, the demonstration, the act of people going out into the streets, happens because they see a post on social media. This defining feature of recent mass protests, Tufekci points out, also manifests its underlying weakness: These people have never met before. They have never organized before, gone to meetings together, or made any collective decisions. They just show up. This is not strategic movement building, it is event planning.

This is exacerbated by the fact that, within modern anti-authoritarian movements, people show up because they are mutually opposed to a situation. But when it comes to how and what must be done about it, that becomes a much more complicated question. And without addressing those kinds of issues right off the bat, it is hard to build a constructive long-term movement.

It has become increasingly clear that the promise and potential of organizing online may not be as auspicious as many had thought.

Social media platforms have also clearly provided the ability for “a movement to frame its story on its own terms, and spread its worldview,” as Tufekci writes. Before the Internet, activists were at the mercy of the mainstream media to craft their narrative and make sense of their actions.

But the ability of activists to form their own narrative isn’t enough. If, after all, movements do not have the ability to influence political outcomes and institutional policies, then nothing changes in the long run. In most cases, governments have wised up, realizing the disjointedness between the mass public protest and their potential to translate this into legislative or electoral action. And increasingly, state actors no longer take protests at face value, armed with the knowledge that even mass demonstrations do not truly reflect the capacities of their movement.

Though some governments caved to the demands of earlier digitally enabled protests, as they did over the Tahrir Square and SOPA/PIPA protests, they are much less likely to do so today. If anything, politicians have adapted their tactics to weaken the efficacy of these platforms in order to control the movements that use them to organize. Tufekci writes:

Social movements were quick to adopt these [digital] tools and to use them to challenge power. There is no reason, however, to believe that affordances of digital technology are like Thor’s hammer, which only the pure of heart can pick up, and only for a single purpose. Since these tools’ inception, many governments have come a long way in understanding and learning how to control the new public sphere and its digital ecology.

Just a few years ago, government efforts to censor information were much more widespread. During the 2011 Tahrir Square protest, Hosni Mubarak’s regime ordered the censorship of all digital communications. This quickly backfired. Not only did it lead many of those already in Cairo to show up at the square and see what was going on, it signaled to the protestors, and to the world, how threatened Mubarak really was. It also failed on a practical level, as people figured out ways to circumvent the censorship very quickly. Most importantly perhaps, his act of censorship garnered massive media attention from around the world. Instead of stifling protesters by choking off their communications, it had completely the opposite effect and caused the world to watch.

Tufekci urges her readers to think of censorship not only as the direct blocking of information but also as the denial of attention and legitimacy to an issue or topic. Through a combination of misinformation and distraction, and an undermining of the legitimacy of existing platforms, media, and “gatekeepers” of information like traditional news outlets, authoritarians can control the media narrative and drown out the truth.

Anyone who has been following politics in the United States for the past year may notice that this denial-of-attention tactic has been adopted by Donald Trump, too, and to great effect. In fact, when Tufekci describes how this is carried out, she might as well be reading from the Trump Administration’s handbook:

This can be done in many ways, including inundating audiences with information, producing distractions to dilute their attention and focus, delegitimizing media that provide accurate information (whether credible mass media or online media), deliberately sowing confusion, fear, and doubt by aggressively questioning credibility (with or without evidence, since what matters is creating doubt, not proving a point), creating or claiming hoaxes, or generating harassment  campaigns designed to make it harder for credible conduits of information to operate, especially on social media which tends to be harder for a government to control like mass media.

This approach to censorship, she points out, puts entrenched powers at a distinct advantage. As long as they can continue to sow public distrust in even the most verifiable facts and information, they can maintain a stronghold on the status quo and undermine activists’ efforts to bring about any social or political change that addresses existing socioeconomic problems. Unfortunately, denial of attention, whether it is calculated or not, is part and parcel of the architecture and design of major digital platforms.

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may have become dominant public squares for political dialogue on the Internet. But these platforms are far from public. They are private spheres, owned and controlled by private companies. The rules of engagement are dictated by arbitrary and opaque guidelines that are largely enforced by lines of code—algorithms—that decide what kind of speech is visible and what is not. Tufekci lays out some of the many ways in which the structural dynamics of the platforms shape the outcome and efficacy of protest and online organizing.

Much of the design and implementation of these major platforms’ structures and rules are fundamentally influenced by their for-profit corporate organization. Everything from the infamous Facebook Like button to its strict real names policy is optimized to make it easier for companies to show ads or sell user data to advertisers, and thereby boost profits for their shareholders. There have been multiple cases when censorship smells like government censorship, and looks like government censorship, but was in fact a result of the website’s design.

For example, Tufekci describes how the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said” was deactivated just as it was getting a great deal of engagement during the lead up to the Tahrir Square protest. This seemed to be an act of state censorship, but it turned out to be an issue with the page administrator, who had used a pseudonym instead of his real name, Wael Ghonim. Along with internal pressure from other employees within Facebook, the page was reinstated after someone with her given legal name volunteered to become the page admin, bringing the page into compliance with the website’s Terms of Service.

Another major feature is the community policing of these platforms. Facebook and Twitter use a report-and-takedown model that enables anyone to report others for content they deem to be abusive in some way. For the platform companies, this is ideal. It’s not only more cost-effective than having an army of moderators sift through content, it also abdicates their responsibility for what is posted on their site.

Activists and marginalized people are particularly susceptible to becoming silenced through such a system. In countries with ethno-political tensions, those employed by tech companies tend to come from more privileged backgrounds—and therefore are more heavily represented on one particular side of a conflict. This can create a more extreme social bias against the needs of minority groups in those locales.

Harassment is also a problem social media companies shy away from taking actual responsibility for. As illustrated with the 4chan campaign, activists can become the target of an organized slew of hateful or even threatening attacks that can lead to their withdrawal from these platforms when it becomes too unbearable.

Before the Internet, civil rights activists had to work closely, pretty much face-to-face, to plan everything from transportation to sound set-up.

Tufekci does not really provide a solution for how to address this particular issue. Relying solely on automated, algorithm-based content moderation is probably the wrong answer. Many platforms, such as YouTube, currently use algorithms to enforce copyright and send automatic takedowns, which has led to systematic censorship of legitimate content. If platforms used certain key data points to determine what is or is not harassment, which can be more nuanced and contextual, such a system could be even more faulty. Still, there is much debate about the fact that sites are not doing enough to explore solutions to this problem. As Tufekci writes:

Major platforms could do a lot better by investing resources and giving more attention to the issue, but that their business model, their openness to government pressure, and sometimes their own mindset, often works against this.

Even if there were competing sites that had a perfect solution to this problem, as of now, it would be pretty difficult to unseat Facebook and Twitter from the helm. For one, they have a huge competitive advantage. The value of their platforms is tied to how many people are already connected and engaged on them. People cannot leave, or if they do, they must choose to lose touch with members of their communities, family, and friends.
It is undeniable that the major social networks played a role in getting people out to the streets for important protests, including for the Arab Spring and Occupy. Facebook and Twitter did get the initial mass of people to the Tahrir Square protests, leading to an avalanche of participation soon thereafter, according to Tufekci. This does not mean, however, that they had the ideal tools for organizing:

There is no perfect, ideal platform for social movements. There is no neutrality or impartiality—ethics, norms, identities and compromise permeate all the discussions and choices of design, affordances, policies and algorithms on online platforms. And yet given the role of these platforms in governance and expression, acknowledging and exploring these ramifications and dimensions seems more important than ever.

And that is what we must continue to do: Maintain a critical and constant critique. We need to question the supposed inevitability of a few siloed tech monopolies controlling all of our digital interactions. Companies like Facebook and Twitter (one of the few major sites not to join the SOPA/PIPA blackout) have profit objectives that undergird how we use them to communicate. Their endless hunger for our data will no doubt take us down a road of unbridled, unchecked corporate surveillance, which is intimately tied to how governments request data from Internet companies to feed unbridled government surveillance.

If successful organizing—the kind that addresses systemic injustices—hinges upon having access to online communication tools, then resistance must also come in the form of building alternative digital communication infrastructure that is not based on an extractive corporate model.

There is a nascent movement, called “platform cooperativism,” that is seeking to change this standard operating system of the digital economy. It is a movement whose aim is to have digital platforms owned and controlled by its developers and users. The idea being that we can have digital platforms evolve from being principally profit-motivated to serving the interest of their users if the bylaws by which they operate dictate them to do so. There are already a handful of platform cooperatives, or platform co-ops, that exist today. They include Stocksy, a stock photo company, and Fairmondo, a federated network of eBay-like online marketplaces.

In her epilogue, Tufekci mentions Loomio, an open-source software that facilitates inclusive democratic decision-making. Loomio was built by a worker-owned cooperative social enterprise that came out of the Occupy movement in New Zealand. It’s the kind of tool that could help many movements reach consensus among their participants—to decide everything from their unifying vision and overall objectives to the minutiae of day-to-day operations. It’s a fairly simple app that is designed to steer groups toward decisions by enabling members of a group to submit ideas for open discussion, offer proposals that evolve out of those deliberations, then have everyone vote on them based on their merits. The Spanish left-wing populist party Podemos relies on it, in addition to hundreds of cooperatives, social enterprises, and other activist groups around the world. Despite the platform’s ability to facilitate deliberation between people of diverse perspectives, it can still be a tricky project. Loomio’s founders hint that it is likely to be most useful in situations where trust has already been built from pre-existing, offline relationships.

Perhaps it is demonstrative of an underlying structural problem across the digital sphere—that there are so few tools and platforms that are strictly designed for the benefit of its users. Wikipedia is a firm example of one that is. Collaboratively edited by people around the world, Wikipedia is owned and managed by the non-profit Wikimedia. The largest online general reference in the world thrives due to its very nature as a free, open, and collective project. It may have faced structural limitations due to lack of public funding, but its developers have never had to make any design compromises in the name of turning a profit.

This speaks to what Tufekci described as a common feature of modern networked protest, namely, libraries:

From Toronto to Oakland to Hong Kong to Tahrir, libraries were among the first spaces protesters provisioned in occupied protest encampments, exactly because they encapsulated the spirit of the protest: that people can and should interact with one another and exchange ideas in a relationship not mediated by money.

Libraries are revolutionary because they embody the values of a world many people want to live in. One in which knowledge is liberated and non-commodified, where people share and enjoy public space, and care for common valuable resources, together. If the digital platforms we use to organize do not themselves codify any of these values, how can we expect them to enable us to do this work and help us actualize new transformative systems?
With hindsight, the protests of the early twenty-first century will likely be viewed as representing a particularly transient point in organizing. Using the tools available, people successfully converged using corporate-run digital platforms to inform and unite people around a common cause. But as the Arab Spring, Occupy movement, SOPA/PIPA blackout, and the xenophobic co-option of the #UndocumentedUnafraid hashtag all demonstrate, platforms are powerful in their ability to coordinate mass action—both online and offline—either as a means to hold the powerful accountable or, unfortunately, to bully the marginalized.

In light of the real possibility that governments and corporations may further whittle away at the existing utility of these platforms for mass organizing, we must find ways to connect and build power together, in deeper, more transformative ways. Protest also must not be seen as an end in and of itself, but instead as a starting point for further action. Technology can help with this, but it will never be a real substitute for the necessary, often tedious processes of inclusive deliberation that are so vital to bringing about societies reflective of real people power.

Read more about activismtechnology

Maira Sutton is an organizer and writer focused on the intersection of technology, economics, and human rights. She is currently the Community Engagement Manager at Shareable and was formerly a Global Policy Analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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