Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and the Fragility of Networked Protest

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and the Fragility of Networked Protest Tufecki has written an important book that offers a granular assessment of contemporary digital protest. It is a sober, stock-taking study of several protest movements that attracted considerable scholarly and journalistic attention in recent years. The book does what good books should do: It provides valuable original data and perceptive insights about an important subject, and it raises further questions. The analysis moves breezily from the “Arab spring” to movements in Turkey and the United States to Mexico’s Zapatistas, from discussions about collective action to digital technologies. The writing is lively, with personal recollections, thoughtful observations, and personal testimonies from protesters. Altogether, Tufecki offers a textured chronicle of the dynamics of several movements and the hopes of activists. The argument is compelling even if it is buried under lengthy descriptions and analytical asides: Digital tools are powerful instruments for organizing and for public expression, but they are not sufficient to bring about political change. There is much that horizontalism can accomplish, even if movements showed capacity to construct counternarratives, disrupt everyday life in positive ways, and nurture institutional skills. This conclusion may not be a revelation to many scholars of collective action, familiar with the complexity of social change, but it is an important point to be hammered on in the aftermath of rushed and sociologically thin prognoses that envisioned a bright, democratic future brought about by digital activism. Huge mobilizations that astutely used social media were seen as the harbinger of progressive change. Optimistic positions were based more on the belief about the potential of digital horizontal participation than on impeccable evidence or nuanced dissections of political situations. Sadly, history showed the power of the status quo and its furious reaction against protesters. The “tear gas” in the book’s title is a reminder of the entrenched authority of political, economic, and military actors—a metonym for sclerotic states that struck back and ultimately prevailed. Tufecki’s conclusion is bittersweet, particularly given her own direct involvement in many protests as well as her sympathetic stand on several movements. Just as activists built communities and cultivated a legacy of participation, they achieved little in terms of major policy goals they set out to achieve, whether wealth redistribution, political democracy, or stopping war. I wish Tufecki had articulated her theoretical argument in clearer, crisper terms. Given her first-rate insights into several movements, the analysis could have delivered a powerful argument about why changes failed to materialize. She clearly shows the limitations of “assemblyism” and leaderless movements to drive democratic changes, but the book does not advance a concise argument about what was missing. Was it the right political junctures? Elite support? Misunderstanding the complexity of reactionary forces? Did activists make incorrect strategic choices that explain why early hopes were crushed? The references to the success of the Tea Party in the United States could have been used to address these questions. Or perhaps this case does not truly apply to progressive movements, given several differences between right-wing and left-wing social movements in terms of linkages to established politics, sources and level of funding, and other variables. Another issue the book could have been discussed in more detail is whether protest movements are truly comparable. Yes, they used digital platforms similarly in innovative ways to coordinate actions and voice opinions, but they took place in widely different political and social contexts—from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies. Some wanted to overthrow dictatorships and promote democracy; others wanted to change economic and social policies; still others wanted to abolish capitalism and racism. They can be rightly considered “anti-authoritarian movements,” as Tufecki points out, but they operated in widely different political contexts. This is important for many reasons. Are political elites in (semi)authoritarian regimes less prone to respond to signals from movements than in democratic systems? Do similar tactics, such as demonstrations, have similar impact in different contexts—Mubarak’s Egypt, Erdogan’s Turkey, and the contemporary United States? Do these cases demonstrate that grassroots movements may not achieve sustainable policy changes and political reform without support from elites? The book clearly highlights the problems of “tactical freezes” in liberal and progressive movements, but it does not formulate a succinct argument about how changes could have been possible in different cases. A critical study of the revolutions that didn’t happen tells us a story as important as understanding the revolutions that did happen. The book could have also critically assessed the failings of optimistic positions about digital activism. Tufecki herself admits her early miscalculation about the impact of social movements. What is not discussed, unfortunately, is why so many scholars and activists believed that positive change was imminent even without strong evidence. While the book wisely reminds us that political change is complicated and depends on several conditions, it does not delve into why this important conclusion got lost among the fetishization of digital technologies. An autopsy of techno-optimism could have explained why so many underestimated the power of the enemy that protest movements confronted, and what lessons should be drawn to avoid falling again into exuberant positions based on limited evidence. In my mind, the book tells us that maintaining critical distance from movements is necessary to understand the strengths and the limitations of networked citizenship. One can be a politically committed scholar, but should also keep in mind the lessons from previous protest movements about when and why social change happens, in different contexts and in different times. Also, it may be important, following a point that Tufecki gestures toward in several passages, that protest may be a suitable, necessary tactic in certain circumstances, but it may be limited to mobilizing public opinion, persuading elites, overthrowing dictators, or reforming capitalism. The communities formed by protest actions, as she convincingly documents, may not achieve ambitious goals if they do not shift tactical gears. Certainly, these options vary across contexts. The existence of open and fair elections, critical press, independent judiciary, sympathetic elites, and the rule of law may be options to activists in some, not all, cases. To understand these issues, the analysis should foreground the political context and remember that not all forms of digital activism are comparable, even if they use the same platforms. This book reminds us that we should not forget that politics matter, even if we are primarily interested in studying digital protest. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Social Forces Oxford University Press

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and the Fragility of Networked Protest

Social Forces , Volume Advance Article (4) – Feb 16, 2018

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0037-7732
eISSN
1534-7605
D.O.I.
10.1093/sf/soy004
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Tufecki has written an important book that offers a granular assessment of contemporary digital protest. It is a sober, stock-taking study of several protest movements that attracted considerable scholarly and journalistic attention in recent years. The book does what good books should do: It provides valuable original data and perceptive insights about an important subject, and it raises further questions. The analysis moves breezily from the “Arab spring” to movements in Turkey and the United States to Mexico’s Zapatistas, from discussions about collective action to digital technologies. The writing is lively, with personal recollections, thoughtful observations, and personal testimonies from protesters. Altogether, Tufecki offers a textured chronicle of the dynamics of several movements and the hopes of activists. The argument is compelling even if it is buried under lengthy descriptions and analytical asides: Digital tools are powerful instruments for organizing and for public expression, but they are not sufficient to bring about political change. There is much that horizontalism can accomplish, even if movements showed capacity to construct counternarratives, disrupt everyday life in positive ways, and nurture institutional skills. This conclusion may not be a revelation to many scholars of collective action, familiar with the complexity of social change, but it is an important point to be hammered on in the aftermath of rushed and sociologically thin prognoses that envisioned a bright, democratic future brought about by digital activism. Huge mobilizations that astutely used social media were seen as the harbinger of progressive change. Optimistic positions were based more on the belief about the potential of digital horizontal participation than on impeccable evidence or nuanced dissections of political situations. Sadly, history showed the power of the status quo and its furious reaction against protesters. The “tear gas” in the book’s title is a reminder of the entrenched authority of political, economic, and military actors—a metonym for sclerotic states that struck back and ultimately prevailed. Tufecki’s conclusion is bittersweet, particularly given her own direct involvement in many protests as well as her sympathetic stand on several movements. Just as activists built communities and cultivated a legacy of participation, they achieved little in terms of major policy goals they set out to achieve, whether wealth redistribution, political democracy, or stopping war. I wish Tufecki had articulated her theoretical argument in clearer, crisper terms. Given her first-rate insights into several movements, the analysis could have delivered a powerful argument about why changes failed to materialize. She clearly shows the limitations of “assemblyism” and leaderless movements to drive democratic changes, but the book does not advance a concise argument about what was missing. Was it the right political junctures? Elite support? Misunderstanding the complexity of reactionary forces? Did activists make incorrect strategic choices that explain why early hopes were crushed? The references to the success of the Tea Party in the United States could have been used to address these questions. Or perhaps this case does not truly apply to progressive movements, given several differences between right-wing and left-wing social movements in terms of linkages to established politics, sources and level of funding, and other variables. Another issue the book could have been discussed in more detail is whether protest movements are truly comparable. Yes, they used digital platforms similarly in innovative ways to coordinate actions and voice opinions, but they took place in widely different political and social contexts—from authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies. Some wanted to overthrow dictatorships and promote democracy; others wanted to change economic and social policies; still others wanted to abolish capitalism and racism. They can be rightly considered “anti-authoritarian movements,” as Tufecki points out, but they operated in widely different political contexts. This is important for many reasons. Are political elites in (semi)authoritarian regimes less prone to respond to signals from movements than in democratic systems? Do similar tactics, such as demonstrations, have similar impact in different contexts—Mubarak’s Egypt, Erdogan’s Turkey, and the contemporary United States? Do these cases demonstrate that grassroots movements may not achieve sustainable policy changes and political reform without support from elites? The book clearly highlights the problems of “tactical freezes” in liberal and progressive movements, but it does not formulate a succinct argument about how changes could have been possible in different cases. A critical study of the revolutions that didn’t happen tells us a story as important as understanding the revolutions that did happen. The book could have also critically assessed the failings of optimistic positions about digital activism. Tufecki herself admits her early miscalculation about the impact of social movements. What is not discussed, unfortunately, is why so many scholars and activists believed that positive change was imminent even without strong evidence. While the book wisely reminds us that political change is complicated and depends on several conditions, it does not delve into why this important conclusion got lost among the fetishization of digital technologies. An autopsy of techno-optimism could have explained why so many underestimated the power of the enemy that protest movements confronted, and what lessons should be drawn to avoid falling again into exuberant positions based on limited evidence. In my mind, the book tells us that maintaining critical distance from movements is necessary to understand the strengths and the limitations of networked citizenship. One can be a politically committed scholar, but should also keep in mind the lessons from previous protest movements about when and why social change happens, in different contexts and in different times. Also, it may be important, following a point that Tufecki gestures toward in several passages, that protest may be a suitable, necessary tactic in certain circumstances, but it may be limited to mobilizing public opinion, persuading elites, overthrowing dictators, or reforming capitalism. The communities formed by protest actions, as she convincingly documents, may not achieve ambitious goals if they do not shift tactical gears. Certainly, these options vary across contexts. The existence of open and fair elections, critical press, independent judiciary, sympathetic elites, and the rule of law may be options to activists in some, not all, cases. To understand these issues, the analysis should foreground the political context and remember that not all forms of digital activism are comparable, even if they use the same platforms. This book reminds us that we should not forget that politics matter, even if we are primarily interested in studying digital protest. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Social ForcesOxford University Press

Published: Feb 16, 2018

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