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October 16, 2013

[berkman] Zeynep Tufecki on the boom-and-bust cycle of social-media-fueled protests (with live reporting)

Zeynep Tufecki [twitter:zeynep] is giving a Berkman Tuesday Lunch talk titled “Gezi Park Protests & the Boom-Bust Cycle of Social Media Fueled Protest.” She says that surveillance and social media + protest are two of her topics, so swhen protests broke out in her home country of Turkey, she felt she really had to study it. She is today presenting issues she is still working through.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She says that on the positive side of the role of social media on politics, we see lower coordination costs, the ability to shape the narrative, and an ability to overcome internal prejudice. On the negative: slacktivism, surveilliance, and propaganda. For her the lower costs cause the boom-bust cycle in social media-fueled activism. There are many questions she says, including why most of these social-media fueled protests fizzle out.

People usually argue about the wrong questions, Zeynep says. Instead, she suggests that we stop looking so much at the outputs of social media-fueled protests and instead at their capacity-building. Also, stop using offline or online as the important differentiation, and instead look at them in terms of what they signal.

She gives some background on Gezi, Turkey. The media focused on Taksim Square in Istanbul, but the action was actually in Gezi park. Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to turn the park into a developed area with housing, a shopping mall, and an old Ottoman barracks. This was an unpopular plan, and was taken as a symbol for wider discontent. Neighborhood people held a small protest. Maybe 30 people. But it was met with overwhelming force, which raised fear of the gov’t become authoritarian. People took to the streets. Turkish media are owned by large corporate conglomerates in cahoots with the gov’t. CNN locally was running shows about penguins, while CNN International was covering the protests. “So people got upset and took to Twitter and to the streets” (including an image of penguins in gas masks).

via Turkish Press Review Blog

After multiday clashes in the area, “coordinated and spread almost solely on social media,” Gezi Park was Occupied. (Zeynep stresses that Turkey, unlike, other countries nearby, has a popularly-elected gov’t.) Zeynep joined in, packing an audio recorder, a bike helmet, and a tear gas mask. And sun protector lotion because statistically, she says, she felt most threatened by the Sun.

A single party had been in power in Turkey for 11 years. The country was polarized, but with an ineffective opposition. There are barriers to creating new parties (you have to get 10% to get any seats), which means the country is locked into an ineffective opposition.

At first the occupation was like a fair: clean, kitchens that were feeding 10K people, and like a carnival in the evenings because of the visitors. Occasionally, you’d get tear gassed. “Woodstock meets the Paris Commune.” She shows a picture of a Sufi whirler wearing a gas mask. People were finding politics.

There was “one no, many yes-es,” [an anti-globalization meme] which Zeynep argues is an Internet phenomenon. Turks who normally would never talk with one another found each other in the park.

There’s the free-rider question. Even if the protest itself were a festival, the costs would be real: Five people died, thousands were injured by tear gas cannisters which can be lethal.

The protestors’ main grievances were: growing authoritarianism, media censoprship, and police brutality. (Source: Zeynep formally interviewed 130 people.)

The Net’s role was to break the censorship, create a new narrative, and to coordinate. She looks at each of these:

The media censorship was incredible. CNN Turkey showed a soccer match as protestors were being chased down the city’s main street. Protestors used Twitter in part because there were too many family members on Facebook. “Ironically, Twitter became more essential because it was more public.” Twitter’s blue bird became the symbol of freedom, in part because people trusted Twitter not to turn over names. Also: lots of penguins.

Real-time coordination: Overall, the Net worked. People coordinated in real time via Twitter. Local businesses turned on open Wifi. People would text to others who then tweeted.

People learned new literacies, especially who to trust. One Twitter stream only tweeted citizen journalism if it came with a photo, to increase credibility.

Counter narrative: Very youth and humor oriented. People came because it was a great place to be, even with the tear gassings. People felt fairly confident that they wouldn’t get shot at, similar to Western Europe or the US.

Leadership: There were 130 organizations, but no central leadership. Much of it was ad hoc, which worked because of social media.

After a few weeks, the protest was brutally dispersed, and then it moved to local parks and neighborhoods. When it broke up, the govt mostly decided to treat the protestors the way GW Bush treated the anti-Iraq War protests: not as a threat, but more like merely a focus group.

Capacity building: Look at capacity, not outcomes. E.g., look at literacy, not GDP (Amatyra Sen). Internet’s capacity-building renders other forms of capacity-building less useful.

The online and offline are one ecology. (She’s looking here at post-citizen protests, i.e., protests were the participants are already recognized as citizens).

The Net lowers the barriers for the resources necessary for protest. No one planned the Gezi protests. They just arose.

So what do protest do? They grab attention, promote social interaction, reveal info, and signal capacity. Her thesis: Internet protests don’t signal the same way as pre-Internet. The Net gains attention without media mediating. Media dependency brings distortion, censorship, and counter propaganda — but also dominance, focus, and singular narrative. Media attention pre-Net often signaled elite dissent. With the Net, movements can get attention on their own terms, but can’t get a singular or dominant narrative. “Since there is no single elite voice, there is no reliable way to signal elite dissent.” Now you can’t get away from polarized narratives.

For social interaction capacity, it’s a big win for the movements. It’s much easier to find people like you on the Net. “The Internet is a homophily machine.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t work just for the movements you like. e.g., the anti-vaccine movement. It’s a win for social movements, but there will be many more movements.

Info revelation. Pluralistic ignorance = you think you’re the only one who is thinking something. The Net gets us past that, e.g., Facebook pages. But, then there are bandwagon/cascade effects.

Signaling: Protests as “stotting.” (“Stotting” = animals jumping up in the bush.) One explanation: it signals how strong you are and thus how fast you can run. Before the Net, because there wasn’t an easy way to organize, if you got a million people to DC, you’re signaling that you have an infrastructural capacity far beyond those million. Now, getting lots of people in the street doesn’t signal the threats that modern govts care about. Even when there are costs, those costs don’t signal the capacity to hurt the govt in ways the govt cares about. So, slacktivism is a bad argument; it’s not the cost of typing that’s being signalled.

Network internalities for social media-fueled protests are weaker. The Left doesn’t celebrate building network internalities because the Left sidesteps important tensions (leadership, representation, delegation). “Side stepping those tensions means that after the street protests, things are more unclear for the Left.” The Left is unable to negotiate, which is why so many movements are stuck at no. The Net allows them to sidestep developing ways to negotiate, etc. The Right, on the other hand (e;g., Tea Party) is comfortable challenging primaries.

To sum up: Look at the building of capacities, not how many people show up. This explains why there’s a repeated cycle where the protests are unable to engage in effective negotiation, representation, pressure, and delegation.


Q: What other than Twitter is being used?

A: In Gezi, people knew how to post to Twitter by texting. And Twitter gained the users’ trust. Facebook was important for longer conversations. People collected photos on Tumblr. A lot of blogging, etc. But Twitter was how protesters talked with one another. Turkey isn’t a client state and didn’t need to appeal to America. And hashtags were dropped, so analytics miss just how big it was.

Q: [me] Is the Left stuck forever not being able to get past protests to actual change?

A: In Google Egypt Wael Ghonim was identified as a leader, and he was picked up for questioning. But he couldn’t have coerced a change even if he’d wanted to. I’m not saying this is great. At Gezi, the govt said “Let’s negotiate.” But who do you send? They sent people from the traditional NGOs, but they had no representational capacity. They listend to the Prime Minister. But they weren’t empowered to negotiate. The govt was genuinely frustrated that they couldn’t find a negotiating partner. So after the negotiations, there were some demands, they came back to the park. It’s 3 or 4am. They’re trying to explain what happened. People were confused. There was no way to deal with it. The next day, the protestors formed little forums, but how do you decide which to listen to? Some people were ready to accept it an go. People wanted consensus. But consensus has meant “a lot of social pressure.” That doesn’t work in the modern city. So where do we go with this? It can’t just be technology. There has to be a recognition among Left movements that if you can’t ever delegate or negotiate, then you’re stuck at No. The Right isn’t like this. The Right is using social media to make really significant strides. They’ve blocked the President’s agenda. They’re getting elected in Europe. They Left is unable to get together enough to address the 30-40% unemplyment in Spain. The big visible protests are Left wing. The big visible gains are Right wing.

Q: You said there were about 150 social groups involved in the movement. What was the relation between how they organize this protest and …?

The 150 groups didn’t represent the people on the ground. The groups formed the leadership because they were there, but people on the ground didn’t think of themselves as being there as members of those groups. The traditional NGOs had no capacity to lead, and didn’t understand that.

Q: I was a protestor in Ankara. I was tear gassed three times. Tastes good. How can we orient this approach to be an alternative to the traditional opposition structure? The classic opposition parties in Turkey do not represent the young people, the democratic-based people.

A: We have a huge crisis in opposition representation. The classic opposition parties do not represent the young generation. The young are big on pluralism, for example. There’s no party that represents the live-and-let-live ethic among the protestors. E.g., the young have no polarization around the head scarf issue: “They should if they want to, and not if they don’t want to.” That’s not represented in Parliament. The electoral system blocks the formation of new parties because of the 10% barrier. But, also, the young have a cultural allergy to representation because in traditional politics they see corruption, not representation.

Q: But there’s a trend in the Turkish community to do something. We have to find an alternative.

A: What motivates the existing govt is people losing office.

Q: How many companies offer Internet facilities in Turkey?

A: The backbone goes through one and then it’s sold to companies that can sell access. Great for surveillance. But it’s not the same concern as elsewhere, which is why people felt safe tweeting. Turkey is probably more wired than the US, which isn’t saying so much. Smartphones are necessary just to coordinate meeting up. Much lateness.

Q: In India, we have two successful models. The protests against the rape case were done through FB. An anti-corruption movement was able to organize millions of people throughout the country. But how do you coalesce these energies, give it a shape? But a word of caution: Panic about people from the northeast of India spread throughout the country thanks to social media, leading to killings.

The biggest case of non-state terrorism happened in Pakistan because of a video. Is the Internet good or bad? Yes.

Q: Is protest never effective?

A: Numbers still matter. But it depends on what it’s signaling, which also depends on context. If it signals than we’re here and we’re going to challenge you in your weak point, then yes…

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