Twitter and Tear Gas
The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest
By Zeynep Tufekci
Yale. 326 pp. $26
Name a lefty antiauthoritarian movement of the last quarter-century, and chances are Zeynep Tufekci has been there. Her personal experience in the squares and streets, melded with her scholarly insights on technology and communication platforms, makes Twitter and Tear Gas such an unusual and illuminating work.
Tufekci clearly sympathizes with the movements she chronicles, but she keeps enough distance to remain skeptical of their impact. The technology that helps modern movements organize high-profile protests, she concludes, can also deny them the staying power to achieve their long-term goals. And the leadership principles of contemporary movements aren't helping much, either.
She contrasts today's efforts with the American civil-rights movement of the mid-20th century. Participants and organizers could not rely on a Facebook call to launch, for example, the Montgomery bus boycott or the march on Washington. But it was precisely the early, painstaking work of planning and coordinating and recruiting that helped the movement endure.
Compare that with the Gezi Park movement that spread across Turkey in 2013, sparked by authorities' plans to bulldoze Istanbul's Gezi Park in favor of commercial and residential construction. Facebook and Twitter spread the news, with images of clashes between police and protesters, and the movement grew in numbers and notoriety. Tufekci was there, of course.
Gezi Park, "going from almost zero to a massive movement within days, clearly demonstrates the power of digital tools," Tufekci writes. But "with this speed comes weakness." Such movements find it hard to change strategy because they're not equipped to make collective decisions. They may wish to be leaderless, but this makes them unable to negotiate, either internally or with adversaries.
Occupy Wall Street displayed disruptive power, and enjoyed success in transforming the language of our inequality debates. But "Occupy had little or no direct electoral impact in the immediate aftermath," Tufekci notes. Its slow, flat, and consensus-obsessed leadership style - a single dissenting voice in a crowd could keep Rep. John Lewis from addressing an Occupy gathering in Atlanta - hindered its ability to battle on new fronts.
Social-science jargon occasionally overwhelms her arguments. But feels like a work that will be long cited, deservedly, by activists, technologists, and others grasping at the relationship between our causes and our screens. Twitter and Tear Gas is a book that, superimposed on a seemingly familiar landscape, utterly transforms the view.
This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.