Zeynep Tufekci on protest movements and capacity problems

MIT’s Comparative Media Studies hosts a weekly colloquium, and this week’s featured speaker is sociologist and movement theorist, Zeynep Tufekci. Zeynep describes herself as a scholar of social movements and of surveillance, which means this has been an interesting and challenging year. The revelations about the NSA hit the same week as the Gezi protests in Turkey. She explains that it’s hard to do conceptual work in this space because events are changing every few months, making it very hard to extrapolate from years of experience.

Not until protests reached Gezi, Zeynep tells us, did she feel comfortable putting a name on the phenomenon she’s been seeing in her research in the Arab Spring, through Occupy and in the Indignados movement. To explain her theory, she opens her talk with a picture of the Hillary Step on Mount Everest. The picture of Everest, taken a day that four people died on the mountain, shows the profound crowding on the mountain, which made Everest so dangerous as climbers had to wait for others to finish.

Because of technology and sherpas, more people who aren’t great climbers come to Everest. Full service trips (at a $65,000 price point) can get you to base camp and get you much of the way up the mountain, but they cannot prepare people to climb the peak. There’s an uptick in deaths in the 1980s once the basecamps become developed and more people can get to the mountain.

People have proposed putting a ladder at Hillary’s Step, hoping to make things more difficult. But the issue is not the ladders – it’s the fact that it’s very, very hard to climb at altitude. The mountineering community has suggested something else: require people to climb seven other high peaks before they reach Everest.

This is an analogy for internet-enabled activism. In talking about internet and collective action, we tend to talk about ease of coordination and community. Zeynep worries that we’re getting to base camp without developing altitude awareness – in other words, some of the internet’s benefits have significant handicaps as side effects. The result: we see more movements, but they may not have impact or staying power because they come to public attention much earlier in their lives.

She suggests we stop looking so much at outputs of social media fueled protests and start looking instead at their role in capacity building. She recommends that we stop looking at offline/online distinctions and look more at signaling approaches to protests. This requires a game-theoretic framework, and consideration of movement capacities and strategic tensions.

With that as backdrop, she takes us to Gezi Park and Taksim Square, which she suggests we see as analogous to Chelsea or Soho, a neighborhood where people go to party. It’s one of the very rare greenspaces in that part of the city. It was to be replaced with the replica of an Ottoman barracks, which was going to be used as a high-end shopping mall, something that there are many of in Istanbul.

Neighbors of the park held a small protest, probably 30-40 people. But that small protest was met with pepper gas, which is a clear overreaction to a small, peaceful protest. People got upset about the protest and saw it as a personal decision by Erdogan, who seemed to be pushing the development over local wishes and over the wishes of the people of Istanbul.

People took to the streets and to Twitter. Why Twitter? While CNN International was showing protests in Taksim, CNN Turkey was showing a documentary about penguins. Zeynep found this deeply surprising – “We’re not China!” But there are different kinds of censorship, and this was censorship by media conglomerates, which are controlled by people who want government contracts. To curry favor with the government, media tends to self-censor… and if they don’t, they often get phone calls from the government. So Turkey isn’t China, but it’s a bit more like Russia, though with open elections and a more open public sphere. The backdrop for Gezi includes a 11-year single party reign, a polarized nation, an ineffective opposition and an electoral system that makes it hard to start new parties.

These protests in the middle of the city showed the depth of media corruption in Turkey, because social media documented the clashes with the police. Outrage over the police action and media interaction turned into a long-term occupation of Gezi Park. So, Zeynep tells us, she packed up her gear: a helmet, a gas mask, sunscreen, a recorder and a digital camera, all air-gapped from the internet.

Zeynep describes the encampment as Smurf village, a happy and friendly version of “Woodstock meets the Paris commune”, but threatened by Gargamel, the police showing up periodically. Roma ladies who normally sell flowers to tourists were selling Anonymous masks, ski goggles and spray paint. (Who says the developing world needs help with entrepreneurship?, she tell us.)

She walks us through the iconography – #diren (“resist”, or “occupy”), penguins (a reference to CNN showing penguin documentaries rather than clashes.) While the icons imply a common movement, there wasn’t one. She shows us a picture of a Kurdish activist, a far-right activist and an opposition party activist in the same frame, and another picture of macho soccer fans meeting with a local feminist group. Soccer fans traditionally call referees “faggots” in their chants, and the soccer fans protesting wanted to call the police faggots… but got confronted by local gay and lesbian activists who said, “No, we’re the faggots – we’re the guys protesting!” The two groups had a meeting, and the soccer fans ended up chanting “Sexist Erdogan”, newly aware of the members in their community. Zeynep takes pains to explain the heterogeneity of the crowd: a Kurdish activist and a gay rights activist talking about why they hadn’t interacted before.

Despite how much positivity came from these protests, there were real risks – people went to sleep after writing their blood types on their arms. Serious injuries happened every day, from tear gas cannisters and police confrontations.

What did the internet do? It broke media censorship, created a counternarrative, and allowed coordination. To tease CNN, people photoshopped penguins into protest footage, urging CNN Turkey to come to the protests. Humor was a major weapon, drawing attention to the persistent censorship. Zeynep makes the point of how difficult it is to censor in a social media age, pointing to the differences between Gafsa and Sidi Bouzid protests in Tunisia.

Twitter was critical for the Gezi protests, not just for generating a counternarrative, but for protest coordination. For the most part, the internet worked, and local businesses turned on wifi to make it accessible to protesters. Activists called friends who tweeted on their behalf. Erdogan wasn’t going to turn off the internet, Zeynep tells us, because of fear he’d be seen as an autocrat.

Despite all this adhoc coordination, there was no real centralized leadership, and very little delegation of authority. It was extremely unclear what demands were beyond “Don’t raze Gezi Park.” Because there was no need to deal with these thorny questions of representation and delegation to coordinate the protests, the movement did not build a strong leadership culture.

The Gezi protests were brutally dispersed, at which point, protest conversations moved to neighborhood forums, which were also dispersed. While popular, these protests haven’t been able to create structures that engage the government in the long term.

Despite the successes of the protests, Zeynep reminds us that Gezi and the open internet never overwhelmed the state’s capacity to surpress the protests. It simply overwhelmed state capacity to suppress without unwanted side effects of embarrassment, loss of tourism revenues, loss of prestige, loss of being seen as a modern civic space.

To understand these protests, Zeynep turns to Amartya Sen and capacity building, looking at those capacities, not traditional outputs, as the benefits of development. The internet gives us some new capacities, but that may undermine other capacities: we end up at base camp very easily, but we don’t know how to negotiate Hillary’s step. We can carry out the spectacular street protest, but we can’t build a larger movement to topple or challenge a government.

Protests are very good at grabbing attention and putting forth counternarratives. They create bonding between diverse groups. They also signal capacity, but it’s a different capacity than it might have been fifteen years ago. Zeynep tells us that this is not a “cheap talk” argument – protesting isn’t too easy – it’s just that a protest isn’t going to topple the government. This isn’t a slactivism argument either – it’s an argument about capacities. The internet seems to be very good at building a spectacular local optima – a street protest – without forcing deeper capacity development.

In the past, gaining attention meant gaining elite dissent and buy-in. Now, gaining attention may also have a cost – you may or may not have achieved elite buy-in, which means you may gain polarization. Gaining attention on your terms means not gaining the dominant narrative.

Digitally enabled protest allows for much more ability for social interaction amongst the machines. That said, the internet is a homophily machine, and joining a movement can be a step towards a homophilous group. Movements like the Tea Party are thriving in these environments.

Zeynep shows a slide of a gazelle stotting to make her last point. Jumping in the air isn’t a great way to avoid predators – it’s a way to show that you’re really fast and would be hard to catch. But animals that can’t evade predators can also jump. Zeynep warns us that ignoring the March on Washington would have been a mistake, which might have ousted a President, but Gezi was not that sort of protest.

She urges us to consider “network internalities”, development of ties within networks that would allow social networks to become effective actors. Movements get stuck at no, she argues, because they’ve never needed to develop a capacity for representation, and can only coalesce around saying no, not building an affirmative agenda.

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13 Responses to Zeynep Tufekci on protest movements and capacity problems

  1. Luis says:

    Some very useful thinking here. Thanks for writing it up, Ethan.

  2. Ethan, thanks for this article. It offers different scopes to a common method we have used over and over. My take is that when it comes to protests, there is no better way of doing it, and there is no format that works for just every case.

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  5. Thanks for writing it up, Thiss

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  7. ben valentine says:

    Do you believe or did Zaynep say whether or not this is notion is more representative of growing pains of networked activism or a fundamental flaw?

    Did Zaynep mention or can you offer any solutions to these problems around capacity, scale and real change? You mention “network internalities”, and that we should be focusing on stronger ties to create change as well as bridge connections to combat homophily. Can you elaborate or point toward any other ideas?


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