Twitter and tear gas: on the power and fragility of networked protest

Twitter and Facebook offer opportunities for mobilising on a new scale. But do they weaken and limit the commitment to resistance? Book review.

Julian Sayarer
30 June 2017

Protestors in France in 2006 – young people resisted plans to deregulate labour. Gonzale/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Two thoughts came consistently to mind while reading Zeynep Tufekçi’s new book “Twitter & Tear Gas: The power and fragility of networked protest” – no doubt soon to be considered a key text for anyone wishing to understand protest in the twenty-first century. 

Perhaps unusually, the first concerned Gustave Flaubert. Tufekçi develops a point that has always fascinated me, relating to Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary: published in 1857, Flaubert set his story marginally before the time of its writing, because those crucial few years saw the construction of the regional Paris-Rouen railway – and meant that journeys which had taken a few days by horse could be completed in a few hours by steam locomotive. Flaubert believed that Emma Bovary’s forbidden love in Rouen required those days of distance, and that in the contracted space and time heralded by the steam engine, there died the necessary conditions for human attachment, suspense, wonder.

The question of human connections is implicit in protest and important in this book. Tufekçi uses the term “network internalities” to describe relations operating in two ways: the ties between people in a movement, and the relation of those people to their movement. Can a viral Twitter hashtag – no matter the millions it reaches – create the same bond with a cause as a crumpled piece of paper, printed by mimeograph, kept in a pocket and bearing instructions for where its holder must go for the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama? Did the very hours spent with that mimeograph create an engagement that contributed to a stronger strain of resistance? 

Did the very hours spent with that mimeograph create an engagement that contributed to a stronger strain of resistance?

Tufekçi also scrutinises modern cultures of attention. The prominence and accessibility of groups such as Black Lives Matter, Tahrir Square, Occupy and the resistance in Turkey’s Gezi Park is both sought out by these groups, and yet can serve to limit activism that – once in the spotlight – is shown not to have formulated either clear demands or decision-making procedures. 

From the other side of the barricades, Tufekçi considers what these capabilities now signal to those in power – hypothesising that marches and demonstrations remain noble and useful, but that the comparative ease of organising such events in the twenty-first century is factored in when those in power assess the clout a movement possesses. 

‘Twitter and tear gas’ asks these questions frankly and with utmost sincerity, and incites you to ask questions of your own. In its generosity of spirit, its aims, its plain account of human activity at its best, daring to believe in better worlds for themselves and others – in all these ways, the book is beautiful. The reader is encouraged to think in terms of the ecosystem of protest, of media, of technology and markets; Tufekçi presents a picture at once complex and yet clear. As a Turkish-American programmer and social researcher, the eclecticism of the author’s own background itself seems to inform the richness of the ecosystem she so carefully maps. 

The second of the two thoughts my mind drifted back to when reading was the stark prognosis of the great historian, Eric Hobsbawm, who remarked pessimistically of the Occupy movement’s lack of party political alignment in New York 2011: “If there is no party, then there's no future.” 

“If there is no party, then there's no future.” 

In Twitter and Tear Gas, we encounter the worlds, communities, values and – perhaps most crucially – tools, of modern protest. Less attention is given to those precious nodes where establishment and protest culture can meet, and to how cultures of protest relate to mainstream political culture. Whether Hobsbawm was right is not a point with which Tufekçi troubles, but the book is all the better for being neither an exhortation to protest nor a formulaic guide on how to lead the things. Tufekçi’s book helps you ask yourself better questions; she does not set out to explain what makes for a successful movement, but if you have any intention of organising or even understanding one, there can be no doubt, you need to read it.

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