Book Review: Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest

January 13, 2019

By Kishor Govinda

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, written by the Turkish sociologist and writer, Zeynep Tufekci in 2017, is a study of the effect of social media on political activism.

The author argues that while the internet and social media have made protesting easier, they have also created new problems for activism. Counter-intuitively, by making protest easier, movements overlook essential formal and informal infrastructures. As a result movements can fall under their own weight and are unable to proceed beyond a point. Tufecki makes a comparative study of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and recent social movements including Gezi Park, Occupy Wall street and the Arab Spring. These movements have used new media to organize.

    Tufecki dismisses many common criticisms of social media-centered movements. She points out that the volume of organization has not gone down, and the commitment of participants has not waned. She also mentions that these new models of social movements have new capacities, as they allow for modes of organizing that would have been difficult before. Decentralized networks of communications are possible and can react to a crisis with efficiency and nuance. They can also connect causes and groups that would not have met before.

    The problem is fragility. In the new social architecture that digital technologies creates and that movements now have to operate in, there is a new regime of state control and corporate response. Systems of control are responding to the times by being more dynamic, innovative and targeted. Misinformation can be spread effectively and with precision. As much as movements have adapted to the times, the ruling classes have as well. 

    While India has not been a site for the leaderless protests that Tufecki takes her lessons from, traditional movements have grown increasingly reliant on social media and web-based technologies. Progressive activists still have had to worry about state repression on one hand, and reactionary non-state actors on the other hand. This is not new, but social media has created a new terrain for the political space. Word-of-mouth can quickly go online, and sometimes hot political issues can become Facebook events, which may invite reactionary elements.  

    On top of this, the new social architecture has three aspects which make it harder to navigate. First, it exists at multiple levels with varying levels of transparency and access. When print media was the dominant form of accessing news and views, there was a sense of a dominant narrative. This narrative might have been reactionary, but having it in place gave movements a sense of perspective. With the growth of personalized media, there is a growing feeling that reactionary elements of society might be reactionary in unknown ways. Social media includes image and video sharing, and it sometimes feels like different parts of society are literally seeing a different world. In India, this has escalated to new forms of vigilante violence. This violence can seem spontaneous and arbitrary at certain times and look like part of a larger agenda at others. 

    Second, money still plays a role. Social media carries a democratic promise to its consumers. As Tufecki points out, anyone can become a source of news if they are at the right place at the right time. People can bypass the mainstream media and systems of censorship, and give real-time information on ongoing events. This sword cuts two ways. Misinformation can be spread, and at crucial times, having more hands and more resources can mobilize that misinformation better. In India, political parties and governments have become more interested in monitoring and mobilizing social media.  

    Third, the terrain is fast changing, and the possibilities and limitations are fast changing as well. Social media is both a tool of surveillance and counter-surveillance. The very technology that has made mass action possible has also allowed for a cataloguing of information, including location, content, history and connections. Activists can now be targeted by analyzing social media, using algorithms that are getting increasingly sophisticated. Between the state and reactionary social elements, many movements have to be very careful if they are to survive or grow. 

    It might make sense to try to link these factors with the rise of right-wing politics, as social media platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp have grown since 2011. This coincides with the recent resurgence of right-wing politics that culminated in the 2014 victory of the BJP. The demographics that were most enthusiastic for the current government, ie: the upwardly mobile youth, urban population and upper-caste Hindus, disproportionately voted for the BJP. However, a closer look will show that this resurgence has an older and more gradual trajectory. 

    Though social media is not the cause of right-wing politics, it would be mistaken to say that social media is a neutral political actor. In 2014, social media use was a fraction of what it is now, and its full influence is still yet to be felt. Roughly one-in-five Indians use social media regularly. Most of them use a combination of Whatsapp and Facebook. 

    The 2018 Karnataka state elections are a good example of how social media is playing a role in politics. Sometimes referred to as the world’s first Whatsapp election, the social media cells of the BJP, Congress and JDS were running campaigns on Whatsapp with a combined membership that may have exceeded a crore, roughly one-fourth of the voting population.  The result was an election that was nearly too close to call. When going through the results of the Karnataka elections, voting margins were incredibly targeted. Some districts had margins as low as a few hundred. 

    At the time of elections, many articles came out on the BJP’s social media strategy. It was reported that they hired hundreds of people in each district to spend a few hours each day to spread their message to people on Whatsapp groups. This is the effect on the political climate. Positions can be tailor-made to the region. There is no accountability of the party. Feedback could be instantly centralized and studied.

    This is not a tool particular to the right, but it is a tool particular to the powerful. What the BJP uses one day, the Congress could use the next. Social media gives newer and more precise tools for the powerful, while giving the less powerful an illusionary feeling of control that they have not felt before. Each person sending a forward may become an amateur journalist. In parallel, many activists I have spoken to, who have seen the changes over the past thirty years have pointed out that in Bengaluru, the types and location of protests have been shrinking. A rally in the wrong place can lead to being detained. A protest with a camera present, might lead to being hunted down by the police. Earlier, leaders and those caught would be targets. Now everyone is a potential target, from bystanders to people in contact with protesters. Presentations of protests can easily paint them in a poor light. In the public eye, the number of topics one can register dissent using traditional methods has been shrinking. Elections are getting harder to influence by movements, and they are slowly becoming the sole focus of influence.

    Perhaps what we are seeing, the world over, is a modification of the mainstream. While yesterday antagonizing and polarizing positions would be considered outside of mainstream discourse, social media creates an environment were divisive politics characterize the umbrella of mainstream politics. It does not add to the set of positions, but it encourages a new brand of positions. Earlier, the leadership of the right would attempt to hold a veneer of neutrality. Today, the leadership of the right claims a broad communal populism.

    Tufecki’s call to movements is to be comprehensive in their approach. In the past few years, I have seen movements attempt to learn the new tools of social media and find ways to be creative with their approach both online and offline. I feel that beyond the tools of the digital age, there is so much changing on a day-to-day basis. Even keeping up is challenging. Migration within the country is now so high that a factory can bus labourers from across the state or country overnight. Money changes hands instantly. The news cycle has started becoming a feature of Indian television media, and seems to have an ever-shrinking shelf life. 

    The newer forms of media have made activism very different then it was a few years ago. Already, there is growing distrust of Whatsapp as a source of news information. We do not know what the next player will be. Some signs seem to show that people are taking interest in image based media over text based media, but it is not clear what the effect will be. In the digital age, information is fluid, and it is getting harder not to drown. While I feel that the battles of today are not substantially different then yesterday, trying to reach out is getting increasingly frustrating, as many more are hearing, no more are listening.