How online social movements translate to offline results

How online social movements translate to offline results


HARI SREENIVASAN: The day after the inauguration
of President Donald Trump, an estimated 3.5 million people in cities around the country
and the world took part in the Women’s March protesting the Trump agenda in what may have
been the largest collective protest in American history. The march started with a single Facebook post
and grew from there. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Professor Zeynep
Tufekci was one of those faces in the crowd. ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Marches are great, they’re
really empowering to people, but the magic isn’t really in the streets by itself or
any online action. It’s when you look at the action when you’re
say, a legislator, thinking, ‘Hmm, if they can march with a million people what else
can they do?’ HARI SREENIVASAN: Tufekci teaches in the School
of Information at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and is the author of
the new book, “Twitter and Tear Gas: the Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.” ZEYNEP TUFEKCI, AUTHOR OF TWITTER AND TEAR
GAS: The twist in the 21st century seems to be since we can a do things much easier with
digital technology, they don’t necessarily have the same level of teeth a similar action
say a March on Washington might have 30, 40, 50 years ago, because that was a result of
a long process of organizing. HARI SREENIVASAN: The March on Washington
for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 took six months to organize — arranging buses, bag lunches,
singers and speakers, for a quarter of a million who attended. Tufekci says the march was a show of strength
for the Civil Rights Movement built over the previous 10 years. ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: It pushed the people in power
to take the threat pretty seriously. HARI SREENIVASAN: One year later, Congress
passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. More recently, Tufekci cites the success of
the conservative “Tea Party” movement. It began in the spring of 2009 with a viral
video. RICK SANTELLI, CNBC’S SQUAWK BOX, FEBRUARY
2009: This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your
neighbor’s mortgage? HARI SREENIVASAN: Followed by tax day protests
around the country. By the November 2010 midterm elections, the
movement had a measurable impact. ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: They got 50 plus Congress
people. They essentially blocked President Obama’s
second term agenda, and arguably, they elected a president that they like, so it just shows
what the protest leads to depends on what happens next. HARI SREENIVASAN: In 2011, on the other side
of the political spectrum, one email, inspired by the Arab Spring protests, started “Occupy
Wall Street.” Within weeks, it was a movement with encampments
all over the country. But when the camps came down, “Occupy”
had little to show for its agenda. ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: On the one hand, it was really
powerful in bringing to people’s attention something that was important: inequality. But if you look at the electoral results or
at sort of the policy, it wasn’t taken as a threat. And the people in power just didn’t really
change their way: inequality hasn’t gone down, we don’t have any new legislation
that tries to dampen inequality. So you can sort of see that the digital technology
empowered both of them, but they start taking different turns right after, with really different
consequences. HARI SREENIVASAN: The ease of organizing and
mobilizing online has led to a common critique. For a while, it was just considered “slacktivism.” Is it too easy, just to click a link and signal
that I like this and I don’t like this? How does it translate into action? ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: I think it’s a great first
step. So, that’s why I don’t like the term “slacktivism.” I don’t think it’s slacking in anything
to click. It could be a very powerful first step. Even if it stops there, it’s got power. The question is: How do you take that very
widespread, but relatively shallow level of engagement and give people who clearly wanting
to do something else, right? How do you organize it so that more people
can step and say, “Here are things you could do collectively,” and by doing it collectively
along the way you’ll build those important skills of decision-making together and hanging
together. HARI SREENIVASAN: While activists adopted
digital technology tools, governments tried and failed to disrupt them. For instance, Tufekci points to the 2011 protests
in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: The government just didn’t
know what to do, so they just shut off the internet, which completely backfired, it was
the absolute wrong thing to do if you were a government. Because it just brings attention, and a lot
of parents who were getting news from their kids in Tahrir Square the cell phones were
also cut. HARI SREENIVASAN: But governments have also
learned how to use digital technology. Five years later, during an attempted coup
in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan relied on digital technology — his iPhone
Facetime app — to rally supporters against rebellious soldiers. ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: It was really sort of amazing
to watch this. It was just this little screen, but it confirmed
to the country that he was alive. They realized very quickly that the internet,
and digital technology would be on their side to counter this coup. HARI SREENIVASAN: You point out how crucial
Twitter and Facebook were in getting people to come out to the street. But you also point out that there’s a tremendous
amount of power on these platforms now and the way that the algorithms are designed,
could actually determine the success or failure of a movement? ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Absolutely. For example, Facebook, uses an algorithm,
a computer program to choose how to rank what it shows you. So if you don’t see something from someone,
maybe Facebook isn’t showing it to you. For a social movement that’s incredibly
consequential. HARI SREENIVASAN: It was consequential in
the summer of 2014, as protests erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, following
the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer. Early on, Tufekci says, the protests got a
lot of attention on Twitter but less so on Facebook because of another viral sensation:
the Ice Bucket Challenge. ZEYNEP TUFECKI: Facebook kept showing me the
Ice Bucket Challenge, even if it was from weeks ago kept showing the same thing. You know how you go on and there’s baby
picture, baby picture, it just shows you things that are cute and cuddly and that get the
“likes,” and that’s how it operates. For a social movement, trying to break into
the public sphere that could mean a form of algorithmic censorship because the algorithm
likes certain things and doesn’t like certain things. HARI SREENIVASAN: Tufekci says the motivations
of social media companies and social movements are not necessarily aligned. ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: In the end, it’s a platform
that is based on delivering you ads, and they want to sort of keep you on there with things
that will keep you on there. And all of their business models aren’t
necessarily in the interests of what the movements are trying to do long term. HARI SREENIVASAN: How does the Women’s March
or Black Lives Matter how do they sustain themselves and turn themselves into powerful
actors that can be a threat to whomever it is that they want to force change through? ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Right. The lesson I take from all of my research
into this isn’t stop using digital technologies. It’s recognize what they’re good for,
and use them fully what they’re good for. But really recognize what they’re not good
for. You can use a hashtag to get millions of people
to the street, but you can’t use a hashtag to figure out how does a group of 100 people
in one zip code figure out who is going to run for school board. It’s going to come to a hybrid model, where
we use tech for what it’s good for but not be blinded by the power it gives us in some
areas and ignore that it’s actually weakening us in other areas by helping us scale up almost
too fast. You know you are going from 0 to 100 miles
in just a month or two you need a better steering wheel than a Facebook group.

Danny Hutson

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