Zeynep Tufekci

Twitter and Tear Gas

Air Date: July 8, 2017

Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci discusses her new book “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.”

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. “Twitter and Tear Gas” indeed, social media and new technology have transformed society, and unloaded ammunition of chaos. That compelling image is the title of my guest’s new book by Yale University Press, “Twitter and Tear Gas: the Power and Fragility of Networked Protests.” A penetrating analyst of the interaction between technology and society, Zeynep Tufekci, of the University of North Carolina School of Information, is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, a native of Istanbul, Turkey, turned American scholar, Tufekci argues, the internet’s grassroots capacity is easy to mobilize, but hard to win. Having witnessed first hand, a cycle of digitally catalyzed political protest, resistance, even rebellion, she’ll assess with us today their effectiveness and viability in the future. And I urge you to read her “Twitter and Tear Gas,” as well as New York Times columns this year, Mark Zuckerberg is in Denial, The World is Getting Hacked, What Do We Do To Stop It, WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing, The Election Won’t Be Rigged, But It Could Be Hacked, all essential reading. And I want to congratulate you on this book Zeynep. Thank you for being here.

TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.

HEFFNER: For our viewers who are not as familiar with the digital age, what is networked protest?

TUFEKCI: So uh, in the past, if you wanted to get the word out, about a protest, you’d usually have to either, uh, organize person by person, you know, using leaflets or phones, and very often you needed to try to find a way to get on mass media, you know, get on television, whereas right now, you can use these digital technologies. You can use Facebook groups, you can use Twitter hashtags to get the word out. You can use Google spreadsheets to organize all the logistics that you’re doing. You can use, uh, your phone to livestream from a protest. I mean even if you TV cameras are there, you can have a viewership that rivals CNN just from your phone, in your pocket. You can communicate in real time. So it’s really changed how social movements operate, by giving them a whole host of new capabilities that used to be either very expensive or very difficult, or just didn’t exist. We have, you know, connected supercomputers in our pocket. It’s a different world.

HEFFNER: One example that you’ve talked about since the book was published of organic protest that yielded a political outcome, was the protest of President Trump’s Executive Orders…

TUFEKCI: Yes.

HEFFNER: And the formation of that contingent at airports across the country. You’ve mentioned that there’s great promise in networks, but without a, an organizational structure…

TUFEKCI: Infrastructure, yeah.

HEFFNER: So how, how does that, how did that model manifest itself, and how was that the outlier, from what your book says, in taking it to the next step?

TUFEKCI: So, let me put it this way. My book’s title is, “The Strength and Fragility,” for a reason. The power and fragility of these network protests come at the same time. So, there’s for example, let’s look at the airport protests. Uh, or let’s look at the Women’s March. I think that’s one that people have seen a lot. It went from Facebook posts to, you know, a million people in the streets in maybe D.C., and also millions of people around the country, in just three months, right? It went from idea to execution very quickly. And social media was part of how it could scale up so so fast. Now compare that to say a protest in 1963, a similar March on Washington that uh, that people know about, and of course Dr. King’s famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream.’ That protest took maybe ten years. The movement took ten years just to get to the place where they could hold the protest, with all the logistics it required. I mean back then it wasn’t really easy to get hundreds of thousands of people to D.C. They had to get ’em out the same day, because back then you couldn’t really guarantee the safety of people marching against racism, uh, in D.C., and stay overnight.

So they have to get ’em in, get ’em out, do all those things. So, protests like that, in the past was an expression of years and years of capacity building and infrastructure building. You couldn’t even think about doing it before having done that, whereas something like Women’s March, it’s more like a question mark, because you didn’t, you no longer have to spend ten years just to get to the point. You can have three months, and boom, you can scale up very fast. So, on the one hand, scaling up that fast really empowers movements, because before, you couldn’t do it. On the other hand, it’s a little bit like a car that’s going from zero to a hundred miles in just ten minutes, and you’re building the car along the way, and all of a sudden, uh, you’re a hundred miles speeding, and you haven’t built your steering wheel.

Right? When you scale up that fast without infrastructure, how do you build, say, collective decision-making capacity? How do you decide what’s next? How does the movement weather? You don’t have that deep experience that allows movements to take step three, step four, step five. So it’s, that’s why it’s “power and fragility” in the title. Uh, you have something that really helps step one and step two. You got springs in your feet. You’re jumping really high. But you’re not, you’re underprepared for step two and step three. You’re kind of in the limelight a little before you would have been ready in the past. So, while movements look the same, like the past, they don’t really express the same power with their, uh, repertoire of action.

HEFFNER: To stick with your analogy…

TUFEKCI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Of, of a driverless, autonomous vehicle, that might not know where it’s going, in the case of the ACLU suit, there was a political goal. I think you point out, quite importantly that, in the Women’s March and other instances, there is not that political infrastructure with directions and an exit in mind.

TUFEKCI: Well, it’s both strength and weakness at the same time. Today’s movements tend to be more leaderless. Uh, they tend to be very participatory, especially the ones on the left, liberal side of the political spectrum. And on the one hand, I mean people join movements because they want to have a voice, right? They don’t want to be cogs in the machine. So that participatory character they have that allows so many people to find a place in them, empowers them. On the other hand, once again, what we see is, because you scaled up so fast using digital technology, you don’t have a way to decide what’s the next tactical turn. And very often, these protests are holding, you know, a lot of their discussions, say, on Facebook. And let me put it this way, Facebook’s business model is to keep you on the site as long as possible. Now, when you’re in a meeting, like, what is the first thing you think in a meeting. You want the meeting to end, right [LAUGHTER] You want it to be over. You want it to conclude. But movements today are often holding their meetings in a platform that’s designed to make sure nothing concludes…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHTER]

TUFEKCI: Because they want to keep you there. So you’ve got this situation where there’s no way to decide what’s next. So I, I, I saw this in a lot of other countries I studied. So the book came out before um, the book came out before the Women’s March. What you saw is that the movements, because they scale up so fast without decision-making capacity and infrastructure for it, they tend to try to repeat the very last thing they did. It’s kind of this tactical freeze. Instead of saying, alright, what’s next, and what’s the correct way to pressure, uh, and what’s the next steps, there’s a lot of this inability to make a decision collectively, cause you’re not ready for it and you don’t, you haven’t built the infrastructure, means that they keep repeating themselves. They hold another march, and another march, and another march. That’s because they’re frozen tactically, whereas if you look at successful movements in the past, like the civil rights movement, it went through tactic after tactic, united sit-ins, and, you know, the first bus-boycotts and you have sit-ins and you have lunch counters, you have the March on Washington. You have all these things.

And each one of them is designed to put pressure on whatever you’re trying to push. Now, I don’t want to sort of sound like I think the civil rights movement was this very neat, un-messy thing. It was very complex. It was very messy. The thing is, they had years and years and years of dealing with that tension and mess, and the complexity that all movements encompass, whereas right now, because you got these springs in your feet, you can just jump up so high, and all of a sudden you’re like, OK, what’s next? And there is no mechanism to get you to that next point. And I see this in today, in the so-called, you know resistance as they often call themselves, there’s a lot of en-, there’s an enormous amount of grassroots energy, and there’s a lot of people doing stuff. But it’s not always clear what’s the coherent next, next tactical best move that could bring together all this energy, and most productively direct it.

HEFFNER: Amen. I, I have to say that one of the reasons I love your New York Times column, is because you identify, I think, realities of the technological space, from that sociological perspective, that the folks who are stakeholders are unwilling to recognize. For instance, Google and Facebook invite their shareholders to determine if they should take a strong position on fake news.

TUFEKCI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: This was just in the news.

TUFEKCI: Right.

HEFFNER: And the answer was no.

TUFEKCI: Right.

HEFFNER: There was no acknowledgement from the corporate hierarchy or their stakeholders that this is something they ought to invest time and energy in thinking about. And so, you’re an expert at once, on the new technology and authoritarianism. So I, I was hoping that you could reflect on um, the American veering towards a despotic state, and reflect on how, how you, how the Turkish experience informs what you see in the US now.

TUFEKCI: Well, I would say that my uh, experience of studying this isn’t just, you know, my home country Turkey, ‘cause I also study the Middle East and Europe, and I think there’s a global wave towards, uh, you know, sort of states where there’s a strongman, it’s almost always a man, but in France we saw it could be a strong woman too, uh, that, um, promises sort of safety among global turmoil. And that seems to be attractive. So, what’s going on? Part of what’s going on here? And I’ll talk about the US experience, because that’s, I think uh, more, uh, let’s talk about the US experience, cause that’s easier to understand. One of the things that a social movement for positive change has to do, is convince people to do something, right? You’re trying to affirmatively convince people, whereas an authoritarian government or an authoritarian movement only has to paralyze people and confuse people, stop them from acting.

So, this is where fake news and misinformation online uh, comes into play. Uh, currently, the business model of Facebook is to keep you there as long as possible, you know, Google, keep you there as long as possible, cause they’re ad driven. They’re just, they’re selling your eyeballs to advertisers. So that means that they only want to engage you. They put some controls finally after all the brouhaha, but this has been going on for years. And they had been warned about this for years. Um, when you, you have this kind of misinformation that can just go viral online, because the country’s already polarized, as it is in the United States. What it created, I think, it’s not just the fake news. It’s also the misinformation, it’s also the echo-chambers, what we’re created is a situation where a lot of people got so many conflicting pieces of information, and so many claims and so many things, that people feel disempowered, and they disengage from politics. And the more people disengage from politics, and the more they’re just sort of like I can’t make heads or tails out of this, because there’s so many competing claims, and you have weakening journalism, because all the ad money is going to Facebook and Google, so you have local news desks decimated, it’s harder for people to have credible sources to figure out what’s exactly going on.

And when people politically disengage, that’s easier for authoritarianism and authoritarians to come into that space with misinformation, with scapegoating, with, you know, claims that don’t actually hold water, if you had uh, in-depth examination of them, but are just proliferating. So, when I grew up in Turkey, I grew up under censorship, because it was the post 1980 military coup. I was a child and it was heavy censorship. And when the internet first came, I thought, you know what, censorship’s not gonna work. We’ll always be able to somehow route around it and connect to it. And I was hopeful about that. What I hadn’t anticipated is that information glut and misinformation works as a form of censorship. If you can’t block people from accessing the information, you can flood them with so much misinformation that they can’t make sense of the information. You can paralyze people from political action by confusing them, by distorting the, sort of the, the reality, and creating all this fake news and misinformation.

It’s almost better than censorship by blocking information, because the information is actually there, but can you find it in this glut? You can’t find it. So that, I think, and that’s sort of the last, uh, the penultimate chapter in my book, is that authoritarians and governments have figured out how to use misinformation and fake news and all the other things that we’ve seen in the US too, but we see it a lot of places around the world, to create a public sphere that’s not healthy, and that is not really very compatible with a healthy liberal democracy.

HEFFNER: There is that symbiotic, if not parasitic relationship, because there is an authoritarian orientation that we don’t recognize when we’re participating in digital media, social media. I like to say it’s kind of a faux libertarianism, in the sense that what you’re being fed, is not your choice. Um, it comes down to fundamentally, media literacy, does it not, and a decision that a citizen is going to make, that they’re not gonna get their news from just an ad-hoc sampling of what their friends may post on Facebook or Twitter.

TUFEKCI: And it’s not even an ad-hoc sampling. What a lot of people don’t realize is that, for example, Facebook organizes your social media feed, and it chooses what to show you and what to have. It ranks it and it’s got algorithms that are predicting what will make you stay on the site. That’s all they care about there.

HEFFNER: And that’s why it’s really not libertarian. It’s not…

TUFEKCI: No, it’s not,

HEFFNER: Free thought.

TUFEKCI: It’s not.

HEFFNER: It’s a corporate authoritarianism.

TUFEKCI: It’s a corporate form of trying to keep you there. And they don’t even tell you that, look, we’re not showing you everything, we’re just ranking it. Now, obviously they can’t show you everything. There has to be a way to pick, ‘cause there’s too much. But they make the process of how they pick, they hide it, they don’t tell you, they don’t give you control over it, they’re like, here you go. And most people don’t even know that they’re picking. So, if you want to keep people on the site, uh, for my observations over everything years, I think it promotes two kinds of things, news. One of them is the cute, cuddly stuff, the things that make us feel good. So that’s why your Facebook is full of baby pictures, engagement news, all those things that sort of make us feel good. Click on “like” you get more of it. The other thing that I see online a lot is, that if there’s a quarrel, an argument, a dispute, it grabs our attention. I mean it’s like rubbernecking a car wreck. You kind of are like, oh, what’s going on there. So it also promotes that. So, it also promotes, uh, echo chambers, because we feel more comfortable.
But it also promotes things that push you a little to the edge of wherever you are, because that can also be engaging. So none of these, I mean everything that they do is optimized towards keeping you on the site. And I liken this to say, I mean obviously people have an appetite for this stuff. Uh, I liken this to the way we have a sweet tooth. Like, humans crave sugar and salt. And that’s a perfectly reasonable thing, because we evolved under scarcity of sugar and salt. So, if your ancestors didn’t like sugar and salt, they weren’t doing very well. It’s good that whenever they could rarely find it, they ate it up. But now you’re in a sugar and salt overload and you’ve got a company like Facebook whose business model is, people have a weakness for sugar, and they have a weakness for salt, so let’s serve them sugar, salt, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

And when people do eat it, because there is already demand for it, you just throw up your hands and say, oh, you know what, that’s what people want. Well, you’re, you’re designing their choice architecture to their most vulnerable thing, that is a very instant thing. You’re just sort of like, what people want right at that moment to click. And the real consideration is, well, maybe ask me what I want, right? What I want when I wake up in the morning, when I wake up, when I have time to reflect, and when I say, I don’t want just sugar and salt for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here are the choices I would like to make. Do not just constantly tempt me with things that aren’t necessarily good for me. And the same thing with news and the same thing with public sphere, if it were healthier, there’d be a way of, instead of just trying to tempt people instantaneously to click, click, click, and to stay on sites, stay on sites, we would ask people, what do you think is a healthy diet for you, what do you think is a healthy information diet for you.

And I would say, personally I would say, show me some news I disagree with. Show me credible news. Uh, show me updates from friends that may or may not be in my same political view. I mean, and this goes across the political spectrum. For example, before the election, I did not see a single status update, as far as I could tell, from any of my Facebook friends that were sympathetic or supporting of Trump. I had some. I mean, obviously, I’m a college professor in a liberal town, so more of my friends are on the Democratic party side of the aisle, but I had friends over the years, some from high school, middle school, some from elsewhere. And I actually would have liked to have seen some of what they were saying. I would have liked to have seen more of say, credible views. I would like to have seen more of different points of view. I don’t mean just show me everything. But I have no choice. When I go online, Facebook’s like, I think this is what’s going to keep you on the site. Let me give you more of what I think will engage you. And I don’t think that’s very healthy for our public sphere.

HEFFNER: I can hear our, our mutual friend, Astra Taylor…

TUFEKCI: Yeah…

HEFFNER: Who talks about the spinach of our cultural diet…

TUFEKCI: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But, fundamentally, I wanted to get at this question in the American context now. It is pretty clear that not a sufficient number of Americans are concerned with the theft of information online. Uh, this goes beyond privacy concerns. They’re not concerned with what had been digital Watergates for the last four years, courtesy of WikiLeaks.

TUFEKCI: So, um, so what I want to say is that, like, whistleblowing is a time-honored tradition. It’s an important tradition, and I support it, right? You have a history of whistleblowers. But, what we’ve seen in the past election cycle, I argued, wasn’t whistleblowing. Because what you saw was, the Democratic party infrastructure up and down the ballot, it wasn’t just the DNC, it wasn’t just Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager, even local races, the Democratic candidates were hacked, their information stolen. And, for example, if they spent a lot of money conducting polls and sort of doing strategy, the information was handed over to their opponents. This is political sabotage. I mean it’s not whistleblowing to steal people’s internal polls that they paid a lot of money to, and to steal their strategy documents, and unilaterally give it to the other political side in the hopes of sabotaging them. So, um,

HEFFNER: But I’m saying that…

TUFEKCI: Yeah…

HEFFNER: That there’s a difference in mindset. You go back and watch All the President’s Men…

TUFEKCI: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Or read the transcripts of Republican press conferences, and the RNC’s initial reaction to what they called a disgraceful or despicable act. And yet, in this country, we had a President who said, Russia, find those 30,000 emails. So it’s, it is part what you’re describing. The popular culture has hijacked this. And hopefully we can rescue back certain democratic norms that are not guaranteed anymore in this country, but it’s also the reality. These are digital Watergates.

TUFEKCI: Right, so the thing is, I think uh, stealing information and just sort of dumping it all online like that uh, is not, like I said, I don’t think it’s whistleblowing, and I don’t think it’s healthy, and…

HEFFNER: What, what are some corrective measures of remedying that…

TUFEKCI: And I think, I have to say, you know, the social media side was very important, because there was a lot of things that went viral that was misinformation based on WikiLeaks hacks. But our mass media too, I think failed, absolutely failed…

HEFFNER: 100 percent.

TUFEKCI: Because they, they took this stuff and they just couldn’t keep their eyes off it. There was a lot of, I mean if there is a public interest news story in it, I don’t mind the public interest news story. If there’s some wrongdoing, criminal acts, corruption, by all means. But they got obsessed with the gossipy side that was exposed, right. Because when, whenever you have a campaign’s email, they’re going to be talking about reporters. And I watched as reporters were constantly googling themselves on the site, and saying, did they mention me? And they were talking about it. And I saw, for example, Washington Post’s front page, had a story in October of 2016. We’re talking, like, a month before a crucial election. And their front-page was… about a year and a half ago, according to WikiLeaks story emails, some Huffington Post blogger, had emailed John Podesta, something something about Bernie Sanders. I mean, there was literally no news value to it. It wasn’t relevant to the, it wasn’t even something the Clinton campaign did. Somebody had emailed it to them. But because it was gossipy and it fed the Sanders, Clinton thing, that got clicks. They were discussing that a month before the election. And I don’t mean to say, why didn’t they go light on Hilary Clinton? They should have been tough on her, but, in ways that were credible and fair.

And they should have been tough on candidate Trump, so instead of covering gossip from stolen documents, they should have covered say, the conflict of interest according to the, you know, the business versus the presidency. In fact, I did uh, a cursory search of old uh, media, uh, before the election for, say, New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico. And they had enormous coverage on emails and WikiLeaks, and they, compared to say, conflict of interest, if, you know, candidate Trump becomes the president, it was maybe 20 percent of that. So they were drowning in this sort of stolen stuff that was just dropped in front of them like candy, week-by-week, instead of doing their job, which was to ask tough questions and do tough investigations on both candidates, so that we could have a more informed choice. So, it’s not just social media that’s kind of failing us. It’s also the digital media, uh, the news media, is chasing clicks, part of the story. And also, uh, 90 percent of ad money goes now to Facebook and Google, which means that local news is decimated.

So you have a lot of local corruption that’s no longer being covered. So, we’re kind of drowning in information. If you have all the time in the world to seek it out it’s kind of there. But we’re really missing credible gatekeepers that can help us make sense of it. We’re missing local newspapers that can, you know, chase it. And meanwhile we’ve, I, I think there’s a lot of things to be worried about.

HEFFNER: In the minute we have remaining, where is there hope? Where is there hope here? Where is there hope in more…

TUFEKCI: Oh, there’s a lot of hope.

HEFFNER: Despotic regimes where there’s real censorship. It’s, you know it’s not misinformation…

TUFEKCI: Oh I…

HEFFNER: …guided censorship. It’s, there’s no Wikipedia, there’s no encyclopedia, Turkey, Egypt…

TUFEKCI: So uh, what I would say is that there’s a lot of hope, because the same technologies that bring all these complications, also allow us to connect to one another. And I think, you know, we don’t have to surrender to the few big companies that have these business models. I don’t think we’ve explored all the positive things that can be done with this connectivity. And that’s why, again, you know, the power and fragility, that’s why my book has “Twitter and Tear Gas.” But it has both the positive sides. Cause I’m not a curmudgeon. I’m for sing the technology for the things it’s really good for. And I think we should bring real public pressure and political pressure on the big platforms like Facebook and Google, because you are part of the public sphere now, and, you know, you’re almost half a trillion dollar in market cap. You can do better.

We should hold them to higher standards, the way we hold media to higher standards. And we try, at least. We should hold ourselves to higher standards. We should fund and develop new tools to help us make sense of it. We should find new business models to support real journalism. We should engage our institutions. I mean it’s the kind of world now, that if you don’t engage politically, if you don’t engage your news media, if you don’t engage the big platforms, Silicon Valley, they just run and do what they want. And that’s not healthy. I think we need to use these digital technologies to connect to one another, to seek healthier ways of organizing our public sphere, organizing how we get information and how we hold movements and how we got forward.

HEFFNER: Well whether it’s your New York Times column, Zeynep, or “Twitter and Tear Gas,” you’re importing those values, uh, to your Twitter handle, and your Facebook presence.

TUFEKCI: Thank you.

HEFFNER: That’s so important.

TUFEKCI: Thank you so much. Thank you for the kind words.

HEFFNER: Thank you. And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online, to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.