How social media affects protest movements: It’s complicated

If you mention social-media platforms like Twitter or Facebook in the context of political uprisings in places like Turkey or Ukraine or Egypt — or even the Occupy movement in the United States — the person you’re speaking to will likely either a) agree that they can be very powerful tools, or b) argue that they are just sound and fury, signifying nothing, and have had no real effect on the outcome of these movements. But the truth is actually much more complex, according to sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has spent her career studying the effects of such social platforms on political behavior.

In a paper published in the Journal of International Affairs, Tufekci looks at this question in detail, based on her observations of and interviews with protesters in her native Turkey and elsewhere. And her conclusion is that while social platforms can have a positive impact on the ability of dissidents and alternative political movements to organize and communicate — as she has described in previous articles looking at social tools and political “tipping points” — they can also have negative effects.

A crucial information source

The benefits are obvious when looking at uprisings like the “Arab Spring” in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011, or the political events leading up to the more recent Gezi Park protests in Turkey, Tufecki says. In the latter case, social media became a crucial source of news, in part because the traditional media in Turkey weren’t covering the demonstrations for fear of upsetting the government. And in Egypt, mobile phones and blogs became the tools of a protest movement that ultimately helped unseat the government:

“The advent of blogging and the rise of cheap cell phones with video cameras also created major changes as activists started acquiring, publishing, and circulating video evidence of the many grievances that made every day life difficult for citizens.”

By giving dissidents the ability to share this kind of information quickly, social tools such as Facebook (which was much more widely used in Egypt than Twitter) made it easy to connect groups of protesters and plan events. That kind of organizational feature can have a powerful psychological impact, Tufekci has said, because once people know that others share their beliefs or feelings about a movement it becomes easier to take collective action, something she calls an “information cascade.”

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The landscape has changed since the Arab Spring, however. As the University of South Carolina professor and Harvard Berkman Center fellow notes in her paper, governments have more or less caught up to political protesters when it comes to social media. Twitter and Facebook aren’t just for nerds any more — they have become mainstream, and that means governments have figured out not only how to block them (or how to force Twitter and Facebook to remove content) but how to use them for their own social purposes.

“Many governments have developed methods to respond to this new information environment, which allows for fewer gatekeeper controls, by aggressively countering these new movements, often with a combination of traditional repression as well as novel methods aimed at addressing online media.”

A double-edged sword for dissidents

And that’s not the only problem: As Tufekci discussed previously in a post on Medium, the use of ubiquitous social tools by protest movements and dissidents is a double-edged sword: the fact that these tools make it so much easier to find like-minded individuals and organize them is a positive thing, because it allows a movement to grow and become effective much more rapidly, and to adapt to a changing environment.

At the same time, however, those same features may prevent protest groups from becoming as cohesive and robust as they need to be in order to survive over a long period of time. Old-fashioned political movements took years — or even decades — to develop and build an organization, and while that often meant that political change also took a lot longer to occur, the movements themselves were arguably more powerful.

“Digital technologies certainly add to protester capabilities in many dimensions, but this comes with an unexpected trade-off: Digital infrastructure helps undertake functions that would have otherwise required more formal and long-term organizing which, almost as a side effect, help build organizational capacity to respond to long-term movement requirements.”

In a sense, it’s probably fitting that social media would be a double-edged sword when it comes to political movements, since the internet as a whole has proven to be the same kind of thing: even as it facilitates piracy and arguably incites hatred and violence, it also promotes creativity and helps people in need find others who share their problems. We often want things to be either good or evil, but they rarely are. You can read Tufekci’s paper here.

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