Twitter and Tear Gas

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Activist/journalist Zeynep Tufecki investigates what the positive and negative attributes of the “digitally networked public sphere” are by studying various forms of connectivity within protest groups of both the left (Zapatistas in Mexico, the Occupy movement) and the right (The Tea Party).

The book contains a tension that it never really overcomes. On the one hand, it wants to relay information gathered first-hand from movements and uprisings from Egypt, Mexico, Tunisia and Turkey; on the other, the emphasis is firmly placed on the technological aspects of modern protest movements, is overly reliant on technical jargon and never really shakes off its origins as a thesis.

The sections of reportage are the book’s greatest asset, and display Tufecki’s journalistic instincts at their best. The account of an alliance forged by Kurdish women and LGBTQ activists in Turkey during the Gezi Park protests is visceral and immediate, undercutting the analytical style used to deal with the technical aspects of modern struggle.

Any time the attention is drawn to the everyday struggles of people across the world, from football fans chanting anti Recep Erdogan songs on the terraces to the idealistic young people who have rallied to the slogan Black Lives Matter, Tufecki hits the mark, and pays fulsome tribute to those who continue to struggle despite the fiercest repression.

But the book’s weaknesses are embodied in its plethora of confusing and contradictory theoretical ideas. Tufecki is keen on economist Amartya Sen’s concept of “capacity” — evaluating a movement’s collective ability to achieve social change, rather than simple outcomes — and adapts it to examine why (according to her) movements like Occupy and that in the US against the Iraq War collapsed and failed.

The book shows that experiences shape people and it provides many examples of struggle changing people decisively. A class-based analysis of social movements is absent from the book. The author asserts that Nixon persuaded the “silent majority” to vote for him in 1972 but does not mention the unleashing of state power his first administration was responsible for in terms of splintering social movements. No account is taken of the massive wave of strikes in Egypt that laid the groundwork for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Tufecki was present during the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 but frames it as a clash between official and non-official propaganda — the takeover of TV stations versus the power of social media. The men and women who died bravely confronting the military in the streets are sadly reduced to a side note. Alternately illuminating and frustrating, the book does reflect the ambiguous relationship between activism and technology in the 21st century.