Voyageur Technologique

Twitter and Tear Gas

The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest

At it’s core, Twitter and Tear Gas by Dr. Zeynep Tufekci is a delightful deep analysis of the structure of modern protest movements and the technologies that support them. It brought up a lot of things I knew were bad (grass roots organisation problems, “fake news”) and made them impossible to ignore by shoving them in my face.

I.

The meat of Twitter and Tear Gas comes from contrasting the modern protest movements of Occupy and Tahrir Square to more “classic” movements. In particular, Dr. Tufekci shows how the main demonstrations of the American Civil Rights Movement, such as the Montgommery Bus Boycott and the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, required tons of logistical overhead and an established hierarchy. To boycott the buses, car pools had to be organized. For the “March on Washington”, lunches needed to be provided, a sound system acquired and country-wide transportation scheduled. In contrast, to organize medical supplies for Tahrir Square required three people working remotely, a shared spreadsheet on Google Drive and Twitter.

Besides logistical efficiency, the “horizontal” organisation As opposed to tradiational hierarchical organisation of modern protest movements comes with other advantages, such as:

  • Faster scaling up of the movement.
  • Increased the difficulty of disabling the movement by removing key people.

However, this “horizontal” organisation also prevents a movement from adapting once they’ve scaled up. Both Tahrir Square and Occupy failed to convert their mass gatherings into political will. That being said, this tendency of “horizontal” organisations is not destiny, as shown by The Tea Party and Black Lives Matter. The Tea Party affected local politics due to their intimate understanding of legislation procedure. Black Lives Matter, with their singular goal, have shifted the discourse around the justice system. Specifically, “tough on crime” is no longer a political no-brainer and police violence receives greater scrutiny.

If Twitter and Tear Gas ended here, you might leave disappointed by the organisational ability of groups, despite their access to liberating technology. However, my disappointment quickly morphed into alarm as Dr. Tufecki covered the use of information inundation or “fake news” by those in power. Basically, given governments and other organisations can no longer control access to information due to the accessability of the Internet, they make interpreting information nearly impossible by disrupting it’s flow via distraction and misinformation.

Dr. Tufekci covers the topic of “fake news” in a whirlwind of examples:

  • Professionally taken photos, such as drowned refugees off the coast of Greece, have been robbed of their impact as the waters are muddied by claims of “Hoax!” and “Photoshopped!”.
  • Russia has used conspiracy theories and rumour to raise public dissent when Sweden considered joining NATO.
  • China is using an army of internet commentators to ask distracting questions and derail the conversation of any group geographically close enough to organise.
  • Given the difficulty of censoring Twitter, Turkey made it immoral to use instead.

These tactics can turn an active movement into a passive state of confused hopeless that Adam Curtis describes as “oh dear Dr. Tufekci also discusses “echo chambers”, but I think the concern is over-hyped). “Fake news” describes overwhelmed by an inundation of information and doubt despite desiring truth. “Echo chamber” describes finding people that agree with you. While the latter assumes people aren’t even trying, the former instead claims they just don’t have the tools to differentiate information sources. This lack of tools feels more realistic to me. .

II.

Dr. Tufekci offers no easy solutions to this, given it’s a developing situation with a lot of ongoing research. However, on her Twitter she emphasises the importance of funding movements, so they can afford logistical tools like the large-scale decision making system Loomio You can think of Loomio as the modern refined version of Liquid Democracy. . Consequently, after finishing the book, I felt my brain turn into overdrive as it reconsidered the question of information and attention management from various angles. I think the main socio-technological challenges involve trust:

  1. Trust in our digital platforms mediating our interactions with diseminated information
  2. Trust in each other as human beings

Trust in Digital Platforms

Journalism isn’t perfect and performs best when it self-corrects. This currently seems to be lacking even in traditionally reputable establishments which occasionally publish superficial/sensational pieces My friend tried to log truly unprecedented aspects of the Trump presidency. He had to do an absurd amount of link-digging and historical reading to gain a moderately accurate perspective. . These primary journalistic sources are then reinterpreted, summarized and remixed by everyone on platforms with orthogonal interests to their users.

To fix this, I started to imagine trust networks (built on top of decentralised platforms like IPFS or NDN) where sources of information, whether institutions or individuals, are classed based on:

  1. Accuracy
  2. Nuanced protrayal of context
  3. When wrong, how quickly/effectively they correct themselves

But this doesn’t solve the problem of:

  1. The current article publishing format doesn’t allow for progressively exposing/prioritising nuance without overwhelming.
  2. Resilience to bots
  3. How to collectively decide what is truth While avoiding the post-modernist failure-mode of “there is no truth”.
  4. Why do we trust anyone ever

Which we currently solve by:

  1. Uh?
  2. Nope.
  3. A weird and failure-prone mix of learned faith in experts and institutions.
  4. Existential screaming into the void…

Maybe this isn’t just a technical problem?

Trust in Each Other

In addition to computery improvements, I think there might be some possible innovation from a philosophical and psychological standpoint. Looking at the newest UK election, people seem to be getting better at resisting bullshit? Joe Edelman Joe is actually distilling the writings of choice philosophers, such as Prof. Chang. thinks to get better at resisting bullshit, we need to change how we relate to each-other by gaining a new view on human nature/purpose. The latter is where I’m currently investing my energy I’m currently organising workshops in the Waterloo area exploring these ideas. Email me if you’d like to join on a workshop or if you want to help. .

III.

To summarize, if you want human stories bringing urgent issues to the surface, you need to read “Twitter and Tear Gas”. Lack of money is no excuse, given the book is licensed under Creative Commons, thus is free to download Of course, buying the book supports the author better. . Additionally, if you know of any tentative solutions to the problems, aside from the aforementioned Value-Based Design Philosophy, I would greatly appreciate further references.

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