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.
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 American Civil Rights Movement demonstrations required tons of logistical overhead and an established hierarchy. During the Montgommery Bus Boycott, car pools had to be organized. For the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, lunches needed to be provided, a sound system acquired and country-wide transportation scheduled. Modern protests reach the same scale without formal hierarchies. 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 traditional hierarchical organisation of modern protest movements comes with other advantages, such as:
However, this “horizontal” organisation also prevents a movement from focusing their mission once they’ve scaled up. Both Tahrir Square and Occupy failed to convert their mass gatherings into political will. That being said, this inneffectual tendency of “horizontal” organisations is not destiny, as shown by the effectiveness of The Tea Party and Black Lives Matter. Using their intimate understanding of legislation procedure, The Tea Party easily adapted their scale to influence local politics across America. 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 falling short of their admirable aspirations, despite access to liberating technology. However, my disappointment quickly morphed into alarm as Dr. Tufecki showed technology not just failing to deliver, but being weaponized against political activism.
Given governments and other organisations can no longer control access to information due to the innate accessability of the Internet, they make interpreting information nearly impossible by disrupting it’s flow via distraction and misinformation. This is typically referred to as information inundation or “fake news”.
Dr. Tufekci covers the topic of “fake news” in a whirlwind of examples:
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. .
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:
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:
But this doesn’t solve the problem of:
Which we currently solve by:
Maybe this isn’t just a technical problem?
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. But how can this process be accelerated? 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 Hamilton area exploring these ideas. Email me if you’d like to join on a workshop or if you want to help. .
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 Human Systems Design, I would greatly appreciate further references.
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