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Book review: Twitter and Tear Gas

I recently finished reading Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, by Zeynep Tufekci. It's a long yet dense essay on how modern protests work, and why they sometimes don't. Tufekci has a long experience as an activist in many different protests around the world. She also has a strong education in technology and in social sciences, and her work focuses on the intersection between the two. In short, she is the perfect person to write a book conceptualizing modern protests and their use of technology. Unsurprisingly, the essay makes for a fascinating and enlightening read.

Twitter and Tear Gas cover

Here's an example. What does it mean when many people march in the streets? It displays power: the power to send the word out, to convince people to join, to organize logistics. But the actual march isn't scary to people in power: the implications are. If an organization is able to gather many people for a march, then this movement is capable of other things. Boycotts, strikes, fundraisers for your political opponents, influence in the media…

All those things actually cause headaches to politicians, and make change more likely. The protest itself merely serves as a signal. A few decades ago, it was a strong signal: only very powerful movements could put a large number of people on the streets. So if you could pull off a large protest, it meant that your movement could do all those other annoying things. Social media and technological tools change this. With them, it's much easier to plan an event, get the word out, and have many people rally around a cause for an afternoon. This should be good news for protesters… Except it also means that large protests are no longer such a show of strength. "Easier" also means "less impressive". And the people in power have understood this.

Consider movements such as the anti-war demonstrations of the Bush era, Occupy, or the more recent Woman's March. Politicians were able to pretty much ignore protesters: once everyone gets home, nothing happens. Only the most motivated of political opponents might cause actual issues later on. Worse, their number is not directly related to the size of the protest itself. So the protest can be very impressive (especially when comparing it with historical protests), and still not scare anyone in power.

I picked this particular insight to try and convince you to read the book… But that's obviously only a tiny part of what is there. Tufekci provides simple concepts to understand how tech interacts with social movements. It's rigorous, detailed, and illustrated with plenty of historical examples. The author doesn't assume you know these examples already (even for "famous" events, like civil rights movements in the US). This is great for people like me with a limited knowledge of history ^^

Twitter and Tear Gas doesn't only evoke protests. At the intersection between tech and social movements, there are also misinformation campaigns, online harassment, social network policies and their consequences… Each of those is discussed in the book, always with the same academic rigor, lively examples, and clear writing.

The book is an excellent read from an intellectual perspective: it made many ideas clearer and simpler to understand for me. This feeling is the best indicator I know of good science! But you can also read this book as an instruction manual. How to build "muscle" for a movement, how to orient it towards the most efficients means of action, how to deal with misinformation and censorship… Using the technological tools that were developed in the last few decades.

Everyone working in tech could probably benefit from reading Twitter and Tear Gas. If you're an activist, I'd say it's pretty much required reading. Go buy it there or there, or if you can't afford it, download it for free: it's licensed under Creative Commons! (This excellent model of publishing alone is a good reason to buy the book.)

All opinions here are my own, not my employer's.   |   Feedback on these posts is very welcome! Please reach out via e-mail (se.niatnofsed@neimad) or Twitter (@TedOnPrivacy) for comments and suggestions.   |   Interested in deploying formal anonymization methods? My colleagues and I at Tumult Labs can help. Contact me at oi.tlmt@neimad, and let's chat!