Networked Politics from Tahrir to Taksim: Is there a Social Media-fueled Protest Style?

Networked Politics from Tahrir to Taksim

Protesters from one of the world’s richest countries, one of the world’s oldest autocracies, and one of the world’s rising developing countries walk into ... a public space, use Twitter extensively, and capture global attention to their movement and their hashtag.

From "#Occupy Wall Street" in the United States to the #M15 movement in Spain, from Tahrir Square and #Jan 25 in Egypt, to Taksim Square and #occupygezi in Turkey, there have been a variety of social movements that, while coming from strikingly different backgrounds and contexts, also share structural and stylistic elements. In this post, I’d like to offer some preliminary analyses of this emergent type of what I’m calling “networked movements.”

To be clear, I am not attempting to analyze every aspect of these movements – no movement or revolution is simple or reducible to a single cause – nor is it identical to any other. Nor do I claim that this is an exhaustive or final list of their characteristics. However, we now have enough examples to try to make sense of common elements to these seemingly disparate social-media fueled movements.

There are also other interesting political commonalities to these movements, including their use of durable presence in public space as a form of protest, anti-authoritarianism as a uniting ideology, an “anti-political” stance among participants, the participation and key role played by “lumpen” elements such as soccer fans, the importance of anger towards cronyism, police repression as a spark and uniting theme, to name a few. Hence, this post is an attempt to take a bite out of a complex topic with a special focus on social-media and organizational styles of networked movements:

1- Lack of organized, institutional leadership. None of these movements has identifiable institutional leadership, either in institutional form or as spokespersons.This is quite a striking change from the traditional, common (though not exclusive) form of movements of the 20th century.

This is not to say that these movements are flat or lack prominent persons or a hierarchy of influence or attention. There are structures, hierarchy, informal leadership and other elements of leadership in all these movements. However, there is no NAACP or trade-union or political party that has control over, or the ability to speak for, them and there is no formalized mechanism of representation – or decision making.

This, of course, creates advantages and disadvantages in terms of long-term politics. Since these movements have no recognized representation, they cannot be co-opted or negotiated away behind closed doors. (In his book, Revolution 2.0 Wael Ghonim recounts how Mubarak’s top officials tried to negotiate an end to the demonstrations with him. He could only chuckle as he had no such power).

However, in the same vein, since these movements have no recognized representation, it is difficult for them to develop a coherent and delimited set of policies, demands or make any significant gains that go beyond providing a strong refusal to a particular event, leader or framing. This leads to my next point.

2- Organized around a “no” not a “go.” Existing social media structures allow for easier collective action around shared grievances to *stop* or *oppose* something (downfall of Mubarak, stopping a government’s overreach, etc) rather than strategic action geared towards obtaining and sustaining political power. This is probably why these movements don’t make as much long-term impact as their size and power would suggest. (They do have impacts, of course, but often not proportional to their size).

Not only has the world not moved towards more “participatory democracy” as opposed to “representative democracy,” the current trend globally has been otherwise. Even mere representative democracy has been eroding as moneyed interests have expanded their power over more and more areas of politics and the public sphere. Hence, we see an outburst of “participatory refusal,” which does not necessarily expand into either addressing or opposing failing parts of representative democracy. Instead, these demonstrations seem to be unable to break out of a “no.”

It is also easier to use social media to communicate a message or an image of refusal or dissent rather than convey complicated arguments. The closest example to a mass participatory online environment that tries to negotiate complex outcomes is Wikipedia. While wildly successful in some ways, research also shows Wikipedia to be run by relatively small numbers of highly-influential people who are spectacularly good mostly at providing a certain, narrow outcome (eg., a summary of existing sources on a topic, the depth and quality of which varies, depending in part on the amount of conflict over the topic).

There needs to be a lot more “practical” research into what and how online platforms could contribute to positive civic outcomes through participation, negotiation, and solution generation, especially for complex problems. By research, I mean creation, trial, error and study rather than merely examining existing forms – as these are clearly not enough.

3- A feeling of lack of institutional outlet. In all these cases, there has been a failure of both oppositional politics as well as mainstream media. Protesters repeatedly state they have felt a lack of outlets to express their dissent. In the case of Egypt, this was because elections were rigged and politics banned.

In Turkey, the media has cowered and opposition parties are spectacularly incompetent. During the height of the most recent protests, CNN Turkey alternated between showing documentaries on penguins, and then a cooking show. At a particularly low moment, CNN Turkey was showing a documentary about a popular Turkish volunteer search and rescue team, AKUT, while AKUT members were out in the streets providing medical aid to protesters and AKUT founder Nasuk Masruhi lay in a hospital after both his legs were broken by police.

The failure of media and institutional outlet carries over to a country like the United States as well. In the Occupy movement in the US, there also was a widespread feeling among #occupy participants that the government and the media were at the hands of the moneyed interests and the corrupt. For example, look at this chart about mentions of the word “inequality” in major US media before and after Occupy:

At the time, the grave effects of the economic crisis could be seen in historically high unemployment and underemployment. Yet, most US media were covering economics mainly from the point of view of a very small minority of people who were concerned with inflation and levels of public debt and taxation on the rich – all of which are more of a concern to wealthy and to bondholders rather than to the struggling middle and working classes.

The feeling of lack of institutional outlet also, crucially, includes political parties. In Turkey, Spain and the United States (representative democracies), opposition parties and parliaments have been seen as incompetent, corrupt or uninterested in issues that concerned broad swaths of the public. This failure and sense of non-representation, of course, varies according to context but is nonetheless shared in all these movements.

4- Non-activist participation. Most previous big demonstrations before #occupygezi in Turkey were attended by experienced protesters. In contrast, the 2013 protests in Turkey are being attended by large numbers of people who have probably never been in a protest before. It has included participation from residents in their homes (banging pots and pans, turning lights on and off) on a scale that is unprecedented in Turkey in the post 1980 coup era. Tahrir protests 2011, Tunisia December 2010, Gezi 2013 drew large numbers of non-activists. My own study of Tahrir participants (a non-random sample) similarly found a great many who had never attended a protest before.

Occupy, too, attracted a mix of seasoned activists as well as many participants who seemed drawn to the action partly because it was seen as “more than politics.”

5- External Attention. Social media allows for bypassing domestic choke-points of censorship and reach for global attention. This was crucial in the Arab Spring (and we know many people tweeting about it were outside the region which, in my view, makes Twitter more powerful in its effects, not less).

In fact, just as in the Arab Spring, there have been moments in Turkey where international coverage of the protests was better than the domestic counterparts. Here’s CNN International showing Turkey protests while CNN Turkey shows a cooking show:

In all these cases, social media sources provided more comprehensive and more timely coverage of the events. Of course, the lack of institutional media reporting inside the country also had insidious effects in that it was difficult to keep in check unfounded and inflammatory rumors that ricocheted around online social networks.

6- Social Media as Structuring the Narrative. In all these protests, we see that social media allows a crowd-sourced, participatory, but also often social-media savvy, activist-led structuring of the meta-narrative, as well as the shaping of the collective grievances. Stories we tell about politics are incredibly important in shaping that very politics, and social media has opened a new, complicated path in which meta-narratives about political actions emerge and coalesce.

Many of the “network analyses” based on social network analyses methods have missed this crucial aspect of the narrative shaping power of social media as it cannot be seen merely by scraping a billion tweets and making a colorful “spaghetti” map of the network. What has emerged is that Twitter, Facebook and online social networks are the new mass, participatory, open, but also UNFLAT spaces of uneven influence where narratives conflict, coalesce and then are rebroadcast and recirculated by mass media.

In short, Twitter is the new spin room for the 21st century.

7- Breaking of Pluralistic Ignorance and altering of Collective Action dynamics. Revolutions, political upheavals, and large movements are quite hard to predict, but once they happen, they seem inevitable. Then there is a lot of hand-wringing on why they weren‚Äôt predicted before by analysts and observers. (A classic case is the 1979 Iranian revolution which everyone should have seen coming but nobody did).

This is not because all analysts and political observers are idiots but because of a particular characteristic of large-scale social upheaval, especially in repressive environments. Many such events break through when “pluralistic ignorance” – ie, the idea that you are the only one, or one of few, with a particular view – is broken. This can happen via a public mass action which can be a street demonstration or a Facebook page proclaiming “we are all Khaled Saeed."

In other words, many people keep their true preferences private, or speak only with a few trusted people, thinking either that they are a minority or that if they speak up, they will be one of only a few and thus meet with massive repression. Once this dam breaks, however, the dissent explodes. Thus, it’s easy to predict that there is a lot of pressure on this dam; however, it is hard to predict when and where it will break.

The key conceptual issue here is not digital versus non-digital but visibility, accessibility and signaling power. Street demonstrations, in that regard, are a form of social media in that they are powerful to the degree that they allow citizens to signal a plurality to their fellow citizens, and to help break pluralist ignorance. Overall, social media are altering mechanisms of collective action in societies and we have just begun to understand this fundamental shift.

8- Not Easily Steerable Towards Complex, Strategic Political Action. The combination of the above factors makes social-media fueled protests very powerful and consequential in some dimensions and somewhat ephemeral and weak in others.

While social-media fueled collective action lacks the affordances of politics and the institutional capital that political parties and NGOs can provide, they can be very good at drawing red lines and organizing and gathering attention to a loud “NO!” (ie., Mubarak, SOPA/PIPA, Gezi Parki demolition). However, such movements seem usually unable to translate their power into a next step which directly impacts policy, law or regulation through elections or parliament.

This partly stems from the lack of representative power within the movement. During Occupy, for example, the protests were almost shut down at one point not because of police, or Zuccotti Park’s owners’ actions but because the protesters were unable to contain a few people among them who wanted to continue drumming around the clock. The neighborhood almost evicted them themselves – the crisis was averted at the last minute. Lack of representational power has meant that movements have little capacity to direct their own participants towards any tactical steps or strategic steps.

Whether there will emerge new platforms and ways of organizing enabled by online media remains to be seen; however, as of now, this is where this nascent phenomenon stands.

Banner image credit: http://24.media.tumblr.com/ca6ea44759c716a645b91530cda1d2a1/tumblr_mntyf7ldWN1ste7qoo1_1280.jpg

Credit for Chart, "Before/After Occupy": Daily Kos http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/11/20/1038431/-The-Victory-of-the-Occupy-Movement