On February 2, 2011, a horde of men, armed with long sticks and whips and riding camels and horses, attacked the hundreds of thousands of protesters who packed Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, parting the crowd as if it were the Red Sea and scattering protesters as they went. The horses’ saddles were a brilliant red, traditional and ornate, but the day was anything but cheerful. A dozen people died. Many believe that the attackers were undercover agents of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, although trials afterward were unable to verify this. Egyptians call the event the “Battle of the Camels,” a sly reference to a seventh-century internecine struggle among Muslims.
A prominent Egyptian dissident later told me the story from his perspective, starting with his shock at hearing the trampling hooves on the asphalt, seeing the heads of the animals above the crowd, and watching confusion and anger spread in waves through the packed square. “I laughed very hard,” he said, “because, for the first time since it all began, I was sure we had won. Surely, I thought, we had won.”
I wondered whether he had lost his mind. That would have been understandable after 10 days of violence, tear gas, tension, and no sleep.
But he was right. It had been a turning point.
As he explained to me, letting loose thugs on camelback showed just how desperate and out-of-touch Mubarak’s regime had become. While camels flooded the square, Tahrir activists were busy giving live interviews to the BBC and other international media outlets via smuggled satellite phones, and tweeting over contraband Internet connections. Although Mubarak had shut down the Internet—except a single ISP, the Noor network—and all cell phones just before the “Battle of the Camels,” protesters had pierced the Internet blockade within hours and remained in charge of their message, which was heard around the world, as was news of the Internet shutdown. Mubarak’s acts were both futile, because the protests were already under way, and counterproductive, because worried families, unable to call their younger relatives, rushed to Tahrir Square. The sheer, unrestrained brutality of the camel attack and the clumsiness of shutting down all communication networks underscored the inability of Mubarak’s crumbling autocracy to understand the spirit of the time, the energy of the youthful protesters, and the transformed information environment. Camels and sticks versus satellite phones and Twitter. Seventeenth century, meet 21st century. Indeed, the Internet in Egypt soon came back online, and Mubarak, unable to contain or permanently repress the huge crowds, was forced to resign shortly thereafter.
As uprisings spread throughout the region, many felt optimistic. The revolutions had not yet turned into military coups, as would happen in Egypt, or bloody civil wars, as would happen in Libya and Syria. Activists were flying high. Digital technologies had clearly transformed the landscape, seemingly to the benefit of political challengers. Rising in opposition to crumbling, stifling regimes that tried to control the public discourse, activists were able to overcome censorship, coordinate protests, organize logistics, and spread humor and dissent with an ease that would have seemed miraculous to earlier generations. A popular Facebook page, created to decry the beating death of a young man by the Egyptian police, had been the forum for organizing the initial Tahrir uprising and had mustered hundreds of thousands of supporters. An Egyptian friend of mine would later joke that this must have been the first time in history when a person could actually join a revolution by clicking “I’m Attending” in response to a Facebook evite. But such social media sites were important to audiences beyond the protesters; the world also followed the uprising through the Facebook and Twitter posts of young, digitally savvy and determined protesters.
Networked protests of the 21st century differ in important ways from movements of the past and often operate with a different logic. (I use “networked” as a shorthand for digitally networked, to refer to the reconfiguration of movements and publics through the incorporation of digital technologies and connectivity.) Many of these developments have cultural and political roots that predate the Internet but have found a fuller expression in conjunction with the capabilities provided by technology. Networked protests have strengths and weaknesses that combine in novel ways and do not neatly conform to our understandings of the trajectory of protest movements before the advent of digital technologies.
For example, the ability to use digital tools to rapidly amass large numbers of protesters with a common goal empowers movements. Once this large group is formed, however, it struggles because it has sidestepped some of the traditional tasks of organizing. Besides taking care of tasks, the drudgery of traditional organizing helps create collective decision-making capabilities, sometimes through formal and informal leadership structures, and builds a collective capacity among movement participants through shared experience and tribulation. The expressive, often humorous style of networked protests attracts many participants and thrives both online and offline, but movements falter in the long term unless they create the capacity to navigate the inevitable challenges.
These movements rely heavily on online platforms and digital tools for organizing and publicity and proclaim that they are leaderless although their practice is almost always muddier. The open participation afforded by social media does not always mean equal participation, and it certainly does not mean a smooth process. Although online media are indeed more open and participatory, over time a few people consistently emerge as informal but persistent spokespersons—with large followings on social media. These people often have great influence, though they lack the formal legitimacy that an open and recognized process of selecting leaders would generate. The result is often a conflict-ridden, drawn-out struggle between those who find themselves running things (or being treated as de facto leaders) and other people in the movement who can also express themselves online. These others may challenge the de facto spokespersons, but the movements have few means to resolve their issues or make decisions. In some ways, digital technologies deepen the ever-existing tension between collective will and individual expression within movements, and between expressive moments of rebellion and the longer-term strategies requiring instrumental and tactical shifts.
The Internet’s capabilities have changed greatly during the past two decades. When I showed up at a Zapatista-organized “Encuentro” in the 1990s, for example, many people greeted me with surprise that I was not “Mr. Zeynep.” Our main communication tool was email on slow dialup modem connections that did not allow much visual information, such as pictures. Most users were assumed to be male, and they often were. We had no smartphones, so we had no connections when we were not at a fixed physical “place.”
But the ability to cheaply and easily connect on a global scale was already emerging and was transforming social movements. The Internet may have been slow and available only in offices and homes (since phones did not have Internet then), but the protest and movement culture that flourished in the 1990s already displayed many cultural elements that would persist. These movements shared an intense focus on participation and horizontalism—functioning without formal hierarchies or leaders and using a digitally supported, ad hoc approach to organizing infrastructure and tasks. The Zapatista Encuentro lasted a week, during which friendships formed around the self-organized functioning of the camp where it took place. Plurality, diversity, and tolerance were celebrated and were nicely expressed in the Zapatista slogan “Many yeses, one no.” There was a general reluctance to engage in traditional, institutional politics, which were believed to be ineffective and, worse, irredeemably corrupt. Digital technology was used to support organization in the absence of formal structures. An alternative social space was created, and it felt like, and was celebrated as a new form of politics.
These elements would reappear in protester camps and prolonged occupations of public spaces worldwide in the next decades and would become thoroughly intertwined with digital technologies. These technologies were not merely basic tools; their new capabilities allowed protesters to reimagine and alter the practice of protests and movement-building on the path that they had already been traveling but could finally realize.
Raising the Cost of Oppression
I visited Tahrir Square after the most tumultuous days of 2011 were over in Cairo, but protests were still ongoing. The Egyptian military had not yet organized the coup that would come two years later. The square seemed vast while I was standing in the middle of it during a protest, but from my high-rise hotel next to it, it seemed small and insignificant, lost in the sprawling expanse of Cairo, a metro area that’s home to more than 20 million people. It was a choke point for Cairo traffic, but traffic seemed to be in a perpetual jam.
Yet in 2011, Tahrir became a choke point for global attention. Digital networks allowing the protesters to broadcast to the world raised the costs of repression through attention from a sympathetic global public. Digital connectivity had warped time and space, transforming that square I looked at above, so small yet so vast, into a crossroads of attention and visibility, both interpersonal and interactive, not just something filtered through mass media. Throughout the 18 days of the initial Tahrir uprising, I turned on the television only once, wanting to see how networks were covering the historic moment of Mubarak’s resignation. CNN was broadcasting an aerial shot of the square. The camera angle from far above the square was jarring because I had been following it all on Twitter, person by person, each view necessarily incomplete but also intimate. On television, all I could see was an undifferentiated mass of people, an indistinct crowd. It felt cold and alienating. The television pictures did not convey how today’s networked protests operate or feel.
Scholars have often focused on the coordination and communication challenges that people engaged in collective action face. If authorities control the public sphere, how will activists coordinate? How will they frame their message in the face of corporate or state media gatekeeping and censorship? How will they keep free riders, who want the benefits that protests might win but do not want to pay the costs of protest, from skipping out and waiting for others to fight and take risks? How will they counter repression by security forces that have superior means and can inflict suffering, torture, and death?
None of those dilemmas have gone away, but some of them have been dramatically transformed. Digital technologies are so integral to today’s social movements that many protests are referred to by their hashtags—the Twitter convention for marking a topic: #jan25 for the Tahrir uprising in January 25, 2011, #VemPraRua (“Come to the streets”) in Brazil, #direngezi for Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey, and #occupywallstreet. Activists can act as their own media, conduct publicity campaigns, circumvent censorship, and coordinate nimbly.
Sometimes, networked online political action is derided as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism,” terms that suggest easy action requiring little effort or commitment. At other times, people assume that movements fueled by social media are organized by people with “weak ties”—people we do not know well—unlike protests of the past. However, these perspectives assume that people who connect online are doing things only online, and that the online world is somehow less real than, and disconnected from, the offline one. In contrast, people nowadays also join protests with people with whom they have “strong ties”—family and close friends—and people connect online with other people with whom they have both weak and strong ties. Symbolic action online is not necessarily without power either—rather, the effect depends on the context. When Facebook friends change their avatar to protest discrimination against gay people, they also send a cultural signal to their social networks, and over time, such signals are part of what makes social change possible by changing culture. Many protesters I talked with cite their online political interactions as the beginning of their process of becoming politicized. It is not even clear that all online acts are really as easy as “just clicking.” In a repressive country, tweeting may be a very brave act, while marching in the streets may present few difficulties in a more advanced democracy.
In 2011, I observed how four young people, only two of whom were in Cairo, coordinated supplies and logistics for 10 large field hospitals at the height of some of the worst clashes in Egypt. They accomplished this feat through creativity and youthful determination, but it would have been nearly impossible without Twitter, Google spreadsheets, text messaging, and cell phones. In the same time frame, I watched another four college students in Turkey establish a countrywide citizen journalism network, reporting news, busting censorship, and otherwise countering deep polarization. They did this in their spare time, with no funding, fueled only by grit, creativity, and caffeine (preferably from coffee shops with free Wi-Fi). I saw countries with authoritarian-leaning governments lose control over the public sphere, while in democratic countries, issues that had been sidelined from the national agenda, from economic inequality to racial injustice to trade to police misconduct, were brought to the forefront through the force of social media engagement and persistence by citizens.
But I have also seen movement after movement falter because of a lack of organizational depth and experience, of tools or culture for collective decision making, and strategic, long-term action. Somewhat paradoxically the capabilities that fueled their organizing prowess sometimes also set the stage for what later tripped them up, especially when they were unable to engage in the tactical and decision-making maneuvers all movements must master to survive. It turns out that the answer to “What happens when movements can evade traditional censorship and publicize and coordinate more easily?” is not simple.
How Governments Strike Back
If the politics of protest do not look like those of the past, neither do some of the obstacles the protesters face. In the United States, the same week the Gezi protests erupted, Edward Snowden revealed details of the existence of a massive US government surveillance program, and we thus glimpsed what state surveillance capabilities may exist. The US is almost certainly not the only government to surveil at large scale. In fact, as I stood in Gezi Park, tweeting from a phone tied by law to my unique citizenship ID number in Turkey, I knew that the government surely had a list of every protester who showed up at the park with a phone. Despite this fact, once protests broke out on a large scale, the threat of surveillance deterred few people, partly because they felt protected by size of the massive protest.
Many movements face severe repression, much as they did in the pre-Internet era. In Egypt, a few years after the initial uprising, things were not going well for the revolutionaries. Many of my friends there were now in jail or in exile. Although Mubarak was ousted, the military was not. The Muslim Brotherhood had won the election but had not managed to unseat the old guard from the state apparatus nor manage to win over the whole population—many people were alarmed at their acts in government, too. In the polarized atmosphere, supporters of the military also began to flood online social networks with their message. People opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, some of them open supporters of the military but others just concerned about the state of the country, held a large rally in Tahrir Square in July 2013. Soon afterward, the Egyptian military took over the country in a brutal coup, citing the protests as legitimizing its actions. The new military government mowed down more than 600 protesters in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Sufficiently brutal governments seem not to bother much with scientific network analysis and the minutiae of secretly surveilled online activists. Instead, they are often guided by the philosophy “Shoot at them all, and let terror sort them out.”
Other governments, less willing or able to engage in such indiscriminate mass violence, have learned to control the networked public sphere through a set of policies more suited to the new era. Surveillance and repression do not operate primarily in the way that our pre-digital worries might have forecast. This is not necessarily Orwell’s 1984. Rather than a complete totalitarianism based on fear and the blocking of information, the newer methods include demonizing online media and mobilizing armies of supporters or paid employees who muddy the online waters with misinformation, information overload, doubt, confusion, harasment, and distraction. This in turn makes it hard for ordinary people to navigate the networked public sphere and sort facts from fiction, truth from hoaxes. Rather than acting directly on dissidents’ political communications, many governments try to embarrass or harass activists by hacking and releasing their personal and private information. If anything, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World appears more prescient than Orwell’s 1984, which imagined totalitarianism with centralized control of information—more applicable to the Soviet Union than to today’s networked public sphere.
Whereas a social movement has to persuade people to act, a government or a powerful group defending the status quo only has to create enough confusion to paralyze people. The Internet’s relatively chaotic nature, with its surfeit of information and weak gatekeepers, can asymmetrically empower governments by allowing them to develop new forms of censorship based not on blocking information, but on making available information unusable.
The networked public sphere creates many other challenges. Activists often face harassment and abuse organized by governments or their opponents on social media. Ad-financed platforms use algorithms—complex software—to control visibility, sometimes drowning out activist messages in favor of more advertiser-friendly content. Their filtering can entrench “echo chambers” where like-minded people get together (including social movement activists) but then go on to undertake vicious battles online, increasing polarization and thus turning off many people from politics.
But movements can also use these very platforms to further their goals, as these technologies allow people to find one another, to craft and amplify their own narrative, to reach out to broader publics, and to organize and resist. Movements are making their own history, but in circumstances and with tools not entirely of their own choosing.
And those tools shape the course of events and social movements in often unpredictable ways. The contradictory and sometimes counterintuitive dynamics unleashed by the emergence of the printing press demonstrate all too clearly that there is little that is straightforward about the implications of a revolutionary communications technology. And when it comes to understanding the strengths, weaknesses, challenges, opportunities, and future of networked movements, we have likely just begun to see what it may all mean.
This article is excerpted from Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci, Yale University Press 2017.