does the internet undermine modern social movements?

Zeynep Tufecki has an article in DML Central about the relationship between social media and movements. The argument is interesting. Before, to effectively communicate, you really had to get your act together. So they side of effect of communication was movement building. Now, you don’t need any hierarchy, organization, or leadership. Social media allows you to bypass that:

Forefronting affordances and capabilities, instead of focusing on platforms or tools, allow for analytic depth without getting tangled in the specifics of the technology. Paradoxically, it’s possible that the widespread use of digital tools facilitates capabilities in some domains, such as organization, logistics, and publicity, while simultaneously engendering hindrances to movement impacts on other domains, including those related to policy and electoral spheres.


 For example, in the past, the capability to organize a large-scale march on Washington, or a bus boycott in Montgomery, required extensive organization, coordinating everything from car pools to laboriously publishing pamphlets to setting up many meetings that in turn determine organizational and logistical issues. Similarly, battling for visibility through broadcast media often required investing in institutions that became familiar with the workings of media and power.

In contrast, modern mobilizations often turn to social media for coordination, logistics, publicity and more. For example, four young people in their early twenties, with no military or logistics training, coordinated the setup of ten sizable field hospitals during the deadly, massive clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in 2011 using Twitter, spreadsheets and documents on the Internet (through Google Docs), along with cell phones to keep in touch with multiple points (Bear in mind that dozens of people were killed and thousands were treated at these field hospitals staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses, so this was not a minor operation to organize or supply). During the initial uprising of January/February 2011, Egyptian activists befuddled all censorship attempts and managed to get their own attractive narrative out to international media. Gezi protesters in Istanbul used social media to coordinate logistics for their spontaneous, massive gathering which, at some points, involved multi-day clashes with the police, and was partially accomplished by otherwise inexperienced, novice protesters who were also able to overcome the censorship of the pliant Turkish broadcast media. There are countless examples of how social media allows mobilizations to carry out fairly impressive feats with little prior infrastructure.

However, this lowering of coordination costs, a fact generally considered to empower protest mobilizations, may have the seemingly paradoxical effect of contributing to political weakness in the latter stages, by allowing movements to grow without building needed structures and strengths, including capacities for negotiation, representation, and mobilization. Movements may grow quickly beyond their developed organizational capacity, a weakness that becomes critical as soon as a form of action other than street protests or occupation of a public space becomes relevant.

Read the whole thing. Strongly recommended.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 15, 2014 at 3:37 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

6 Responses

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  1. I am currently studying the Maker Movement. Looking at businesses / entrepreneurs coming out of it, I cannot help but wonder if that may sometimes be the case for small businesses. Rapid prototyping allows innovators to design and create products with unprecedented speed, and to experiment with interesting materials and techniques. This enables more people to start businesses with a minimal investment of capital – on etsy or zuily or amazon – but gives them little preparation and understanding of market strategy, pricing, etc. Or it results in crowdfunding projects (other data I am currently looking at) failing because the innovators (of sometimes cool products) lack understanding of what it takes to run a business, manage the sourcing and logistics of large-scale production, and hire employees. Should they have started a business the traditional way – present ideas, get investors, hire employees – their business model would be more cemented by the point they are engaging in large-scale production. I see a parallel here – technology makes it easy to start a business, more difficult because of organizational weaknesses down the road.


    Andreea Gorbatai

    January 15, 2014 at 5:01 am

  2. Strategy is the key here. Social media doesn’t necessarily undermine anything, but if you’ve been taught to pay attention to the wrong things, well, you occupy Tahrir square while the military and various other organizations with more strategic sense consolidate their positions. Due to the lack of understanding, social media often provides a false sense of getting things done, but the key issue here is the mis-education. Considering how widespread it is, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it a purposeful mis-education. After all, young Egyptians, Tunisians, and Americans were all promised a wonderful little life if we paid attention in school, got good grades, went to college, etc… Then we graduated with student debt and spent the next few years figuring out we’d been had, especially on the jobs front. Some of us even figure out the ‘education’ wasn’t very good either.



    January 15, 2014 at 2:46 pm

  3. Social media have certainly made collective action possible in a way that wasn’t before, even leading to new types of movement forms. The best work on this I think is Earl’s and Kimport’s book Digitally Enabled Social Change and Bennett’s and Segerberg’s The Logic of Connective Action. But these books are very reasonable in their assessment of what these technologies do to social movements, recognizing (for instance) that traditional social movement organizations still frequently play a role in social media-focused collective action.

    There has also been a lot of skepticism among social movement scholars, many of whom are doing empirical work on the Arab Revolution and many of the other so-called Internet-led movements, in which they’re finding that organizations played a much more central role than the media led us to believe in initiating these movements. Much of this research is still unpublished but I’m certain it will find its way to a journal near you soon enough. This issue of the Swiss Political Science Review had a forum on the topic. Mario Diani’s paper, in particular, is well worth the read. He reminds us that networks exist outside of technologies, not the other way around, although sometimes technology helps mediate those networks. And finally, you should read this provocative piece by Maha Abdelrahman about the problems inherent in movements, like the Egyptian activists, that don’t develop sufficient organizational infrastructure to see their reforms implemented. Zeynep recognizes this in her essay as well.

    Anyway, I hate to go all Morozov on you here, but the truth is that we still don’t know enough about the relative impact of social media on movements to make definitive statements about how much of a change they are creating in the way collective action unfolds.


    brayden king

    January 15, 2014 at 8:00 pm

  4. Beware mistaking the fact that movements use a technology for the claim that the technology enabled those movements or their success. I remember speaking with Polish activists in the late ’80s and early ’90s who were convinced that it was the advent of the fax machine–which the authorities couldn’t easily tap at that time–that was responsible for their democracy movement’s success. A plausible alternative hypothesis, at least, is that movements emerge for other reasons, rooted in other political and social processes, and they deploy the state of the art in communications technology, making it look like the technology caused their victories.



    January 15, 2014 at 8:18 pm

  5. Ah, great comments! Let me clarify a few things. I think technology makes certain things easier, and in very particular ways. It obviously will not create grievances where there is little to none or generate social processes that otherwise don’t exist. (Although it can contribute to amplifying grievance cascades by making it easier for so called “silent majorities” to publicly signal their dissent in what might become a cascade *if* there is sufficient privately held grievances. Working from Timur Kuran, pluralistic ignorance and some from Bennett’s and Segerberg’s Logic of Connective Action)
    So, my working hypothesis here is that these technologies are converging with long-standing cultural trends (distrust of representatives and delegations, not wanting desires, etc) in social movements by precisely making it possible to have movements, especially street movements, without the same institutional and logistical infrastructure as would have been required previously. That, in turn, is hampering them in the post-street phase. So the claim is not technology caused their victories–not at all– but rather that technology allowed them to flow/be a certain manner that was already with historical trends.
    Also, I’d rather not use the technology versus the people framing because it seems like a false comparison. Like previous technologies, these new tools have impacts as they become integrated into everyday life. Like previous technologies, these impacts are neither straightforward nor one-directional–but nor are they completely over-determined, in my view, by human agency. In other words, technology is a tool, but tools are not infinitely malleable in their consequences by human will or desire. I think “affordances” is a nice framework for it–the conceptual notion that objects don’t equally enable everything, that their materiality has consequences.
    As for Egypt, for example, I agree with Andrew–I think any story that starts and ends with technology would be terribly incomplete. On the other hand, I think it would be difficult to tell the story of that uprising (and events since) without referring to the role of Internet (and satellite television) in disrupting and transforming the Egyptian public sphere. I think that as scholarship gets deeper, we will be able to tell more and more nuanced stories of the complex interplay between digital tools and social processes.
    Finally, I’ve arrived at the conclusion in the above piece after Gezi protests, analytically speaking. I had been observing, studying and writing about Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Occupy, M15, etc. and had this nagging conceptual framework on the dialectic between apparent movement strengths (surprising logistics capacity, for example, for semi-spontaneous events) and weaknesses (inability to delegate or negotiate with power and hence often ending up “empty-handed” in terms of short-term policy impacts. Long story short, it was after intense field work during Gezi, Istanbul, my country of origin, that I felt analytically confident enough to make the above claims as the movement dynamics in Gezi protests resembled, broadly, the others like Occupy and Tahrir (2011) even though, Turkey’s never really had leaderless or spontaneous movements, really. In any case, I’ve formally interviewed hundreds of protests and more detailed analysis of those are being written up as a case study of this technology/social movement dialectic I’m trying to get at here.


    Zeynep Tufekci

    January 18, 2014 at 1:32 am

  6. […] does the inter­net under­mine modern social move­ments?: Zeynep Tuf­ecki has an arti­cle in DML Cen­tral about the rela­ti­onship bet­ween social media and move­ments. The argu­ment is inte­res­ting. Before, to effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate, you really had to get your act toge­ther. So they side of effect of com­mu­ni­ca­tion was move­ment buil­ding. — by fabio — Tags: move­ment, social media, wp2014-01 – […]


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