technology in collective behavior: it’s about relative strength
The attempted coup and subsequent counter-coup in Turkey has raised questions about the role of technology in collective behavior. Notably, the coup leaders attempted to assert control by seizing the media, while the president of Turkey re-asserted control by using Facebook. At his blog, Kieran comments:
The irony was immediately apparent, as all of this was a rather large departure from Erdoğan’s previous attitudes to both social media and public protest. It also set off a little side-debate about the role of these technologies in preventing the coup. That’s encapsulated by Zeynep Tufekci (who is in Antalya at the moment) and her exasperated response to a satirical tweet mocking the idea that tech mattered in any decisive way.
Here’e my take on the issue of technology and collective action. Having access to a technology doesn’t give a movement any advantage by itself. Rather, it’s about relative access to technology. Here’s some selected examples from the recent history of politics:
- In 2008, fund raising through Facebook gave Obama a financial advantage, but now everyone does it.
- In the 2009 Green Movement in Iran, Facebook played a key role, but now the Iranian government now tries to disrupt Facebook.
- In the Arab Spring, Twitter and Facebook were crucial as a coordinating mechanism but now it, too, is blocked or disrupted by states.
My argument is that technology can only give a group or movement a short term relative advantage. Otherwise, the strength and vitality of movements and insurrections on “fundamentals” like public opinion, political opportunities, and the support of elites. In the case of Turkey, the coup approached things in a traditional way – by seizing television and radio – and overlooked (?) Facebook, which allowed Erdogan to communicate that he was alive and in control. Ultimately though, I’ll side with commentators who point out that the Turkish military had already been de-funded, purged, and otherwise enervated by Erdogan and his political party. Facetime is a small, and incidental detail, to a larger picture.
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