Podcast and Liveblog: Zeynep Tufekci, “The Boom-Bust Cycle of Social Media-Fueled Protests”

About the Talk

Social media-fueled protests in many countries have surprised observers with their seemingly spontaneous, combustible power. Yet, many have fizzled out without having a strong impact on policy at the electoral and legislative levels. In this talk, Tufekci will discuss some features of such protests that may be leading to this boom and bust cycle drawing upon primary research in Gezi protests in Turkey as well as “Arab Spring”, Occupy and M15 movements.

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Moderated by Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Head of MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures Ian Condry and Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the MIT Center for Civic Media.


This is not the first time that Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) has been at MIT. MIT Center for Civic Media director and event moderator Ethan Zuckerman shared the stage with Tufekci the last time she visited, and to Zuckerman, she represents a bridge between technology and social movements. She is a veteran of protests (in the past, Tufekci’s research on the Arab Spring took her to Tunisia and Egypt), and in many of these movements, she has noticed conceptual patterns.

Tufekci begins with an anecdote about the Hillary Step—the peak of Mount Everest—explaining that climbers have died due to a combination of cold, altitude, and mass crowding as people waited for their turn to ascend. Tufekci zoomed out, showing an image of the basecamp. In her analogy, she explains that climbers were so focused on the basecamp and the summit that they weren’t prepared to think about side effects and sufficient tools for the way there.

A similar situation can be seen in the Internet space, says Tufekci. She argues that some Internet-touted benefits have significant handicaps. There are more people in basecamps for Internet participation today that those that can make the climb; we are too busy mooning over the outcome to think about side effects. Tufekci suggests that instead of outputs, we should examine the potential for capacity building.

In the event that sparked the Gezi protest, the government decided to turn an anachronistic public property into yet another shopping center, complete with expensive housing. Protesters were furious and effectively utilized #OccupyGezi to expand their numbers from 30 to thousands. Twitter was an intentional protest platform so that #OccupyGezi news could bypass government-friendly television stations. Where CNN International broadcasted the protest, CNN Turkey showcased penguins to the local audience. Part of the reason, Tufekci explains, is that broadcast companies are owned by large conglomerates that primarily want to build favor with governments in order to gain contracts and other benefits.

As a veteran of several protests, Zeynep packed sunscreen, a camera, walkie talkies, a gas mask and a helmet. The helmet, she explains, is crucial because while tear gas will hurt, cans landing on your head is what will actually kill you.

As a veteran of several protests, Zeynep packed sunscreen, a camera, walkie talkies, a gas mask and a helmet. The helmet, she explains, is crucial because while tear gas will hurt, cans landing on your head is what will actually kill you.

Coordinated mainly through social media, protestors occupied Gezi Park, which soon resembled many of the camps seen during Occupy; Tufekci describes the atmosphere as “Woodstock meets Paris commune.” While protests are often portrayed by media as angry mobs, the #OccupyGezi protest camp was actually a breeding ground for creativity, manifesting in libraries, flower shops, and other spaces. A local economy quickly emerged, and enterprising locals sold Guy Fawkes masks (locally produced), gas masks, spray cans, and other protest materials. The slogan for the movement became “#diren,” which is roughly the equivalent to #occupy in the United States.

The tent village became a common space for many groups, including feminists, soccer fans, and other interest groups. A typical soccer taunt is to call the referee or rival teams “faggots.” Feminist and queer groups quickly banded together to connect with their soccer fan allies. “No, we are the faggots,” they explained, shedding light on how the label was a disenfranchising rallying cry. They began to hold workshops to frame the issues.

Many of the messages and imagery coming from the protests directly critiqued the state media system, especially by highlighting the failure of Turkish media to cover the Gezi Park protest.

A major observation from Tufekci’s work highlights how coordination and logistics were under-emphasized on the Internet. The groups involved with the Gezi demonstration rejected formal leadership structures and delegation. Instead, protesters focused all of their capacity on shaming the government, so authorities did not interpret protestors as a real political threat.

Tufekci points to Nobel Laureate and economist Amartya Sen, whose research emphasized capacity building as a measure of economic impact instead of the narrow focus on gross domestic product. Sen’s research is in step with Tufekci’s caution to think critically about capacity building rather than focusing only on the outputs of the Internet. While the Internet has made greater lateral room for engagement, it can also hinder impact as a side effect.

Tufekci’s post-examination of the Gezi protest melted down to two general observations:

  1. The Internet has altered the relationship between what protests need in order to exist and what movements need in order to have impact.
  2. There has been a major shift in the way protest are carried out in the “Internet era.”

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