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Read the Resistance, September 2017: Twitter and Tear Gas

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For this month of Read the Resistance, an online book club that highlights written works of and about resistance, we asked artist and writer Molly Crabapple to recommend a book that exemplifies resistance to her. Her pick? Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci.

“2011 was the year of networked protest,” Crabapple wrote to PEN America. “Across the globe, from Tunis to Athens, Madrid to Zuccotti Park, people sat down in the main squares of their cities, pronounced the old order broken, and declared they would not get up until some fundamental changes had been made.”

“Think Tahrir Square,” she said. “Think Occupy Wall Street. These protest encampments were horizontally organized, ecstatic, bathed in tear gas, and powered by smartphones and social media. For a frail moment, they seemed like they would change the world.

“They did … but not in the ways that their participants had imagined.

“In Twitter and Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci gives us a compassionate and merciless tour of networked protest movements—how they grow; where they threaten power; their triumphs, weaknesses, and internal contradictions; the beauty they create; the shocking ease with which they can be destroyed. Even more crucially, she shows how, by 2015, the same platforms that promised liberation had been harnessed by regimes and demagogues—from the Russian troll farms to Sisi and Trump. Twitter and Tear Gas is essential reading for any dissident trying to maneuver in this new, uncertain, and dangerous world.”


“A protest, if nothing else, is a community.”—Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas

Whereas communities formed and were formed by shared identities based on a common language, region, religion, and location (think Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities), digital networks have allowed for the creation of communities centered around shared identities unhampered by distance. These digital communities, transcending traditional political, social, sectarian divisions and bringing together groups that don’t normally interact offline, congregate in virtual “town squares.” The decline in traditional communities and civic participation studied by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone is matched with a rise in a search for community and the creation and growth of communities online. Though most of these aren’t necessarily linked to social movements, for activists this has opened up a global network of like-minded individuals who have the potential to take part in social movements and protests offline. 

Tufekci mentions the role that the ritual of protests plays in forming activist communities, starting with the simple act of showing up to a protest. Since digital networks have allowed activists to inform far greater numbers of people of their causes and actions with far less effort than in previous decades, thus lowering barriers to entry in social movements, there has been a marked rise in participation in such movements. One example is the protests at Tahrir Square, the most visible of those of the Arab Spring—dissenting ideas that spread on Facebook, a “networked public sphere,” are linked to the high turnout at the beginning of the protest, which then engendered an “avalanche of dissent.”

For all the connection, communication, and participation in social movements that digital networks have allowed, it is worth remembering that digital networks and social media platforms are less like the classic town square and more like the privately owned public spaces we are accustomed to seeing in cities—spaces we can access but where we are subject to rules and restrictions set by the owners (Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street protest camp, is one such space). Digitally native social movements are thus subject to platforms’ views (usually shaped by the founders) on privacy, content monitoring, and even free speech. Conducting the organizing work of social movements on such platforms, Tukefci writes, is the equivalent of “moving political gatherings from town squares to shopping malls.”


  • What are some group patterns you notice in online organizing and in-person actions? What are the limits and opportunities for these performed actions to effect substantive change?
  • How can communities use personal stories, strength in numbers, and new models of brainstorming to apply pressure at the levels of policy and structure?
  • What limits to community formation do you observe in your own online networks? From the online content you consume, to who you engage with and how, what are ways you might work against this?

Government and Mass Media

“We no longer live in a mass-media world with a few centralized choke points with just a few editors in charge … There is a new, radically different mode of information and attention flow: the chaotic world of the digitally networked public sphere … where ordinary citizens … can generate ideas, document and spread news of events, and respond to mass media.”—Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas

Faced with a world wide web beyond any one government’s control, authoritarian governments (and their censors) have struggled to contain dissent on the internet. As the internet has shifted the balance of power between activists and governments, which struggle to contain dissent in ways they once did in the pre-digital era, the two are engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase, both of which have uneasy relationships with digital platforms which may advantage one side over the other at any given time, with little notice or transparency in their decisions. 

As digital networks have changed communication patterns, allowing everyone to express ideas to everyone simultaneously (Tufekci phrases this as the democratization of the coffeehouses and salons of old), the role of the mass media as gatekeepers of information has been upended. News that would once never have reached citizens through the layers of censorship mass media face under authoritarian governments is now spread on digital platforms, both by citizen journalists and members of the general public, and many governments have been at pains to catch up with those who circumvent the censors. One example Tufekci states is the total absence of media coverage of the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, where the country’s CNN channel aired a documentary on penguins and the international CNN broadcast news of the protests; news of the protest spread instead on social media, crucial also to participation. 

However, authoritarian governments are not dinosaurs: Wary of being caught by surprise (as Mubarak was by the scale and zeal of the Tahrir Square protests), many have begun to counter social movements and digitally native activism on the same platforms, mobilizing trolls to harass, intimidate, and even dox activists and dissenters, banning certain social media platforms, and spreading disinformation online. In this context, activists are vulnerable to social media platforms’ policies such as those on content policing and spam (used to flag posts by activists as violating terms of service) and use of real names and pseudonyms (exposing activists’ identities—particularly problematic for those with non-Western names). Activists are also vulnerable to these platforms’ business models: A social media network, seeking to appease an authoritarian government of a country in which it plans on establishing itself or expanding, might decide to cooperate with a government’s request to hand over information about dissenters or to censor content. 


  • What kinds of resources, cybersecurity practices, and visibility can you share to counter online censorship? 
  • What kinds of legislative and messaging signals have you observed that raise the specter of state-controlled media? What are actions you can take around these specific instances to maintain vigilance?
  • How might you bring more critical-mindedness to each of the different channels through which you receive information (e.g. government, mass media, social media)?

Leaderless Social Movements

The desire of modern protesters to operate without formal organizations, leaders, and extensive infrastructure can be traced at least back to the movements that flourished in the 1960s. New digital technology did not create this but allows protesters to better fulfill pre-existing desires. Without a tool similar to Twitter with its hashtags, and without all this digital connectivity, it would be quite difficult to call up or sustain spontaneous protests of this size.”—Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas

Often forming beyond traditional civic organizations, leaderless social movements have skipped many of the organizing steps of pre-digital movements, not only the formal institutions but also the informal ties between individuals who can be called to action (Tufekci calls these “network internalities”). These have not been replaced and their absence has shaped digitally native social movements. 

The pre-digital movement Tufekci profiles is the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Popular accounts of the civil rights movement focus on individuals, such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., or key moments, such as the Montgomery bus boycott or the March on Washington, often missing the organizing work behind protest actions, some of which took years to work toward and whose engagement, visibility, and ultimate success depended on organizing infrastructure. Rosa Parks didn’t wake up one morning and decide to engage in a boycott of the bus system: She was active within the local chapter of the NAACP, which had sought to engage in peaceful protest for some time beforehand and which undertook the work of spreading the message (Montgomery was then a town of around one hundred thousand, and flyers had to be printed and circulated to dozens of locations), assessing the risks participants and the organization might face, and arranging the alternative transportation used by protesters, who still had to get to work. The infrastructure of local protests like the Montgomery bus boycott was then leveraged and scaled up, years later, for the national March on Washington. 

Tufekci describes leaderless social movements as “adhocracies,” where anyone can assess immediate needs and determine how best to address them (she cites the example of TahrirNeeds, where supporters far-removed from the protest created and centralized a supplies management system which proved crucial to the protest) and, in terms of the bigger picture, shape the demands of the protest and affect its impact. From radical democratization of social movements, the tyranny of leaderless movements has emerged: Who speaks, and who shapes decisions at these protests, are often the loudest voices and are not often representative of the movement as a whole. Further to this, leaderless movements have left governments with no negotiating counterpart: Without a figurehead or leadership, digitally native social movements rise and mobilize at breakneck pace, but this process produces “no decisions, forward momentum, tactical shifts.” Leaderless movements fall into a “tactical freeze” as a result of disagreements and the absence of a mechanism to resolve them or work toward consensus.

Digital networks have enabled movements that have the power to topple authoritarian governments to rise, but as well as missing the key pillars of support of their pre-digital counterparts, their internecine divisions play out on the internet on full display, including adversaries and authoritarian governments. Tufekci emphasizes that even though past movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, faced their share of disagreements and tensions, these were kept largely out of the public eye and were resolved within the mechanisms of established organizations, presenting a unified front to the general public, the mass media, and the government. She also notes that the movement was able to shift tactically and scale up from small-scale peaceful direct action to national demonstrations, key to maintaining engagement and activity over lengthy periods of time. 


  • Are there specific movements or models in which you’ve observed tactical freeze? What were some of the group and decision-making practices that may have contributed?
  • Are there specific movements right now whose principles and demands you find clearly articulated? What are they communicating and how?
  • What kinds of power and disempowerment do you experience inside of the movements you engage with? How might that be affecting others’ experiences and platforms?


About Molly Crabapple
Molly Crabapple is an artist, journalist, and author of the memoir Drawing Blood. Called “an emblem of the way art can break out of the gilded gallery” by the New Republic, she has drawn in and reported from Guantánamo Bay, Abu Dhabi’s migrant labor camps, and in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Crabapple is a contributing editor for VICE, and has written for publications including The New York Times, Paris Review, and Vanity Fair. Her work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.


About Zeynep Tufekci
Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with an affiliate appointment at the Department of Sociology. She is also a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and was previously a fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at the Princeton University. Originally from Turkey, and formerly a computer programmer, Tufekci became interested in the social impacts of technology and began to focus on how digital and computational technology interact with social, political and cultural dynamics.