I sometimes feel like even the word ‘technology’ is dated, timestamped, monolithic, at best. It feels like the moment it leaves your mouth, you instantaneously become older, more out of touch, and there is somehow some new, evolved, multifaceted device, service, or app, that has rendered your current technological situation archaic.
That’s all to say that talking about technology and its engagement with protest feels overwhelming because it’s almost always evolving. Tufekcki examines internet-fueled protest movements as the subjects of Twitter and Tear Gas. Broadly, Tufecki discusses how modern protest movements have been changed by the internet—and what that means for protests going forward. I was nostalgic reading this for the old days of protesting during the Bush era, a quainter, more gently terrifying time, and how we understood protest, discovered, and formed communities around the RNC protests in NYC, the Womens March in DC in 2004, and the protests around the invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s, the communal strains of which ran really deep for us, and we understood protest as a natural community.
“A protest, if nothing else, is a community.”
An interesting facet of her argument has to do with the nature of communities. Asserting that 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, divisions and bringing together groups that don’t normally interact offline, congregate in virtual “town squares.” There is a broader message here about how alliances, coalitions, and partnerships are formed in an age of rapid digital networking and social media. I think about the conversations happening between BLM, Jewish activists, and Palestinian human rights organizations, the unbelievable proliferation of Kaepernick’s protest and division of allegiances in American (that continues), in a more negative lens, the Charlottesville / post Charlottesville capacity of hate groups to find each other, align, grow through networks, and protest publically.
This reminds me, quite literally, of the images of protests in squares are the MENA region during the Arab Spring that Tufekci discusses. She 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 she uses 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 what she terms an “avalanche of dissent.” Tufekci quotes historian Melvin Kranzberg from 1985: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” This foreshadows her central message. For better or worse, the technologies that power the networked public sphere have changed the nature of political protest as well as government reactions to and suppressions of such protest.