Social Media and Social Movements: An Evolving Relationship


February 11th, 2015

I recently read an article by Hamza Shaban with the provocative title “How Social Media Can Weaken a Revolution.” The primary focus of the piece was a Journal of International Affairs paper with a more scholarly title, “Social Movements and Governments in the Digital Age: Evaluating a Complex Landscape.” The article also contained comments from the paper’s author, Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the School of Information at the University of North Carolina, and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

As its title suggests, Tufekci’s paper examines the evolving dynamic between digitally-empowered social movements and the governments they are attempting to influence (or, in some cases, overthrow). Regarding the former, the paper’s key insight appears to be that:

Social media both empowers new digitally-fueled movements and contributes to their apparent weaknesses… The ability to scale-up quickly using digital infrastructure has empowered movements to embrace their horizontalist and leaderless aspirations, which in turn have engendered new weaknesses after the initial phase of street actions ebbs. Movements without organizational depth are often unable to weather such transitions.

As to government’s response to these movements, Tufekci observes that:

While digital media create more possibilities to evade censorship, many governments have responded by demonizing and attacking social media, thus contributing to polarized environments in which dissidents have access to a very different set of information compared to those more loyal to the regime. This makes it hard to create truly national campaigns of dissent.

Contrasting recent developments in Turkey and Egypt, as well as the U.S.-centric Occupy movement with earlier civil rights and Vietnam War protest movements, Tufekci says:

Digital infrastructure helps undertake functions that would have otherwise required more formal and long-term organizing which, almost as a side effect, help build organizational capacity to respond to long-term movement requirements. Working together to take care of the logistics of a movement, however tedious, also builds trust and an ability to collaborate effectively. Consequently, many recent movements enter into the most contentious phase, the potential confrontation with authorities, without any prior history of working together or managing pivotal moments under stress.

Though noting critiques of the Internet’s role in society as leading to “slacktivism—the tendency to click on links or like posts rather than taking concrete actions or steps,” Tufekci takes a more nuanced approach. Referring to Charles Tilly’s four characteristics of successful social movements—worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment—she suggests that digital social media readily support the first three, but that the fourth characteristic, commitment, is more challenging. At the same time, she notes that “street actions are also not magic wands for social movements.” They “can and do falter,” she observes, “often because they lose the fight for worthiness in the public eye.”

Citing her own research, Tufekci notes that:

The impact of online, symbolic acts depends on a great many factors, including the political opportunity structure, the willingness and ability of the state to enforce repression, and elite cohesion.

…capacity weakness has often emerged in some movements towards the end of street protests, when the initial energy has waned and governments have begun to employ more repressive methods, such as what happened in the Gezi protests in Turkey, which were forcibly dispersed. Sometimes, the stress may come from multiple factors, such as weather turning less favorable for protesting, as with the Occupy movement…In such moments, protesters accustomed to organizing in an ad hoc manner through digital technologies or via completely horizontal methods, like assemblies, often find themselves unable to respond to government actions or to decide their next course of action.

But, as Shaban’s article notes, Tufekci is not arguing that these movements aren’t and can’t be successful. “Even with Egypt, where authoritarians are back in force,” she contends, “it’s still too early. Occupy is too early, Ferguson is too early. As a different way of looking at it, I want to ask: what’s the capacity being built?”

In her paper, Tufekci proposes a “capabilities and signals” approach to understanding “the complex consequences of digital infrastructure on social movement trajectories,” explaining that she is “adopting Amartya Sen’s “capabilities” approach from development economics and applying it to political movements.”

Sen’s approach calls for a look at capabilities—functionalities an actor can undertake—rather than outputs as the true measure of development or progress. In human development, this means focusing on indicators such as literacy, health, and well-being. It gives people agency and the capability to carry out further acts—as opposed to GDP, which merely measures economic output. With signals, I am referring to the idea that protests are, among many other things, signals of capacity to power, especially with regard to capacity for disruption, negotiation, and the challenging of power.

In protest movements, this means focusing on the capabilities that are developed, rather than what participants can do at any one moment, and the signals those capabilities can send. An examination of movement capabilities that focuses on outcomes misses the profound changes brought about by technology. By allowing protesters to scale up quickly, without years of preparation, digital infrastructure acts as a scaffold to movements that mask other weaknesses, especially collective capacities in organizing, decisionmaking, and general work dynamics that only come through sustained periods of working together.

Tufekci’s focus on developing and sustaining “commitment” (per Tilly) and “capabilities” (per Sen) seems sensible to me, and I invite others more knowledgeable in this field to share their perspective and suggestions for further reading and follow-up research.

By highlighting these challenges facing digital media-powered social movements, Tufekci’s analysis underscores for me the importance of developing digital tools that support sustainable growth of both commitment and capabilities within movements and programs aimed at social change–whether these are focused mainly on the political arena (as in Tufekci’s analysis) or on support for basic needs and economic and social development, which are the focus of our ICT4Detroit initiative and Professor Steinfield’s ICT4Development research.



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2 thoughts on “Social Media and Social Movements: An Evolving Relationship”

  1. William Dutton says:

    Thanks for bringing this article to my attention. The conclusions are fine, understandable, but the critique of online actions that precede the concluding argument is inconsistent in that it takes a substitution perspective: Online organisation does not replace face-to-face, street or institutional activities, but provides new capabilities to them. Of course, institutions have a greater ability to maintain activity overtime, while online collective activities are more difficult to sustain, but institutions can use online media, and online collectives are often not institutionalised. The huge benefit of this is that they are more indestructible. So I agree with where this ends up, but the argument seems to be set up on a straw man.

  2. I agree with most of what you say, Bill. But perhaps I wasn’t clear in summarizing Tufekci’s paper. I don’t think she’s saying that online organizations replace face-to-face, street or institutional activities.

    What I think she’s saying is that newly formed social movements that use social media to ramp up very quickly in size and initial impacts (especially disruptive impacts) may lack the organizational characteristics to deal effectively with the impacts of their disruption as they unfold.

    Though I haven’t studied it carefully myself, I think this might have been the case in Egypt, where the grassroots forces favoring real democracy and human rights were largely pushed aside as the Muslim Brotherhood exerted (and then abused) the institutional power it had developed over many years. This happened even though the pro-democracy forces were initially very effective at using digital media to mobilize people and protests, and attract supporters around the world.

    Similarly, Occupy did some very impressive things with social media (as well as on-the-ground volunteer energy) to grow, publicize and gain support for its message and movement. But, from what I’ve read, it didn’t develop a strong, durable and quick-responding structure for decision-making and planning.

    Of course, this might not have been its goal, and I’m pretty sure that was the case for at least some portion of Occupy participants.

    So I think it’s reasonable to argue that both the Egyptian pro-democracy and Occupy movements used social media to expand their scope of activity faster than they built the kind of decisionmaking systems needed to continually adapt to complex and changing situations and dynamics, and the strategies and tactics of those who sought to weaken or discredit their movement.

    Are you (or anyone else reading this) aware of any good studies of these issues related to Occupy, Egypt or any of the other examples cited by Tufekci (e.g., Turkey, Tunisia)? If so, I’d like to take a look at them.

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