Social movements and governments in the digital age: evaluating a complex landscape.

Author:Tufekci, Zeynep
Position:Media and Technology

Recently, social movements have shaken countries around the world. Most of these movements have thoroughly integrated digital connectivity into their toolkits, especially for organizing, gaining publicity, and effectively communicating. Governments, too, have been adapting to this new reality where controlling the flow of information provides new challenges. This article examines the multiple, often novel, ways in which social media both empowers new digitally-fueled movements and contributes to their apparent weaknesses in seemingly paradoxically ways. This article also integrates the evolving governmental response into its analysis. Social media's empowering aspects are real and profound, but these impacts do not play out in a simple, linear fashion. 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. 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. This article provides an overview of this complex, evolving environment with examples ranging from the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt to the Occupy movement.


An Egyptian activist who participated in the initial Tahrir Square uprising in Cairo, which eventually resulted in the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, told me that she felt as though the activists had more influence before the revolution, especially in the online world. (1) Digital infrastructure empowers protest movements in specific ways, and recent uprisings and large protests around the world have provided indications of this power. However, some of the same mechanisms of digitally-fueled empowerment have paradoxically led to disempowering side effects. Further, many governments have developed methods to respond to this new information environment, which allows for fewer gatekeeper controls, by aggressively countering these new movements, often with a combination of traditional repression as well as novel methods aimed at addressing online media.

The outcomes of movements certainly vary. The Occupy movement has had great success in focusing the conversation on inequality, but has been less effective in changing the policies that sustain it. (2) Austerity policies in Europe continue despite large numbers of protesters carrying out sustained occupations in multiple countries, including Spain and Greece. (3) In Turkey, within a year of the Gezi Park protests the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won two major elections with comfortable margins. (4)

Digital infrastructure may be said to follow a trajectory common to other disruptive technologies. (5) Governments' initial waves of ignorance and misunderstanding quickly gave way to learning about the medium's strengths and weaknesses, as well as the development of new methods to counter dissent. However, changes to a movement's capabilities that broaden its ability to coordinate actions or to publicize its cause are real as well. Hence, the sense of diminishing online influence expressed by the Egyptian activist to whom I spoke is a story not only of a transformed online sphere, but also of other actors learning to play a new game by new rules. This includes both resorting to old-style repressive measures and applying novel adaptations to a more open, less easily controlled public sphere. This article follows that arc and dicusses the ways in which online social media empowers protesters and dissidents, as well as some of its weaknesses and the evolving responses of governments.

Social media-fueled protests have broken out in many countries, ranging from traditional Western democracies like the United States' Occupy and Spain's Indignados, to emerging democracies, such as Turkey and Ukraine. Despite the idiosyncrasies of each case, there are enough similarities among these movements' trajectories to draw some conclusions about the impact of social media on protest movements, both in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.

Social media have greatly empowered protesters in three key areas: public attention, evading censorship, and coordination or logistics. Old forms of gatekeeping, which depended on choke point access control to few broadcast outlets, neither work as effectively nor in the same way as they did in the past. Digital technologies provide a means by which many people can reach information that governments would rather deny them. Street protests can be coordinated on the fly. However, this does not mean that social media have exclusively empowered protesters; they have also aided governments and other factions of society by providing them with tools they can also use to their advantage. Furthermore, the influence of social media on the practice of protest has complex and sometimes unexpected results, including weak policy impacts and threats to the sustainability of movements.


Thanks to the Internet, public attention and gatekeeping have been altered in most countries. (6) Take the example of Turkey, where the government, along with acquiescent media conglomerates, has been increasingly controlling broadcast media via political and financial pressure. These magnates view producing mass media to the government's liking as a means to curry favor with a powerful regime that can dispense valuable commercial contracts in areas including the energy, construction, and automotive industries.

Increasingly, mass media in Turkey, which has never been a perfect model of press freedom, has become muted in areas that were not to the government's liking, such as reporting on corruption, violence, or extralegal influence on the government's economic policies. A striking example was the aerial bombing of smugglers from Roboski, a Kurdish village near Turkey's border with Iraq, more than a year before the Gezi Park protests. This bombing, which killed thirty-four Kurdish smugglers on a routine border run, was widely known within Turkish newsrooms, but was being censored until editors received government approval to cover the event. (7) This story, however, broke after a single journalist, Serdar Akinan, decided he would no longer wait for government approval. Using his own money to travel to Roboski, Akinan soon found himself in the midst of a devastating scene--a grief-stricken funeral procession snaking around a hilltop with dozens of coffins being carried by wailing mourners. (8)

Though at the time this event was well known among the Kurdish population, who had alternative news sources and interpersonal social media, coverage of this event was completely censored in the Turkish press. Akinan snapped a picture on his cell phone, uploaded it to Instagram, and tweeted it out. In an instant, an absolute news blackout was broken as the poignant images traveled rapidly and widely through online social networks. This eventually forced mass media to cover the story, initiating perhaps the biggest public relations crisis for the government to date.

About a year after the incident, as I interviewed hundreds of protesters at Istanbul's Gezi Park protests, which seemingly had erupted from nowhere, journalists used similar methods to break media censorship. (9) Some protesters cited a moment of awakening upon seeing Akinan's photo of the Roboski funeral a year ago in their social media feeds and then turning on the television and realizing the depth of censorship. (10) From then on, they learned to turn to social media for more reliable news, causing Turkish citizens to be vigilant for the next instance of censorship.

When the Gezi protests erupted from a seemingly small tussle over the future of a public park--though the redevelopment of the park embodied fundamental issues of control, authority, and urban development---Turkish television stations continued to practice their established methods of censorship. Multiday clashes between protesters and police became so intense that CNN International was broadcasting live from Istanbul. Meanwhile, CNN Turk was instead broadcasting a documentary about penguins. Other Turkish television networks showed everything from cooking shows to talk programs--anything but the biggest news story of the year--as they nervously waited for direction from the government. One angry viewer moved his two televisions together: one was tuned to CNN Turk and its penguins, while the other was tuned to CNN International broadcasting amidst tear gas and clashes in Taksirn. The viewer tweeted the picture out. The photo went viral, and from then on, many protesters dubbed their compliant, muted media the "penguin media." (11) Over the next few weeks, as the government struggled to gain control of the narrative, protesters turned to social media--and sometimes international news outlets--to follow the protests.

Perhaps nowhere was the role of social media more iconic than in Egypt, which spawned many articles reflecting on the use of social media in social movements. However, it should be noted that social media's impact in Egypt was partly due to the fact that the country went from an extremely controlled public sphere to a fairly open one in a short period of time. (12) The effects of the introduction of the Internet were weaker in societies that were already more open, such as Western countries, because they did not experience the catalyst of going from a very controlled public sphere to an open, almost chaotic one in just a few years.

In Egypt, the fall of Mubarak was followed...

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