Excerpt from After the Protests
By ZEYNEP TUFEKCIMARCH 19, 2014
Yet often these huge mobilizations of citizens inexplicably wither away without the impact on policy you might expect from their scale.
This muted effect is not because social media isn’t good at what it does, but, in a way, because it’s very good at what it does. Digital tools make it much easier to build up movements quickly, and they greatly lower coordination costs. This seems like a good thing at first, but it often results in an unanticipated weakness: Before the Internet, the tedious work of organizing that was required to circumvent censorship or to organize a protest also helped build infrastructure for decision making and strategies for sustaining momentum. Now movements can rush past that step, often to their own detriment.
In Spain, protesters who called themselves the Indignados (the outraged) took to public squares in large numbers in 2011, yet the austerity policies they opposed are still in effect. Occupy Wall Street filled Lower Manhattan in October 2011, crystallizing the image of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent without forcing a change in the nation’s widening inequality. And in Egypt, Tahrir Square protesters in January 2011 used social media to capture the world’s attention. Later that year, during clashes in the square, four people in their 20s used Google spreadsheets, mobile communication and Twitter to coordinate supplies for 10 field hospitals that cared for the wounded. But three years later, a repressive military regime is back in power.
Thousands of people turned out in Istanbul last June to defy the government’s plan to raze Gezi Park, in spite of the fact that the heavily censored mass media had all but ignored the initial protests, broadcasting documentaries about penguins instead of the news. Four college students organized a citizen journalism network that busted censorship 140 characters at a time. I met parents at the protests who were imploring their children to teach them how to use Twitter as it became a real-time newswire, an organizing tool and a communication device for those in the park and its surroundings. One protester told me, “Internet brings freedom.”
But after all that, in the approaching local elections, the ruling party is expected to retain its dominance.
Compare this with what it took to produce and distribute pamphlets announcing the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Jo Ann Robinson, a professor at Alabama State College, and a few students sneaked into the duplicating room and worked all night to secretly mimeograph 52,000 leaflets to be distributed by hand with the help of 68 African-American political, religious, educational and labor organizations throughout the city. Even mundane tasks like coordinating car pools (in an era before there were spreadsheets) required endless hours of collaborative work.