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'Twitter And Tear Gas' UNC Professor On Technology And Social Movements

Protests in Charlotte Sept. 21, 2016
Tom Bullock

Monday, July 31, 2017

A closer look at the power of technology on social movements. How it works and the impact of the online world on the real world.

There's no doubt that social media has changed the world in ways we never could have imagined. One area it seems to have had an impact on is the modern protest.

From the Arab Spring to Moral Mondays and the Occupy movement, Facebook and Twitter users have used their networks for social activism and to find like-minded people. But how does online activism translate into a real life movement? Can technology effect real change in the world?

Credit Zeynep Tufekci
Zeynep Tufekci at an protest in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013. The helmet was to protect her from flying tear gas canisters.

UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci is a 'techno-sociologist' who studies technology, society and how social networks spark protest movements. Her new book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest explores the power of technology in mobilizing people. She talks with Mike Collins about modern protest movements in the age of Twitter.

Some highlights from the show: 

How Facebook, Twitter and Instagram impact social movements

“They have different impacts and different connectivity architectures. Facebook is more often used to connect with people we already know, whereas Twitter is more suited for following people you have no other offline interactions with. Each social media brings something different to social movements, but they have something in common. It’s much easier to find likeminded people and coordinate with them to form social movements.”
“A core thing that makes a movement happen is you can’t do them by yourself. If you have a grievance, are you the only person? Regimes and governments who try to control social movements try to keep people isolated. If you think you’re the only person you won’t really be motivated to do something. Social media can jumpstart your process, but there is another kind of work –infrastructure building locally.”

Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, professor

University of North Carolina

Social movements then and now

“In the past ten years there’s been three to four times more social movements and protests than previous years, it’s gotten easier. It works for every kind of group. Everybody can find people who think like them, join forces, fine tune their messages and coordinate to form a social movement.”
“The Women’s March can go from a Facebook post to one of the largest marches ever in the history of the United States within a couple of months. There’s something misleading about what this means. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ was a powerful moment in the passage of civil rights legislation. It took them ten years to get to the point to hold it. It wasn’t just Facebook back then, you had to organize infrastructure and the logistics.”

Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, professor

University of North Carolina

Power in numbers and attention

“What’s really threatening to politicians isn’t the number of people in the street, but what those people mean to that persons hold on power. For humans, ‘I am not alone’ is a very powerful feeling. If something is going to turn into a movement, that’s the first thing you want. People aren’t slacking from activism, they’re saying ‘here I stand,’ which opens many doors.”
“The numbers getting larger don’t necessarily indicate strength. Right now we have too much information and what matters is what you’re paying attention to. Blocking information is a losing battle. Try to smother the attention that’s the oxygen to a movement. For example you can create distractions, create attention on some other subject.”

Dr. Zeynep Tufekci, professor

University of North Carolina


Dr. Zeynep Tufekci - Associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina; faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard; contributing Op-Ed writer for The New York Times. She is the author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest

Erin Keever is Senior Producer of WFAE's Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. She has been with the show since joining the station in 2006. She's a native Charlottean.