Social Media-Driven Protests Have Large Bark but No Bite

Social media has had a large impact on the way that protests and movements are organized around the world. Prominent examples of these include the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement and most recently the Gezi Park protests in Turkey. Today, the Center for Technology Innovation hosted an event to examine how social media is impacting government, the public sector, and the relationship between governments and citizens around the world.

Darrell West (@DarrWest), director of the center and also vice president and director of Governance Studies at Brookings, introduced panelists Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep), an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, and Faruk Eczacibasi (@farukec), chairman of the Turkish Informatics Society.

Tufekci stated that “there were certain similarities in how these protests were playing out.” Youth usage of social media was one of these overarching similarities. According to Tufekci, “Thanks to social media they really have it fairly easy compared to previous generations in terms of finding each other and finding their voice.” Growing youth unemployment, said Tufekci, also encourages these types of movements.

Both Tufekci and Eczacibasi related their own experiences of these new social-media-organized protests. Tufekci explained how she heard about the environmental protests in Turkey’s Gezi Park in Taksim Square through social media, attended the protest, and then, when she was tear gassed, began communicating about it through social media, which then spurred more attendance to the protest.

The panelists spoke about the “boom, bust” cycle of these sorts of social-media driven protests. Tufekci called the boom, bust cycle, the “hallmark of these movements.” Tufekci noted that while these protests garner much support, they rarely translate to classical electoral changes. These protests had a “large bark but no bite,” she said. 

Eczacibasi, rather than calling it a “boom, bust” cycle, referred to it as a “hype cycle.” He was, however, optimistic about the lasting transformation that the technology would incur in the long run: “There will be a boom, there will be a bust, but when those youngsters start to get into productive lives, when they get jobs, when they find their own established lives, they will use these tools in their own way.” He continued that “all the generations from now on will be digital.” Eczacibasi called this moment “a turning point in our civilization.”

Both speakers agreed that there is a disconnect between the government and the young generation. Eczacibasi pointed out that governments are not in the position to judge the young generation. According to Eczacibasi, governments do not use technology and new media in productive institutional ways, but “that does not mean that it will not be.” According to Eczacibasi, the first instinct of government is to manipulate social media. Yet, “the people using social media are much more able to adapt themselves to changes … if they get the feeling that they are being manipulated they will find ways to use social media more effectively.”

Tufekci agreed that governments tend to lean toward censorship and propaganda in new media. Using China as an example, Tufekci pointed out that “the first thing that always gets deleted is if you complain about the censors.”

According to both panelists, however, censorship and government surveillance can only be successful to a certain extent. “If you are twenty people this is really bad for you … if there are a million of you it’s much harder.” When there is mass participation in social media efforts, Tufekci stated, “I’m not really thinking that governments can rely on their surveillance capacity.” Eczacibasi believes that new social media will lead to new forms of government, “the major party system … will be replaced in the future much more by representative voices.” Tufekci observed that “a lot of governance relied on people not finding each other and not realizing that they were in the majority … I think that way of governance is on the way out.” However, she also spoke about the negatives of new representation stemming from social media and Internet organization. “Negotiation makes a lot of things happen,” she said, “you have a lot of people coming to power without negotiation.” As a result, “they come in as outsiders and you see this play out in governance.”

Social media is also changing the way in which people interact with information. “Until now,” Eczacibasi said, “media was always one sided.” There was always one side providing the information and the other receiving the information. Tufekci expanded on this: “there is no more audience per se.” Younger generations have become accustomed to being part of the conversation by commenting, tweeting or posting about their ideas and experiences. Tufekci said of her students that “my students are not used to this world where they can’t talk back, they don’t understand this one way communication.”

Get full audio of the panel discussion here.

Colleen Lineweaver contributed to this post.