How online social movements translate to offline results

By Sam Weber and Laura Fong

HARI SREENIVASAN: The day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, an estimated 3.5 million people in cities around the country and the world took part in the Women's March protesting the Trump agenda in what may have been the largest collective protest in American history. The march started with a single Facebook post and grew from there. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Professor Zeynep Tufekci was one of those faces in the crowd.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Marches are great, they're really empowering to people, but the magic isn't really in the streets by itself or any online action. It's when you look at the action when you're say, a legislator, thinking, 'Hmm, if they can march with a million people what else can they do?'

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tufekci teaches in the School of Information at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and is the author of the new book, "Twitter and Tear Gas: the Power and Fragility of Networked Protest."

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI, AUTHOR OF TWITTER AND TEAR GAS: The twist in the 21st century seems to be since we can a do things much easier with digital technology, they don't necessarily have the same level of teeth a similar action say a March on Washington might have 30, 40, 50 years ago, because that was a result of a long process of organizing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 took six months to organize — arranging buses, bag lunches, singers and speakers, for a quarter of a million who attended. Tufekci says the march was a show of strength for the Civil Rights Movement built over the previous 10 years.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: It pushed the people in power to take the threat pretty seriously.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One year later, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. More recently, Tufekci cites the success of the conservative "Tea Party" movement. It began in the spring of 2009 with a viral video.

RICK SANTELLI, CNBC'S SQUAWK BOX, FEBRUARY 2009: This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Followed by tax day protests around the country. By the November 2010 midterm elections, the movement had a measurable impact.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: They got 50 plus Congress people. They essentially blocked President Obama's second term agenda, and arguably, they elected a president that they like, so it just shows what the protest leads to depends on what happens next.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In 2011, on the other side of the political spectrum, one email, inspired by the Arab Spring protests, started "Occupy Wall Street." Within weeks, it was a movement with encampments all over the country. But when the camps came down, "Occupy" had little to show for its agenda.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: On the one hand, it was really powerful in bringing to people's attention something that was important: inequality. But if you look at the electoral results or at sort of the policy, it wasn't taken as a threat. And the people in power just didn't really change their way: inequality hasn't gone down, we don't have any new legislation that tries to dampen inequality. So you can sort of see that the digital technology empowered both of them, but they start taking different turns right after, with really different consequences.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The ease of organizing and mobilizing online has led to a common critique. For a while, it was just considered "slacktivism." Is it too easy, just to click a link and signal that I like this and I don't like this? How does it translate into action?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: I think it's a great first step. So, that's why I don't like the term "slacktivism." I don't think it's slacking in anything to click. It could be a very powerful first step. Even if it stops there, it's got power. The question is: How do you take that very widespread, but relatively shallow level of engagement and give people who clearly wanting to do something else, right? How do you organize it so that more people can step and say, "Here are things you could do collectively," and by doing it collectively along the way you'll build those important skills of decision-making together and hanging together.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While activists adopted digital technology tools, governments tried and failed to disrupt them. For instance, Tufekci points to the 2011 protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: The government just didn't know what to do, so they just shut off the internet, which completely backfired, it was the absolute wrong thing to do if you were a government. Because it just brings attention, and a lot of parents who were getting news from their kids in Tahrir Square the cell phones were also cut.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But governments have also learned how to use digital technology. Five years later, during an attempted coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan relied on digital technology — his iPhone Facetime app — to rally supporters against rebellious soldiers.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: It was really sort of amazing to watch this. It was just this little screen, but it confirmed to the country that he was alive. They realized very quickly that the internet, and digital technology would be on their side to counter this coup.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You point out how crucial Twitter and Facebook were in getting people to come out to the street. But you also point out that there's a tremendous amount of power on these platforms now and the way that the algorithms are designed, could actually determine the success or failure of a movement?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Absolutely. For example, Facebook, uses an algorithm, a computer program to choose how to rank what it shows you. So if you don't see something from someone, maybe Facebook isn't showing it to you. For a social movement that's incredibly consequential.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It was consequential in the summer of 2014, as protests erupted on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer.

Early on, Tufekci says, the protests got a lot of attention on Twitter but less so on Facebook because of another viral sensation: the Ice Bucket Challenge.

ZEYNEP TUFECKI: Facebook kept showing me the Ice Bucket Challenge, even if it was from weeks ago kept showing the same thing. You know how you go on and there's baby picture, baby picture, it just shows you things that are cute and cuddly and that get the "likes," and that's how it operates. For a social movement, trying to break into the public sphere that could mean a form of algorithmic censorship because the algorithm likes certain things and doesn't like certain things.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tufekci says the motivations of social media companies and social movements are not necessarily aligned.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: In the end, it's a platform that is based on delivering you ads, and they want to sort of keep you on there with things that will keep you on there. And all of their business models aren't necessarily in the interests of what the movements are trying to do long term.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How does the Women's March or Black Lives Matter how do they sustain themselves and turn themselves into powerful actors that can be a threat to whomever it is that they want to force change through?

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Right. The lesson I take from all of my research into this isn't stop using digital technologies. It's recognize what they're good for, and use them fully what they're good for. But really recognize what they're not good for. You can use a hashtag to get millions of people to the street, but you can't use a hashtag to figure out how does a group of 100 people in one zip code figure out who is going to run for school board. It's going to come to a hybrid model, where we use tech for what it's good for but not be blinded by the power it gives us in some areas and ignore that it's actually weakening us in other areas by helping us scale up almost too fast. You know you are going from 0 to 100 miles in just a month or two you need a better steering wheel than a Facebook group.

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