Shift Forum Reads

Fake News, Information Warfare and the Modern State: How Did We Get Here?

Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: An essential read for students of technology, society, and politics

It took me longer than I expected to read Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, and longer still to write up this review (I began reading the book when it came out this past summer). That’s not necessarily the best way to open an essay on an important topic, but at least it’s honest. While its title promises a popular history of the kind of social media activism that sparked movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the Arab Spring, the book is in fact a far more nuanced, and often academic study of the impact digital platforms have had on political change over the past two decades. But if we are to understand more recent developments such as information warfare and fake news, we must bend into the work of scholars like Tufekci.

Hers is the kind of writing our democratic society desperately needs more of, at a time when it seems our leaders are determined to ignore the reasoned, methodical thinking Tufecki advances in her work. That’s frustrating, especially, I imagine, to the author, but then again, a sense of injustice is always at the heart of political protest.

Tufecki is a professor at the University of North Carolina specializing in the intersection of social movements and technology. She grew up in Turkey, where she witnessed firsthand the tumult and bloodshed of that nation’s 1980 military coup — the third of its young life as a fragile republic (in the book she also tells the story of Turkey’s fourth attempted coup, just last year). A student of the internet and a well-traveled global activist, Tufekci brings an anthropological “participant observer” mindset to her work. She’s not only studied mass protest movements around the world, she’s actively engaged in them as well.

Tufekci begins her book by breaking down what she calls “networked protest,” identifying both the strengths and the weaknesses afforded by new technologies like cell phones, social networks, and communication apps. By studying the robustness of earlier movements (in particular the Civil Rights era), she explains how networked protests can suffer from a lack of social infrastructure, obviating the early impact of, say, a call to action which quickly draws thousands into the streets.

The popularized theories of Twitter and Facebook’s impact on authoritarian regimes are unsophisticated and misleading, Tufekci writes. It’s exciting to watch a hashtag like #Occupy of #Gezi fill the squares with protest, but far more mundane to study how those movements settle into their power (or fail to). But Twitter and Tear Gas does just that, resulting in a deep understanding of political protest in an age of instant communication.

One of the books most revealing narratives explores how governments have responded to networked protest. Initially, Tufekci writes, most governments failed to understand the power digital technologies have unleashed. But in recent years regimes have wised up to the platforms, and begun to use them in ever more effective ways — a lesson both China and Russia have learned well.

“Rather than a complete totalitarianism based on fear and blocking of information,” she explains, “the newer methods include demonizing online mediums, and mobilizing armies of supporters or paid employees who muddy the online waters with misinformation, information glut, doubt, confusion, harrasment, and distraction, making it hard for ordinary people to navigate the networked public sphere, and sort facts from fiction, truth from hoaxes. Many governments target dissidents by hacking and releasing their personal and private information to try to embarrass or harass them, rather than acting directly.”

She continues: “Whereas a social movement has to persuade people to act, a government or a powerful group defending the status quo only has to create enough confusion to paralyze people into inaction.”

In other words, information warfare is a two-way street. How might protest movements stay ahead of ever more sophisticated government tactics? By understanding and signaling their unique capacities, which Tufekci ably breaks into component parts, including a movement’s ability drive a particular narrative, affect change, and disrupt the status quo.

There’s far more in this book than a short review can possibly cover, including a revelatory analysis of Facebook’s social architecture and its impact on society, important thinking on the roles algorithms play in determining political outcomes, and vexing issues of propaganda, filter bubbles, anonymity, and privacy. In short, many of the core issues frustrating democracy today. As Tufekci concludes, “Like the printing press and the industrial revolution, this historical transformation in digital connectivity and computing is a complex, dialectical processes with no clear teleology, no predetermined outcome or preset group of winners and losers.” The best we can do is inform ourselves, and a close read of Twitter and Tear Gas is an excellent place to start.

Get the book:

(For a deeply engaging review of Tufekci’s thinking and work, listen to her conversation with Sam Harris here. Well worth the time).

Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest is one of many books we’re reading at NewCo as we prepare for the conversation at the Shift Forum this February. Others include Bellamy’s Looking Backwards, Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism, Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, Tim O’Reilly’s WTF, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis, Scott Galloways’ the Four and many others. If you’re interested in Shift Forum’s new Reads program, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter here.

See all the books we are reviewing here:

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