Zeynep Tufekci: Online social change: easy to organize, hard to win

Recorded atOctober 13, 2014
EventTEDGlobal 2014
Duration (min:sec)16:01
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute145.97 slow
Readability (FK)44.5 very difficult
SpeakerZeynep Tufekci

Official TED page for this talk


Today, a single email can launch a worldwide movement. But as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci suggests, even though online activism is easy to grow, it often doesn't last. Why? She compares modern movements -- Gezi, Ukraine, Hong Kong -- to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and uncovers a surprising benefit of organizing protest movements the way it happened before Twitter.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 So recently, we heard a lot about how social media helps empower protest,
200:17 and that's true,
300:19 but after more than a decade
400:20 of studying and participating in multiple social movements,
500:24 I've come to realize
600:26 that the way technology empowers social movements
700:29 can also paradoxically help weaken them.
800:32 This is not inevitable, but overcoming it requires diving deep
900:36 into what makes success possible over the long term.
1000:40 And the lessons apply in multiple domains.
1100:43 Now, take Turkey's Gezi Park protests, July 2013,
1200:47 which I went back to study in the field.
1300:50 Twitter was key to its organizing.
1400:52 It was everywhere in the park -- well, along with a lot of tear gas.
1500:56 It wasn't all high tech.
1600:58 But the people in Turkey had already gotten used to the power of Twitter
1701:02 because of an unfortunate incident about a year before
1801:05 when military jets had bombed and killed
1901:09 34 Kurdish smugglers near the border region,
2001:13 and Turkish media completely censored this news.
2101:18 Editors sat in their newsrooms
2201:20 and waited for the government to tell them what to do.
2301:23 One frustrated journalist could not take this anymore.
2401:25 He purchased his own plane ticket,
2501:27 and went to the village where this had occurred.
2601:29 And he was confronted by this scene:
2701:32 a line of coffins coming down a hill, relatives wailing.
2801:38 He later he told me how overwhelmed he felt,
2901:40 and didn't know what to do,
3001:42 so he took out his phone,
3101:44 like any one of us might,
3201:45 and snapped that picture and tweeted it out.
3301:49 And voila, that picture went viral
3401:52 and broke the censorship and forced mass media to cover it.
3501:57 So when, a year later, Turkey's Gezi protests happened,
3602:00 it started as a protest about a park being razed,
3702:03 but became an anti-authoritarian protest.
3802:05 It wasn't surprising that media also censored it,
3902:09 but it got a little ridiculous at times.
4002:12 When things were so intense,
4102:14 when CNN International was broadcasting live from Istanbul,
4202:18 CNN Turkey instead was broadcasting a documentary on penguins.
4302:25 Now, I love penguin documentaries, but that wasn't the news of the day.
4402:29 An angry viewer put his two screens together and snapped that picture,
4502:34 and that one too went viral,
4602:36 and since then, people call Turkish media the penguin media. (Laughter)
4702:40 But this time, people knew what to do.
4802:42 They just took out their phones and looked for actual news.
4902:45 Better, they knew to go to the park and take pictures and participate
5002:50 and share it more on social media.
5102:52 Digital connectivity was used for everything from food to donations.
5202:58 Everything was organized partially with the help of these new technologies.
5303:03 And using Internet to mobilize and publicize protests
5403:08 actually goes back a long way.
5503:10 Remember the Zapatistas,
5603:12 the peasant uprising in the southern Chiapas region of Mexico
5703:17 led by the masked, pipe-smoking, charismatic Subcomandante Marcos?
5803:22 That was probably the first movement
5903:24 that got global attention thanks to the Internet.
6003:27 Or consider Seattle '99,
6103:29 when a multinational grassroots effort brought global attention
6203:34 to what was then an obscure organization, the World Trade Organization,
6303:38 by also utilizing these digital technologies to help them organize.
6403:43 And more recently, movement after movement
6503:45 has shaken country after country:
6603:48 the Arab uprisings from Bahrain to Tunisia to Egypt and more;
6703:53 indignados in Spain, Italy, Greece; the Gezi Park protests;
6803:58 Taiwan; Euromaidan in Ukraine; Hong Kong.
6904:02 And think of more recent initiatives, like the #BringBackOurGirls hashtags.
7004:07 Nowadays, a network of tweets can unleash a global awareness campaign.
7104:14 A Facebook page can become the hub of a massive mobilization.
7204:18 Amazing.
7304:20 But think of the moments I just mentioned.
7404:24 The achievements they were able to have, their outcomes,
7504:29 are not really proportional to the size and energy they inspired.
7604:34 The hopes they rightfully raised are not really matched
7704:38 by what they were able to have as a result in the end.
7804:42 And this raises a question:
7904:46 As digital technology makes things easier for movements,
8004:50 why haven't successful outcomes become more likely as well?
8104:54 In embracing digital platforms for activism and politics,
8205:00 are we overlooking some of the benefits of doing things the hard way?
8305:04 Now, I believe so.
8405:05 I believe that the rule of thumb is:
8505:07 Easier to mobilize does not always mean easier to achieve gains.
8605:12 Now, to be clear,
8705:15 technology does empower in multiple ways.
8805:18 It's very powerful.
8905:19 In Turkey, I watched four young college students
9005:23 organize a countrywide citizen journalism network called 140Journos
9105:28 that became the central hub for uncensored news in the country.
9205:32 In Egypt, I saw another four young people use digital connectivity
9305:37 to organize the supplies and logistics for 10 field hospitals,
9405:41 very large operations,
9505:43 during massive clashes near Tahrir Square in 2011.
9605:49 And I asked the founder of this effort, called Tahrir Supplies,
9705:53 how long it took him to go from when he had the idea to when he got started.
9805:59 "Five minutes," he said. Five minutes.
9906:01 And he had no training or background in logistics.
10006:04 Or think of the Occupy movement which rocked the world in 2011.
10106:07 It started with a single email
10206:09 from a magazine, Adbusters, to 90,000 subscribers in its list.
10306:15 About two months after that first email,
10406:18 there were in the United States 600 ongoing occupations and protests.
10506:24 Less than one month after the first physical occupation in Zuccotti Park,
10606:30 a global protest was held in about 82 countries, 950 cities.
10706:37 It was one of the largest global protests ever organized.
10806:39 Now, compare that to what the Civil Rights Movement had to do in 1955 Alabama
10906:46 to protest the racially segregated bus system, which they wanted to boycott.
11006:52 They'd been preparing for many years
11106:54 and decided it was time to swing into action
11206:56 after Rosa Parks was arrested.
11306:58 But how do you get the word out --
11407:00 tomorrow we're going to start the boycott --
11507:02 when you don't have Facebook, texting, Twitter, none of that?
11607:08 So they had to mimeograph 52,000 leaflets
11707:13 by sneaking into a university duplicating room
11807:16 and working all night, secretly.
11907:18 They then used the 68 African-American organizations
12007:22 that criss-crossed the city to distribute those leaflets by hand.
12107:26 And the logistical tasks were daunting, because these were poor people.
12207:31 They had to get to work, boycott or no,
12307:33 so a massive carpool was organized,
12407:36 again by meeting.
12507:38 No texting, no Twitter, no Facebook.
12607:40 They had to meet almost all the time to keep this carpool going.
12707:44 Today, it would be so much easier.
12807:46 We could create a database, available rides and what rides you need,
12907:51 have the database coordinate, and use texting.
13007:54 We wouldn't have to meet all that much.
13107:57 But again, consider this:
13207:59 the Civil Rights Movement in the United States
13308:02 navigated a minefield of political dangers,
13408:07 faced repression and overcame, won major policy concessions,
13508:12 navigated and innovated through risks.
13608:16 In contrast, three years after Occupy sparked
13708:19 that global conversation about inequality,
13808:22 the policies that fueled it are still in place.
13908:25 Europe was also rocked by anti-austerity protests,
14008:29 but the continent didn't shift its direction.
14108:33 In embracing these technologies,
14208:36 are we overlooking some of the benefits of slow and sustained?
14308:42 To understand this,
14408:44 I went back to Turkey about a year after the Gezi protests
14508:47 and I interviewed a range of people,
14608:49 from activists to politicians,
14708:53 from both the ruling party and the opposition party and movements.
14808:58 I found that the Gezi protesters were despairing.
14909:01 They were frustrated,
15009:03 and they had achieved much less than what they had hoped for.
15109:06 This echoed what I'd been hearing around the world
15209:09 from many other protesters that I'm in touch with.
15309:12 And I've come to realize that part of the problem
15409:15 is that today's protests have become a bit like climbing Mt. Everest
15509:21 with the help of 60 Sherpas,
15609:23 and the Internet is our Sherpa.
15709:26 What we're doing is taking the fast routes
15809:30 and not replacing the benefits of the slower work.
15909:34 Because, you see,
16009:35 the kind of work that went into organizing
16109:38 all those daunting, tedious logistical tasks
16209:41 did not just take care of those tasks,
16309:44 they also created the kind of organization that could think together collectively
16409:48 and make hard decisions together,
16509:51 create consensus and innovate, and maybe even more crucially,
16609:55 keep going together through differences.
16709:58 So when you see this March on Washington in 1963,
16810:03 when you look at that picture,
16910:05 where this is the march where Martin Luther King gave his famous
17010:08 "I have a dream" speech, 1963,
17110:11 you don't just see a march and you don't just hear a powerful speech,
17210:15 you also see the painstaking, long-term work that can put on that march.
17310:21 And if you're in power,
17410:22 you realize you have to take the capacity signaled by that march,
17510:27 not just the march, but the capacity signaled by that march, seriously.
17610:31 In contrast, when you look at Occupy's global marches
17710:35 that were organized in two weeks,
17810:37 you see a lot of discontent,
17910:38 but you don't necessarily see teeth that can bite over the long term.
18010:43 And crucially, the Civil Rights Movement innovated tactically
18110:47 from boycotts to lunch counter sit-ins to pickets to marches to freedom rides.
18210:54 Today's movements scale up very quickly without the organizational base
18310:58 that can see them through the challenges.
18411:00 They feel a little like startups that got very big
18511:04 without knowing what to do next,
18611:06 and they rarely manage to shift tactically
18711:09 because they don't have the depth of capacity
18811:11 to weather such transitions.
18911:14 Now, I want to be clear: The magic is not in the mimeograph.
19011:19 It's in that capacity to work together, think together collectively,
19111:25 which can only be built over time with a lot of work.
19211:28 To understand all this,
19311:30 I interviewed a top official from the ruling party in Turkey,
19411:34 and I ask him, "How do you do it?"
19511:36 They too use digital technology extensively, so that's not it.
19611:40 So what's the secret?
19711:42 Well, he told me.
19811:43 He said the key is he never took sugar with his tea.
19911:50 I said, what has that got to do with anything?
20011:53 Well, he said, his party starts getting ready for the next election
20111:56 the day after the last one,
20211:58 and he spends all day every day meeting with voters in their homes,
20312:02 in their wedding parties, circumcision ceremonies,
20412:04 and then he meets with his colleagues to compare notes.
20512:07 With that many meetings every day, with tea offered at every one of them,
20612:12 which he could not refuse, because that would be rude,
20712:15 he could not take even one cube of sugar per cup of tea,
20812:20 because that would be many kilos of sugar, he can't even calculate how many kilos,
20912:24 and at that point I realized why he was speaking so fast.
21012:27 We had met in the afternoon, and he was already way over-caffeinated.
21112:32 But his party won two major elections
21212:37 within a year of the Gezi protests with comfortable margins.
21312:40 To be sure, governments have different resources to bring to the table.
21412:43 It's not the same game, but the differences are instructive.
21512:47 And like all such stories, this is not a story just of technology.
21612:51 It's what technology allows us to do converging with what we want to do.
21712:56 Today's social movements want to operate informally.
21812:59 They do not want institutional leadership.
21913:02 They want to stay out of politics because they fear corruption and cooptation.
22013:07 They have a point.
22113:08 Modern representative democracies are being strangled in many countries
22213:11 by powerful interests.
22313:14 But operating this way makes it hard for them
22413:17 to sustain over the long term and exert leverage over the system,
22513:21 which leads to frustrated protesters dropping out,
22613:24 and even more corrupt politics.
22713:27 And politics and democracy without an effective challenge hobbles,
22813:32 because the causes that have inspired the modern recent movements are crucial.
22913:39 Climate change is barreling towards us.
23013:42 Inequality is stifling human growth and potential and economies.
23113:47 Authoritarianism is choking many countries.
23213:49 We need movements to be more effective.
23313:52 Now, some people have argued that the problem is
23413:55 today's movements are not formed of people who take as many risks as before,
23514:01 and that is not true.
23614:03 From Gezi to Tahrir to elsewhere,
23714:06 I've seen people put their lives and livelihoods on the line.
23814:09 It's also not true, as Malcolm Gladwell claimed,
23914:12 that today's protesters form weaker virtual ties.
24014:14 No, they come to these protests, just like before,
24114:18 with their friends, existing networks,
24214:21 and sometimes they do make new friends for life.
24314:23 I still see the friends that I made
24414:26 in those Zapatista-convened global protests more than a decade ago,
24514:29 and the bonds between strangers are not worthless.
24614:32 When I got tear-gassed in Gezi,
24714:34 people I didn't know helped me and one another instead of running away.
24814:40 In Tahrir, I saw people, protesters,
24914:43 working really hard to keep each other safe and protected.
25014:46 And digital awareness-raising is great,
25114:48 because changing minds is the bedrock of changing politics.
25214:51 But movements today have to move beyond participation at great scale very fast
25314:59 and figure out how to think together collectively,
25415:02 develop strong policy proposals, create consensus,
25515:06 figure out the political steps and relate them to leverage,
25615:10 because all these good intentions and bravery and sacrifice by itself
25715:13 are not going to be enough.
25815:15 And there are many efforts.
25915:17 In New Zealand, a group of young people are developing a platform called Loomio
26015:21 for participatory decision making at scale.
26115:24 In Turkey, 140Journos are holding hack-a-thons
26215:28 so that they support communities as well as citizen journalism.
26315:32 In Argentina, an open-source platform called DemocracyOS
26415:35 is bringing participation to parliaments and political parties.
26515:39 These are all great, and we need more,
26615:42 but the answer won't just be better online decision-making,
26715:46 because to update democracy, we are going to need to innovate at every level,
26815:52 from the organizational to the political to the social.
26915:56 Because to succeed over the long term,
27016:00 sometimes you do need tea without sugar
27116:03 along with your Twitter.
27216:04 Thank you.
27316:06 (Applause)