In February 2003, the largest demonstration in Britain’s history saw two million people march across London to protest the approaching Iraq War. Dozens of other cities across the world saw similar events, and yet.
Why did politicians feel safe ignoring the millions who participated in those marches—yet stand down after the protests against the proposed intellectual property laws SOPA and PIPA? Why did Occupy apparently vanish while the Tea Party has embedded itself into US national electoral politics? How much did Facebook really have to do with the Arab Spring? How—and this is the central question technosociologist Zeynep Tufecki considers in her new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest—do digital media change the reality and effectiveness of social protest?
Over the quarter-century since the Internet went mainstream, much has been written and argued about digital technologies’ ability to transform disparate individuals into a movement. Dismissives argue that social media-fueled movements are too fragile and their participants too uncommitted to achieve much. (Writing in Slate, Tufecki found that tone in Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion, despite broad agreement that oppressive governments are sufficiently smart and motivated to harness these technologies for self-preservation.) Online-protest optimists saw the Arab Spring as evidence that these enabling tools create democratic change. And there are those who presume that governments will never be digitally literate or quick enough to take advantage, an early example being John Perry Barlow’s 1996 essay A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.