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
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
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
RICK SANTELLI, CNBC’S SQUAWK BOX, FEBRUARY
2009: This is America.
How many of you people want to pay for your
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
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
HARI SREENIVASAN: In 2011, on the other side
of the political spectrum, one email, inspired
by the Arab Spring protests, started “Occupy
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
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
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
So, that’s why I don’t like the term “slacktivism.”
I don’t think it’s slacking in anything
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
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
Because it just brings attention, and a lot
of parents who were getting news from their
kids in Tahrir Square the cell phones were
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
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
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
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
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
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.