In 2009, a group of Harvard researchers made an accidental discovery. While building a computer program to read Chinese text, they realized that they were able to track what the Chinese government would censor and what it would not. First, they looked at social media posts that criticized the government or government officials; it seemed a natural place to start. But this wasn’t what was being censored. What really got the attention of China’s hundred-thousand censors was one word: “protest.” It isn’t the words that the Chinese government fears—it’s what the actions those words might enable.
Zeynep Tufekci, author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, tells the story of these Harvard researches and many others to explain how words on social media turn into actions. Professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Tufekci has participated in movements as various as the Zapatista uprising, the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in 2011, Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests in 2013, and Occupy Wall Street. She recounts the hopeful, almost giddy atmosphere at the beginning of the Arab Spring, and the possibilities opened up by technologies such as Twitter. “Activists were able to overcome censorship, coordinate protests, organize logistics, and spread humor and dissent with an ease that would have seemed miraculous to earlier generations,” she writes. “Thanks to digital technologies, ordinary people have new means of broadcasting—the potential to reach millions of people at once.” Moreover, the pervasiveness of cell-phone cameras has given private citizens the ability to document protests or violence and spread information instantly. The “traditional gatekeepers” of the media—newspapers, magazines, official state sources, etc.—lose some of their ability to dictate how protests should be understood.
Social media also have the potential to decrease “pluralistic ignorance,” the phenomenon of people being kept apart to ensure that they won’t unite and pose a threat to established power. Through Twitter hashtags especially, it’s possible to overcome feelings of powerlessness by connecting with people who think or feel as you do.
The ability to find a group of like-minded individuals almost-instantly changes the dynamic of any political movement. Today mobilization tends not to be directed from the top down by an organizing committee; rather, it is horizontal, becoming what thousands or tens of thousands make it. For example, during the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Egypt, protesters were in desperate need of medical supplies. Ahmed Abulhassan, a pharmacology student who was not involved in the protests, created a Twitter profile, @Tahrirsupplies, and used Twitter’s “mention” function to engage activists. The new profile gathered information about needs and supplies in one place, coordinating suppliers and deliveries in real time. Tufekci emphasizes the novelty of this: an ordinary person, not a prominent activist or even someone with very many Twitter followers, was able to coordinate a global network.