Zeynep Tufekci: Why Are Social Causes Easy To Launch But Hard To Win? These days, all it takes to start a protest is a cell phone, says professor Zeynep Tufekci. But does the ease of social media impede social movements from making big gains?
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Why Are Social Causes Easy To Launch But Hard To Win?

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Why Are Social Causes Easy To Launch But Hard To Win?

Why Are Social Causes Easy To Launch But Hard To Win?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So, organization can be born out of a crisis, but sometimes, it just happens.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Let's say there's 10 of you in a room and you're all bored. and you're watching a talk, but nobody knows that everybody's bored. You know, everybody thinks, I'm the only one bored and this must be fascinating - you know, you're just kind of forcing yourself to act interested. And then somebody gets up and says, this is so boring. And everybody goes, I think so too. Right?

RAZ: Right.

TUFEKCI: That's what social media does. It can create a synchronized moment where everybody gets together.

RAZ: This is Zeynep Tufekci. She studies how that dynamic happens on a global scale and how social media fuels protest movements.

TUFEKCI: I find them very fascinating aspects of human societies, when a bunch of people get together and say, we'd like to change something.

RAZ: In 2011, Zeynep went to Cairo's Tahrir Square to see how those protests gained steam through social media. And then in 2013, when she started hearing about protests in Istanbul, just blocks from where she was born, Zeynep knew right away...

TUFEKCI: I have to see this thing that's happening that has never happened in Turkey, which is a spontaneous, leaderless, grassroots social media-fueled new kind of movement.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Shouting).

RAZ: This was the Gezi Park protest in Turkey back in 2013. It originally started as a demonstration to protect a park, but then it turned into a protest against the government.

TUFEKCI: Tens of thousands of people, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, just showed up.

RAZ: And they created a sort of pop-up community right there in Gezi Park.

TUFEKCI: They organized a food distribution. There was a soundstage. There were workshops and there was yoga, and somebody remarked to me it was almost like being retired in the world's greatest retirement community, except you got tear-gassed occasionally.

RAZ: But this was all done primarily on social media at first.

TUFEKCI: It's both, right? I mean, there's a lot of people who are discussing in person and then they start following each other on Twitter. The social media part is integral to it because you can do by just a few people what would've taken hundreds of people maybe, without these tools.

RAZ: This is how movements start now. The Green revolution in Iran, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, all driven by the power of social media. But as technology makes organizing easier, it also raises a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TUFEKCI: Why haven't successful outcomes become more likely as well?

RAZ: Here's Zeynep's TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TUFEKCI: In embracing digital platforms for activism and politics, are we overlooking some of the benefits of doing things the hard way? I believe so. I believe that the rule of thumb is easier to mobilize does not always mean easier to achieve gains. To understand this, I went back to Turkey about a year after the Gezi protests and I interviewed a range of people, from activists to politicians, from both the ruling party and the opposition party and movements. I found that the Gezi protesters were despairing. They were frustrated and they had achieved much less than what they had hoped for. This echoed what I'd been hearing around the world from many other protesters that I'm in touch with. And I've come to realize that part of the problem is that today's protests have become a bit like climbing Mount Everest with the help of 60 Sherpas, and the Internet is our Sherpa. What we're doing is taking the fast routes and not replacing the benefits of the slower work.

RAZ: Like, for example, the slow painstaking work that went into building the civil rights movement - because imagine the sheer logistics that took. It didn't just start one day when Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. That moment was the culmination of a lot of planning and organizing. For one thing, Rosa Parks had been involved with the NAACP.

TUFEKCI: And she wasn't the first person to refuse to go to the back of the bus. There had been many before. It's just, that was chosen by the organization as the right moment.

RAZ: So how did one woman's arrest lead to a citywide protest in just a few days?

TUFEKCI: To our modern, maybe 21st century eyes and ears, it might be like, I'll put it on Facebook. Well, you won't - there is none. Right? I'll put it on television. No - you will be censored. So they had about 68 organizations that already crisscrossed the town of Montgomery, which is how they got the word out. People called each other, talked to each other, distributed leaflets. Now, these people who were boycotting the buses, the black workers, they have to go to work. So they organized this massive system of carpools. So what they had to do was basically meet every day, almost, just to take care of the arduous logistics. It's not a simple undertaking. They operated a shadow bus company for a year with no budget. And that is quite impressive.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TUFEKCI: The civil rights movement in the United States navigated a minefield of political dangers, faced repression and overcame, won major policy concessions and navigated and innovated through risks. In contrast, three years after Occupy sparked that global conversation about inequality, the policies that fuel it are still in place. Europe was also rocked by anti-austerity protests, but the continent didn't shift its direction. In embracing these technologies, are we overlooking some of the benefits of slow and sustain?

RAZ: I mean, you think about the civil rights movement or the women's rights movement or the gay rights movement, and they seem so enduring. But then you think about Arab Spring or Occupy or Gezi Square, and you wonder what happened to them.

TUFEKCI: They follow a different trajectory. We've seen a pattern in terms of how these movements go bust in the initial phase. All of a sudden, you go from zero to 100 miles an hour. And when the repressive forces come at you, that's the first curve that very fast car has to turn. And they've only been together 10 days. That doesn't give you enough organizational depth. It's not just about whether formal or informal. There's something that comes from working together and making decisions day in and day out over a long period of time. You know, you develop ways of trusting each other and you develop ways of decision-making together that this way of participating in movements, I think, doesn't allow them to learn how to do.

RAZ: It would seem like the difference between like, the civil rights movement and these other movements is pretty clear - that it's organization, that's the difference.

TUFEKCI: I would say organization is probably the key difference. To be fair of course, things are very young and we've just started and it's not like the civil rights movement found the right organizational form on day one. You know, you can use technology to do things in an ad hoc manner. Or you can use it to build long-lasting communities that know how to think together. But again, it has to be reflective and thoughtful because if you just sort of say, oh, here's my hash tag and I'm just going to sort of get something big, that doesn't lead to the next step either. The organizational question looms really large over these wave of movements.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TUFEKCI: Movements today have to move beyond participation at great scale very fast and figure out how to think together collectively, develop strong policy proposals, create consensus, figure out the political steps and relate them to leverage because all these good intentions and bravery and sacrifice by itself are not going to be enough. To understand all this, I interviewed a top official from a ruling party in Turkey and I asked him, how do you do it? They too use digital technology extensively, so that's not it. So what's the secret? Well, he told me. He said the key is he never took sugar with his tea. I said, what has that got to do with anything? Well, he said his party starts getting ready for the next election the day after the last one, and he spends all day every day meeting with voters in their homes, in their wedding parties, circumcision ceremonies, and then he meets with his colleagues to compare notes. With that many meetings every day, with tea offered at every one of them - which he could not refuse because that'd be rude - he could not take even one cube of sugar per cup of tea because that would be many kilos of sugar, and he'd even calculate exactly how many kilos, and - that point I realized why he was speaking so fast. We had met in the afternoon. He was already way over-caffeinated. But his party won two major elections within a year of the Gezi protests, with comfortable margins. Now, to be sure, governments have different resources to bring to the table, it's not the same game. But the differences are instructive. And like all such stories, this is not a story just of technology. It's what technology allows us to do converging with what we want to do.

RAZ: Do you think that humans are like, almost naturally inclined to organize, like, almost like it's part of our DNA?

TUFEKCI: Yes. Yes, people I've interviewed tell me that they've never felt better in their lives than they do in the middle of that protest, in that middle of occupation. And in fact, I think that's what draws a lot of people to protests, is that in our everyday life, we're not that empowered, you know? A lot of times, our job is routine and we're told what to do. And in a protest situation, you're like, here - empower yourself and do things. And people do amazing things. The question is, how do you take that amazing energy and build a lasting organization that's not just about taking care of immediate needs, but about decision-making and staying together and navigating?

RAZ: Zeynep Tufekci is a professor at UNC Chapel Hill. You can see her full talk at ted.npr.org. More ideas about organizing in a moment. I'm Guy Raz and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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