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Interview with Zeynep Tufekci: Television, Internet and the Expansion of Rights

Zeynep Tufekci is a professor of information and sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society where she will soon be speaking about her findings from field research

by David Sasaki On September 20, 2011

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Unlike two years ago, this year I won’t have the time to summarize all the interesting presentations and discussions from the Ars Electronica Symposium. Isaac and I divided the day into two parts. In the morning we focused on countries that had already experienced some sort of revolution or mass mobilization. In the afternoon we switched to countries that have been much more successful at resisting dissent despite the best efforts of dedicated activists.

Leading up to the symposium I sent some interview questions out to the morning’s speakers in order to set some basic context. Interviews with Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni and Spanish-Syrian activist Leila Nachawati are both available on the Ars Electronica website. What follows is my interview with Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish professor of information and sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society where she will soon be speaking about her findings from field research in Egypt. You can see a video of her presentation at Ars Electronica on YouTube.

DS: I first discovered your writing earlier this year when you published a critique of Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion at The Atlantic’s technology blog. Evgeny was with us at Ars Electronica two years ago where he discussed the concept of “slacktivism” and Max Ringelmann’s research into social loafing. But in your critique you write that Morozov’s “dismissiveness of the ways in which the Internet can be part of a challenge to authoritarianism and promote citizen empowerment” leaves his analysis unbalanced. A lot has happened since January. Over the past seven months, what have we seen as examples of how the Internet has played a role challenging authoritarianism and promoting citizen empowerment?

ZT: I would consider the Tunisian and Egypt uprisings to be key such examples — obviously social media is only one part of a complex picture of events which culminated in the ousting of dictators in these regimes but it’s also clear that these new tools have helped the break regime’s attempts at censorship, help support the public sphere as well as helping activists organize. Often, the last part gets the most attention, i.e. whether activists organized using these new tools. However, it is more than that–the key transformation is the creation of a new media ecology composed of satellite television channels which circumvent monopoly of state’s on the broadcast arena, and, in the case of the Middle East and North Africa Region, help focus the attention of the region to a particular event; cell phones with video capabilities which turn ordinary citizens and activists into potential journalists and create eyes and ears pretty much everywhere and, of course, social media tools which allow of a radically different infrastructure of connectivity. The fact that the state can use these tools to create surveillance is true but represents a continuity with the past as surveillance has been a major part of these regimes for decades. Even surveillance, however, can become less effective if these tools can help support large numbers of people express their opposition as no regime can effectively arrest and jail millions of people for long periods of time. Thus, for small dissident groups and minorities, the dangers of surveillance and selective punishment remain high with or without social media; for countries like Egypt where there was widespread but repressed opposition, mass expression of dissent on social media may make it harder for the regime to prosecute everyone.

DS: Lately I have been thinking a lot about 1968, the “year that rocked the world,”according to Mark Kurlansky. In his book he reminds us that the youth of 1968 were the first generation to grow up with television at home. Sean O’Hagan, writing at the Guardian, writes that the same-day newscast didn’t exist until the previous year. He quotes the political prankster Abbie Hoffman, who helped organize the violent protests at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention: “a modern revolutionary group headed for the television, not for the factory.” It seems like there was this sense of optimism that television was a liberating technology, and that it would help the protesters achieve meaningful social change. But, in fact, other than attracting media coverage, the youth had very few channels for meaningful policy engagement. In hindsight, the protests of 1968 drew a lot of attention, but achieved very little concrete change. Are we seeing the same dynamic play out today with the first generation to grow up with home computers?

ZT: I am going to disagree here. The 1968 era should be evaluated not just as one year but the period around those years with student activism only part of the story. Television was a crucial part of the story of the civil rights movement and research demonstrates this as well. Television showed millions of Americans the brutality required to keep African-Americans subjugated and made it politically impossible for legal segregation to continue as is. Television also helped spread the civil rights movement especially among Black college students who saw the protests occurring elsewhere and decided to start their own lunch-counter sit-ins, for example. So, it helped extend the reach of the institutional structure of the civil rights movement. As for calling the 1968 protests as having achieved very little “concrete change”, I beg to differ. Yes, we are far short of utopia here but without that era, my life as a female academic would be profoundly different and maybe not even possible–and I wouldn’t call the end of legal segregation small change. For many people who are not wealthy, white or male, a life in the pre-1960s era would be far more impoverished and limited compared to today. Does this mean I don’t recognize the deep problems we continue to face? Of course, not. However, social change is almost always like that. Two steps forward, one step back, some gains, some losses — the key is to look at whether progress is being made and I would find it very hard to argue that the 1968 era was not a crucial turning point for individual rights, for women, for non-white people and even for men who wanted to step outside the limited boundaries of 1950s masculinity. Television has been very reactionary and a force against positive social change as well –and continues to be so– but I believe that it was a factor in the success of a non-violent civil rights movement.

DS: Along with the excitement and jubilation surrounding the revolution in Egypt, there has also been a fair amount of skepticism about its chances of bringing about true democratic consolidation. University of Texas professor Dave Perry called the Egyptian revolution a typical “anti-power” movement. In his words, “the protestors were clearly saying no to Mubarak but what kind of power they were saying yes to was less than clear.” Writing for Al Jazeera, Esther Dyson expressed her concern that Egyptian youth are not yet aware that running a government is not as easy as “running a Facebook group.” And on your own blog, you wrote that so-called “leaderless revolutions “often quickly evolve into very hierarchical and ossified networks not in spite of, but because of, their initial open nature.” Then in May you traveled to Egypt. What did you find?

ZT: In Egypt, I found the youth movement struggling to define their role in the new revolutionary process. The military council remains in power and there are existing institutional opposition movements like the Muslim Brotherhood which are better prepared for electoral politics. The youth movement is debating how to organize, how to proceed, how to be effective in shaping the future of their country. These issues will likely not be resolved in the near future and we will see a significant evolution. However, it’s important to recognize that just a year ago, the youth movement struggled to hold protests of more than a few hundred people and freedom of expression was severely limited. In Egypt, the most profound change I saw was that you could turn any street corner and find people vigorously debating politics and the future of their country. This did not used to happen. People did not openly opine and debate about the future of their country. In that sense, this is not a reversible change and is sign of a profound transformation. It won’t however, culminate in a neat democracy that everyone around the world will like in just a few years. It will be messy, there will be set-backs and I may not personally like all the ideas that end up with political support. All democratic transitions are messy, non-linear and complicated and no reason to assume Egypt would be an exception.

This article was originally published on David Sasaki’s blog

Photo Credits: Flickr CC personaldemocracy, Mataparda and x-ray delta one

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