Taking On The New Authoritarians

Zeynep Tufekci, Karin Petterssion and Georg Diez

It was a premiere: We took our podcast live, to Stockholm’s Kulturhuset, and the guest was perfect, somebody we had wanted to talk to for a long time, the techno-sociologist, activist, author, professor Zeynep Tufekci.

Her Book “Twitter and Tear Gas” about the revolts and protests of the recent past, from the Mexican Zapatistas in the 1990s to the anti-capitalistic clashes in Seattle in 1999 to Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and the Arab Spring and the Gezi protests in Istanbul in 2014 offers a fascinating account both of the power and the peril of technologically enhanced or generated activism.

As Tufekci says: “Social networks allow us to scale our protest, to organize, to assemble, we find each other much easier. In the past it took you ten years to build the momentum you can create in a week today. But in those ten years you built an infrastructure, an organization, a powerful structure. Today you go from zero to 100 miles in a few seconds and you enter the first curve and you realize you haven’t built the steering wheel.”

These protests, she claims, were all very beautiful – “but they don‘t threaten power”, says Tufekci who started out optimistically thinking about the democratic and emancipatory potential of technology and went from „they cannot stop this“ to „they can“.

To make her point, she drew a parallel between sexual harassment and authoritarian regimes: “What they have in common is that they isolate you from each other, make you feel you are a minority. That is no longer possible, to separate the person from the information. But what authoritarian regimes still can do is flooding the space with misinformation.”

The result of this: You cannot tell the signal from the source. The new authoritarians, from Trump to Erdogan, challenge the very credibility of information, and they can do that because the traditional gate-keepers, the legacy media, have weakened and failed. This, of course, is just one of the implications of the major technological transformation that we witness.

The attention economy is more and more not only determining what we see and read and focus on, it is a way of structuring our lives and whole societies. Facebook is the key player here. They have the money and the tools to manipulate and influence and even decide elections, using machine learning and algorithmic tweaks. Still, Tufekci is both very optimistic and pessimistic “that we can solve this – if we can get our act together”. We have everything in place, she says, “but the politics”.

What these algorithms do, and this is an example from YouTube, is that they are constantly trying to push you to the edges, “seducing you into the hardcore”, as Tufekci says. The consequence is that “we have built our public sphere on these two giant monopolies” who generate outrage and cute stuff, “sugar, salt fat”, as Tufekci says, and Facebook is a place where this is served breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The solution for Tufekci is to change the incentive structure. “There needs to be a public discussion about targeted advertisement.” She does not believe in boycott, “because we don’t have the market power at the moment”. And also, she repeats, “it is the place where we meet”. There is so much good potential, “the tools are there, Tufekci says, “we just have to use them”.

What that means, on an abstract level, it that we have to address the question of how to merge the criticism of power with a vision of what to do with that power: “that’s the political project”, Tufekci says. On a pragmatic level, she points out, that for example the present election cycle is not a perfect way to exercise the power of the people.

“We don’t need to do that anymore”, she very simply says, there are other means like liquid democracy – but she is also frank enough to say that she does not know the one way forward. Which is okay, she insists. Because what she argues for is that ultimately in order to break out of the phlegma of the present we need experimenting, “experimenting with compassion”.

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