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How has social media changed protest movements? A sociologist weighs in

Angel Nwadibia (center) walks around a circle of protesters, handing her megaphone to people to continue a chant in support of Gaza on April 22, 2024. Protesters throughout the morning filled the streets of downtown New Haven with chants such as “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has go to go" and “Disclose, divest. We will not stop, we will not rest.”
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Angel Nwadibia (center) walks around a circle of protesters, handing her megaphone to people to continue a chant in support of Gaza on April 22, 2024. Protesters throughout the morning filled the streets of downtown New Haven with chants such as “Hey hey, ho ho, the occupation has go to go" and “Disclose, divest. We will not stop, we will not rest.”

As protests spread across America against Israeli military tactics in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, experts on political movements are keeping an eye on what’s next.

Yale, the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan are among the Connecticut schools that have had these pro-Palestinian protests occur on campus. Some have argued these protests are the biggest American protests of the 21st century. But if these protests are indeed bigger, one scholar who has studied protests extensively questions whether today's technology-facilitated protests are actually more effective than protests of the past.

“That's really been a character of digitized protest movements from Occupy (Wall Street) to other ones where they would have a very big spread and they would catch on, but it would be followed by the policies they wish to change, not changing,” said Zeynep Tufekci, Princeton professor, New York Times columnist and author of the book “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power And Fragility Of Networked Protest.”

“If you sort of organize based on using social media, you get very big very quickly. But the strategic question of ‘how do you make your university change its policies?’” she said. “Very often, those movements don't have what it takes to strategize for the next step, so they don't necessarily get to be as effective.”

Tufekci compared what’s happening in the digital age to the anti-war and racial equality protests of the '60s, the anti-apartheid protests of the '80s, Tiananmen Square in 1989, to the “Arab Spring” in the 2010s and other large, passionate protest movements aimed at changing society.

Tufekci pointed to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as an example of how not having access to social media to facilitate their movement was actually an advantage in that it facilitated face-to-face relationships and cohesive group problem solving.

“[It] took them six months just to organize the logistics of the March on Washington because you couldn’t just put it on a hashtag on social media. But that meant that [the] organizational structure they built helped them navigate what came afterwards,” Tufekci said.

As for the current pro-Palestinian protests, Tufekci is impressed with the news that, at least at Yale, protest organizers are limiting their group to “approved” chants.

“So that's interesting because that's message discipline," Tufekci said. “That's something a lot of movements in the [recent] past didn't do as well. They didn't have proper boundaries over what they said and did not say as a group. And in fact, given the accusations of antisemitism, it's extra important for them to disallow antisemitism and distance themselves from anybody, either within them or around them, that might say something antisemitic or hold such views. So that sounds like they're trying.”

Tufekci is hopeful this is a sign new protest movements are evolving.

“It's so early that I don't know whether it's something that represents a lesson learned from previous movements or not, but trying to sort of maintain the movements representation and its boundaries is a form of organization,” Tufekci said. “They're trying to do it on the fly. That sounds like a change, but we will see how it plays out.”

John Henry Smith is Connecticut Public’s host of All Things Considered, its flagship afternoon news program. He's proud to be a part of the team that won a regional Emmy Award for The Vote: A Connecticut Conversation. In his 21st year as a professional broadcaster, he’s covered both news and sports.