The Power of a Protest
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Last weekend, one year into the Trump administration and one year after the historic postelection's Women's March, protesters gathered once more to show their resistance to the administration and its policies. Researchers estimate that between 1.6 and 2.5 million people participated in women's marches held in the United States last weekend, one of the largest organized protests in human history.
[SOUND OF CHANTING]
Yet, the media coverage was sparse and perfunctory. The major Sunday talk shows hardly mentioned the protests. According to Media Matters, only NBC's Meet the Press had significant discussion of the march, for a whopping 20 seconds. Compare this, for example, with the wall-to-wall coverage of the protests in Ferguson and Charlottesville, where property damage and violence figured in.
If 2 million trees fall in the forest and the press is elsewhere chasing a porn star, do they make a noise? The answer, says techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci is yes, but impact isn’t necessary a function of story count or even head count.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Well, it is one indicator but it’s usually a misleading indicator these days because when we think of millions of people in the streets, we tend to compare it, in our heads, with past protests that were similarly large.
[SOUND OF MARCHERS SINGING]
And if the March on Washington is most clear for many young people, imagine what can be done with millions in the streets.
MARCHERS SINGING: We shall overcome someday.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: So that’s kind of the way the thinking goes about it. But there’s a twist to the story and it’s not that millions of people on the streets don’t matter, of course, they do. It’s just true that current technology makes it easier to bring out millions of people into the streets. The March on Washington was a combination of 10 years of movement building, and just planning that March took six months of intense activity, whereas the first Women’s March last year went from a Facebook post to a large national protest in just a few months. And this current one kind of flew under the radar, too. It didn’t really take that kind of intense organization. So it doesn’t really indicate the same kind organizing muscle a similar protest of the past might have met.
BOB GARFIELD: In your book, you talk about the power of social movements being the sum of three discrete capacities for attracting and influencing individuals. What are they?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: The protest, itself, has a capacity for changing the narrative, like the Ferguson protest. They got our attention on something that had been going on for a while in this country but was not the priority for people outside the affected community. Protests or social movements can also have disruptive capacity. That’s when you have large-scale civil disobedience and you say, we are not gonna to let things go on the same way as before. They can also have electoral institutional capacity, and that’s the capacity to threaten politicians.
BOB GARFIELD: Occupy and Black Lives Matter both have ample narrative capacity.
[SOUND OF CHANTING]
Unarmed men and boys being shot down by police is about as vivid as it gets and --
[SOUND OF CHANTING]
-- 99% under the heel of 1% is a pretty compelling elevator pitch. Tahrir Square?
[SOUND OF EGYPTIAN PROTESTORS CHANTING]
Taking on a dictator at who knows what cost, all quite dramatic but compared to, let’s say, the mass civil disobedience in India under British colonization or the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, would you say that Occupy and Black Lives Matter are otherwise uncapacious?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Well, see, I don't want to say that they didn't matter because they were hugely important and in many ways they changed people's lives, and it’s just very new, right? And so, who knows how much more effect they will have. The thing is though in the past, you can think of the protest as an exclamation mark at the end of a long sentence, whereas right now it’s just the first word in a potential sentence. And I think that’s the key lesson of my book, is not that current protests are unimportant. In fact, I’ve marched and protested my whole life and will continue to do so. But they are no longer an indicator the way they were in the past. The Occupy movement was very interesting in its ability to tap into a deeply resonant and hugely important issue, inequality, which has been increasing since, but by its politics it was very resistant to use that resonance to contest elections and it was very much against doing post-Occupy organizing in other ways, too. And it ended up like leaving us with great slogans and --
BOB GARFIELD: And it's brought the far left into the political conversation.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: It has done a lot of things but, by itself, it didn't really engage with power ‘til the Bernie Sanders campaign. A large number of Occupy veterans decided that if you sit out contesting power, it’s not like power sits on its hands and says, okay, fine, right and, you know, it just continues on its march. So I would say, in some ways, the Sanders campaign is somewhat of an outgrowth of the energy that got riled up but couldn't find a place to go.
BOB GARFIELD: You use an analogy in your book from the relationship between predators and prey called signaling.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: So the biological analogy is this: Certain kinds of gazelles, when they’re grazing, all of a sudden they’ll just jump up very high, and it seems to be like a really stupid thing because, you know, you’re grazing and there are predators and lions and tigers around and you’re, like, oh, look at me, I can jump really high, like, why are you putting yourself on the menu? But when they jump high, they're not necessarily saying, oh, look, eat me for lunch, they’re saying, look how high I can jump, and if I can jump this high, I can run really fast because the muscles for jumping and the muscles for running are the same thing. So you’re kind of signaling how strong you are.
And I tend to think of social movements, and especially the street protests or online anything, like, it could be online presence or street protests, as a kind of signal, too. When you get together as millions of people, just being there is not really a threat to anyone. The threat is, look, if we can do this, think what else we can do, right? So that’s why I think the easier a protest is to do, the less power it signals.
Now, to give you a very concrete example, it used to really matter if you called your representative. Like, if they got 100 calls in a day they freaked out because that to them signaled there was something major underlying, whereas right now a large number of apps you can just press a button and it will place the calls for you. So, all of a sudden, it’s actually gotten easier for people to organize and make 100 calls. And you know what, I talk to congressional staffers, they don't care anymore because the magic wasn't in the number of calls, the magic was what did the number of calls signal? So they don’t really care about calls anymore but they still care very much on how many people show up at a town hall or come to the office because there is no shortcut to that, yet. So, if you’re trying to protest something, the best analytic framework is how does this look to the person that I'm protesting?
BOB GARFIELD: So going down the list of capacities and getting back to the Women's March, what with the lack of dead bodies and burning buildings and all, the, the narrative seemed to leave the media unimpressed, but what else do you see happening that may ultimately determine the impact of the anti-Trump protests?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: So the Women’s March is really interesting in that it did go from very little preparation to a giant national march last year, but it has some significant differences with the other movements we kind of studied, including especially Occupy, is that it really is a women's march. The organizers, in fact, a vast majority, if not all of the organizers, have been women, yes, the participants have been of all genders but it has also got these currents which are very different than a lot of other protest movements, which are high-energy young people, a lot of men, a lot of students, whereas Women’s March has kinda led to this movement of mostly middle age, mostly women, a lot of them not really engaged in the political arena before but have been very focused on building electoral strength. And it is happening in lots the ways. There’s a record number of women running for office. They’re doing a lot of organizing.
See, the thing is there are certain stories, certain narratives that are harder to make their way to media. It’s also harder for them to make their way into Hollywood movies, like, they’re more complicated. Instead of about individuals, they’re about the social fabric and sociology. Instead of having a single hero, they have thousands, maybe millions of people working together. Instead of having flashy moments, they’re kind of long-term ground building. And if that’s what's happening, and I seem to be seeing a lot of that actually happening, that’s the kind of thing that could have major consequences. And they're not getting the kind of attention because, just like women's work in many other spheres, it is ignored ‘til it makes a bang.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you believe that the, the media have underreported the story and where do you see the coverage headed?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Both parties are being reshaped in fundamental ways and there is a lot of, let’s-go-understand-the-Trump-voter kind of media stories, which, you know, arguably, maybe that was under covered and arguably that’s not a wrong thing to do by itself, but you are not seeing a similar effort to understand the Democratic Party base in its complexity because they’re on fire. Like, I have been in this country for a while, I have seen a lot of movements. I have been involved in political movements my whole life. And it’s one of the most [LAUGHS] energetic movements I've ever seen. And if you just sort of look at the day-to-day media coverage, you’d just think there's, there are some ripples but not that much. There’s this whole wave trying to happen and I think it’s really worth looking into.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s kind of mind boggling because one year ago the conversation that was going on in the press is that there was this great political shift that we just never saw coming. Is it possible that in, whatever it is, 10 months from today, we’re going to be having exactly the same conversation [LAUGHS] and chiding ourselves for exactly the same reasons?
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: It may well be that the effort fizzles, partly because it’s not recognized and supported or it could be it breaks through anyway and then we'll have the same conversation and people will say, oh look, record number of women elected or a wave election and how did we miss this? And I will say the same thing, in that the real story isn’t who pulls the better stunt, the real story is what is happening between those stunts? There is an enormous amount of fabric building, political fabric building that is being led by women that I think will be quite transformational. How soon will it play out and what else is playing out, I'm not a betting person, I wouldn't bet, but I will say this -- that there’s this wave that is just trying to make its way and it’s eventually going to make itself felt.
BOB GARFIELD: Zeynep, thank you so much.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.
BOB GARFIELD: Zeynep Tufekci is a professor at the University of North Carolina and author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest.