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How effective are networked protests?

Protesters walk up Pennsylvania Avenue on Jan. 21 during the women's march on Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Capitol in the background. Mario Tama / Getty Images

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Social networks are more than a place to share memes and cat videos. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, the likes of Facebook and Twitter became hubs of political engagement. Since then, social media has increasingly become a place to organize.

One example: January’s Women’s March. What started out as online concerns about the election of Donald Trump swiftly transformed into a physical protest, with millions of women from around the world participating in rallies just days after President Trump’s inauguration. 

Fundraising for and against causes and campaigns can also happen digitally. In January, shortly after Trump signed an executive order restricting entry to the U.S. for refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations, the American Civil Liberties Union received over $24 million in donations, six times what it usually receives from online givers a year.

This new framework for protests is changing the dynamic and efficacy of demonstration. Zeynep Tufekci, professor at the University of North Carolina and author of the new book “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest,” said that protest without infrastructure is less effective.

In the past, protests that took years to organize, like the civil rights movement’s March on Washington in 1963, have taken years to organize. The time gearing up to a big march was crucial, Tufekci said, because it allowed the organizers to build infrastructure — a base of finances, electoral threats, legislation and more — that gives a movement teeth. 

These days, grassroots rallies and fundraising can send a message and affect change socially, and broad support for a cause is still important. Yet Tufekci said there’s a financial imbalance.

“Right-wing movements are very infrastructure-oriented … they’re very organizationally oriented, and they build power by investing from the local races upwards.”  

By contrast, left-wing movements, Tufekci said, are less geared toward large-scale infrastructure building and investment.  

“There’s great grassroots energy right now in the movement. There’s great narrative power. They use social media very effectively,” she said, but “there’s not a corresponding amount of funding” for left-wing movements.

“The movement looks very strong,” Tufekci said, “but if you wanted me to rate it, I would say it’s 9 out of 10 narratively and 2 out of 10 when it comes to infrastructure building.”

Hear more of Tufekci’s interview by clicking on the media player above. 

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