Big Technology

Discussing the Future of Social Media-Driven Protests With Zeynep Tufekci

‘Of course it’s performative, but you know what? It’s a better world if brands feel they have to be performative’

Zeynep Tufekci
Zeynep Tufekci
Photo illustration, image courtesy of Zeynep Tufekci.

OneZero is partnering with Big Technology, a newsletter and podcast by Alex Kantrowitz, to bring readers exclusive access to interviews with notable figures in and around the tech industry.

This week, Kantrowitz sits down with writer and researcher Zeynep Tufekci to discuss the evolution of social media-driven movements, from Gezi Park in Istanbul to Black Lives Matter today. This writeup of their discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on iTunes, Spotify, and Overcast.

In 2013, writer and researcher Zeynep Tufekci and I showed up to Gezi Park in Istanbul, Turkey. The park was a site of a social media-driven networked protest, where people from all walks of Turkish life came out to protest overreaches by the Turkish government. We were at the protest separately, but both interested in seeing it up close as movements of its nature took off across the globe.

Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Gezi Park, and today’s massive Black Lives Matter protests all use social media as a common fuel. And by thinking about the role social media plays in these movements, we can get a sense of where the current one is heading.

On Gezi Park, and Social Media-Fueled Protest

Alex Kantrowitz: I think we can learn a lot about the place our country is in today by studying what happened in Gezi Park, which I think is emblematic of some of the networked social protests we’ve seen over the past decade or so, starting with the Arab Spring, moving into the Black Lives Matter movement. It would be great to trace their evolution and hear your perspective of what happened in Gezi Park, and what it says about the way that protest happens today.

Zeynep Tufekci: For me, of course, it was a turning point in my analysis. As you said, I already had been working on understanding the social media field protest life that had started with Occupy arguably and included the ones we call the Arab Spring. And at first, I did a lot of primary research, I went to Cairo, I attended protests in Tahrir Square, I was in Tunisia talking to people. So, I had been cautiously watching the wave. On the one hand, it was definitely true that the tools played a role in how they unfolded. At the time, there was a really unproductive discussion asking if it was driven by technology, [or] is it the people, and I just find the question isn’t even coherent to answer. Of course, it’s the people, but the technology changes how things play out and having these tools available had been very useful to the dissidents in Egypt and Tunisia, around North Africa to try to get attention, to organize, to try to mobilize and there’s a lot of hopeful analysis of their long-term potential.

And it’s not that I didn’t share those analyses, but these things are very complicated, you can have a lot of things happening at once. And after a couple of years of sort of trying to understand what was happening, the Gezi Park protest happened, I was already seeing the authoritarian wave successfully push back already in the original countries. The initial success of these movements where the people in power really did not understand social media, did not understand how the public sphere had changed, they kind of acted like it was this little irrelevant thing and tried to ignore it and dismiss it rather than actively fight on that front. That era had ended and they had really moved to aggressively control through a variety of means and pushback. And also, of course, massive repression, because those things go hand in hand. For me personally, it was a big turning point because not only had I moved to [a] more realistic analysis of the different dynamics, [but] it was now happening in a place that was couple of blocks from where I was born. So, I jumped on a plane and went there and carried out systematic interviews, participant observation, just on the ground ethnography and all of that.

“Until social media, the police and the government forces with their radio, with their training, with their existing infrastructure, always could ‘out-logistics’ the movement.”

The way I had been starting to think about it is like startups: If you’re doing it right, you go from zero to 100 mph as fast as you can. You want to sort of get to a viable place and you want to use what people call network effects — you get big enough that other people are using it and finding it useful, but that kind of speed leaves you in debt.

So, in the coding world, we would call that technical debt. You’re just coding as fast as you can, you’re not commenting, you’re taking a lot of shortcuts, you’re doing things that aren’t really stable infrastructure, but they work for the moment and you’re duct-taping a lot of things. And modern tools, modern social media allows movements to do just that. They can go from basically no organizational infrastructure to massive street movements within days or weeks. In the Egyptian revolution, there was a Facebook page inviting people to the January 25th saying, “Are you going to attend the revolution?” And you could just click and say, “Yes.”

And that demonstrated to your friends and neighbors and acquaintances that you too were on board, so people felt more comfortable because it revealed people’s preferences very quickly… So, that part was already there, and that’s the powerful part we were seeing. This power of social media to scale up something very quickly.

Just to give people some context: we’re talking about Gezi Park in Istanbul, where it seemed like all walks of Turkish society converged on this park next to Taksim Square to protest the overreaches of what was happening with the central government.

Yeah. And it was very quick. Yeah.

And it happened lightning-fast after someone got pepper-sprayed by police in the park.

I was in a conference in Philly about big data and elections. In fact, in 2013, I had been arguing that this really isn’t good for democracy, Facebook has a lot of potential for misinformation. I was just saying the things that have now become fairly commonplace, and I was getting a lot of pushback. I have a very distinct memory of trying to argue about the downsides of this kind of targeted advertising that wasn’t public, there was no transparency. So, it was a very optimistic mood, which is what I’m sort of trying to contextualize. Whenever I tried to point out the downsides in that conference, I was getting an enormous amount of pushback there.

Totally, because during the Arab Spring, people were painting things from Facebook on the walls, things from Twitter.

Which wasn’t false. It is not false to say these tools are also very useful to dissidents. What’s important to realize is that there are multiple dynamics at the same time, which make, is this good or bad kind of analysis? [That’s] really shallow, because it’s not a math problem where you add three plus two and then get a number. It’s more a physics problem with a bunch of vectors pushing in different directions. Of course, you get a consequent result. You do get good or bad in the sense that you get one particular result, but it’s not because it’s simple additive or substantive, it’s because there’s a lot of things pushing in different directions, and it’s not clear at the time, which one might or might not win.

And then I was in Philly, I’m just sort of scrolling a little bit on, sitting in the back, and I started seeing these protests sort of inklings on social media on Turkish Twitter, I’m like, “Oh, what’s going on?” And before I know it, there’s hundreds of thousands in the street, it was literally that fast. And if it had been some other country, I might’ve been tempted to say, maybe there’s some dynamic organization, something I’m missing that I’m not seeing.

But you knew Turkey.

Of course. And not only did I know Turkey, Turkey has no Turkish dissidents and Turkish left, and this was a movement more on the left, although it’s complicated, those things don’t really work either. There is no tradition of spontaneous mass movements like that. I remember being in Barcelona as a programmer back when I was doing technical work one year and one day everything was normal, I went and was working on my coding project, the next day the streets erupted into this apparent chaos. I’m like, “What’s going on?” And I was told that it’s Catalonia independence day. I was like, “Whoa, is this such a big deal?” Because I come from, Turkey, to me, if there’s that bigger thing, it’s a big deal, and the day after it just went back to normal, almost. They do this apparently every year.

So, Turkey had no such tradition either. You had either top-down very heavily organized infrastructure kind of movements, or you didn’t really have big spontaneous movements. So, I knew this wasn’t the tradition either, but all of a sudden I’m seeing this big spontaneous looking, scaling up very fast, just sort of accelerating zero to 100 miles through social media movement. I jumped on a plane, I went there. It was a very important moment. And I had this sort of dual mindset there, it was also the week Snowden’s revelations were coming out about the surveillance and all of those things, which were okay. So, we had kind of guessed something like this was happening, but we were getting confirmation now that it was happening, we’re trying to understand that.

So, I was in the middle of the park, which you might remember was this exuberant place, people were thrilled. Such places, these occupation camps, I think it’s hard to describe, they’re life-changing, they’re existentially different than anything people have lived through. The collective experience, the way people bend together to sort of… It’s a very utopian place. So, everybody sees the tear gas and all the sort of negative stuff, and doesn’t realize how exhilarating they are for the participants.

Right, because it was both a protest camp, but also like you mentioned, a collective experience where there were group kitchens that were being organized and free haircuts being given out. And it seemed funny in this world devoid of community really, where the community structures have been crumbling. It seemed like a real community inside the middle of that park.

And it’s always like that —

I mean, that’s a common feature.

Yeah, it is a common feature. Tahrir Square was like that too, they had 17 days of that occupation. And I know there was a lot of suffering, I’m not downplaying the suffering, especially in Tahrir, during that period, there were hundreds of people who died, this is not some minor thing. Yeah, lots of people were killed. In the Gezi Park, there’s lots of people who got very seriously injured, and in the protests around the country during that time people died. Various things happened, everything from getting hit with a tear gas canister, to being beaten to death, to just falling from a bridge during the chaos.

So, it’s not like there’s no suffering, but on the other hand, that collective experience really is life-changing. And I was interviewing people who were waving their phone at me and saying, “This is everything,” because they thought of it as bringing them together, allowing them to bypass the censorship, allowing them to unite. And even when they went home, if they went to home, if they didn’t camp, they would get on the phone and try to organize things. There [was] so much organizational stuff, logistics that happened through the phone that probably… The way I think about it is, if you know any history, you know the military people just pay so much attention to logistics because it seems like an afterthought and a minor thing, but it’s also why Napoleon did not manage to conquer Moscow besides the winter, right?

That’s right.

Yeah, that’s what an army runs on. If you don’t have your logistics straight, you cannot pull off big things. And until social media, the police and the government forces with their radio, with their training, with their existing infrastructure, always could “out-logistics” the movement. It was very, very hard for the movement to sort of have that kind of infrastructure. But all of a sudden… You want to organize food? Create Excel spreadsheets… They could organize the camp in a way that just would’ve been unthinkable without social media. People were exhilarated, they were thrilled, but on the other hand, I remember just sitting there interviewing people and I’m a social scientist, I’m neutrally listening to them and they would always ask me, “How do you think this is going to go?”

Because they would hear, I would say, “Blah, blah, blah.” I was at Princeton at the time, I’m a researcher, Princeton University, this is what I’m working on and this is what I worked on before. They would ask me, “How do you think it’s going to go?” And I would kind of say, “Well, I can’t predict the future.” I would just pass on the question because one, it’s not my place and two, I felt if I had to take a guess, I would have said, “Well, you scaled up very fast and you’re going 100 miles an hour in this car that’s just gotten so big so quickly, but you don’t have a steering wheel or infrastructure. You do not have the technical capacity to try to make quick decisions because of the way it’s come together.” And we’ve seen this since, social media is not a place where we come to consensus.

I think you’re getting toward the definition of what a networked protest is. Can you quickly define it?

We need a name for what’s going on. It’s the social media field protest that happens without necessarily one or two maybe, or a coalition of organizations with long-standing infrastructure calling it and saying, this is what we’re going to do and kind of acting as their strategic or tactical leadership.

Right, it just sort of explodes out of social media.

Right. Hashtag WeAreAngry, Facebook page, let’s all meet here, a million protests everywhere. We’ve seen this a lot. We kind of know this now and for your younger listeners, they might be like, “Is there any other way to do this?” Because this is all they’ve known—

Right.

But this is not how we used to do this. This is really—

This was pretty novel.

This was at the time pretty novel and you cannot do this if you do not have these distributed communication tools, the social media of the world in one form or another. It doesn’t have to be the Facebook, Twitter form, it could have been some other form, but it has to be some form of this.

Yeah. It’s something that just gets all these people out very quickly with somewhat loose infrastructure. And I think that we can go back to what you were saying or if you want to continue on, but one thing I remember when I was there, I was asking people, “Where do you think this is going to go?” And they said, “We’re never going to stop, and this will be forever.” And obviously, that’s not what ended up happening —

Right.

So, one of the things that I think we can talk about as we sort of finish up this Gezi thread, but why do these movements have so much trouble being effective? It seems they can sort of explode onto the scene, show of force like you haven’t seen before these things, but then when it comes to actually pushing a policy agenda, and I know you might dispute this, but I like to hear your thought, it seems, at least from the outside that they struggled to see their goals through.

They do, but I wouldn’t also say they’re not effective. What I would say is that because they go from zero to 100 miles in just a day or week or month, when they hit a tactical moment where they have to change tactics or where the government kind of wakes up and says, “Okay,” and starts pushing back and realizes… Especially a government that’s not something archaic like the Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat, he didn’t understand a thing about what was going on. So, the next generation wasn’t going to be like this. Governments learn and catch up. So, when the pushback comes, you’re going very fast, but you don’t have decision-making tools, you do not have tactical infrastructure, you do not have that kind of flexibility. All you have is a shared grievance that brought a lot of people together and you’re trying to hash out your differences on Twitter. And it’s 2020, I don’t think I need to explain to people anymore that Twitter is not a good place for building consensus —

It’s not a great forum for that.

But in 2013, if we had to explain to people saying, “You can build the consensus…”

It’s impossible.

Yeah, it’s not built for it. If anything, it’s built for tribalization, which is part of the problem, then that’s a long discussion to have. So, what happens is, in the past, if you had such a big protest like say the March on Washington, it took 10 years to just get it from idea to reality and it took six months just to organize the logistics. So, by the time you had the march, it was a strong infrastructure that was flexing a muscle, whereas, in 2020 or 2013 even, when you have the march, it’s not a strong infrastructure flexing its muscle, it is something that is springing with the aid of social media. So, the way I sort of have a biology metaphor for this is that in biology, some gazelles will just jump up very high in the presence of predators and what they’re doing is, look how high I can jump, I can really run, you’re signaling your muscles. And if you’re a predator and you look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, that one is jumping really high,” because otherwise, why on earth are they jumping? It looks like a stupid move, but it’s signaling strength. So, that’s your old era protest, it’s jumping up and saying, “Look at me, look at what I can do.”

Whereas in 2013, 2020, if you just came together in a week using social media, it’s kind of like the gazelle has springs under its feet, it’s jumping up very high, but it’s not necessarily because it built up those muscles, it’s because it’s got this artificial aid and the question is, will it then build the muscles before the predator eats it? And the predator being the government trying to push back. And so it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be ineffective, but it’s if you’re going to go back to your startup, it’s going to be, can you pay your technical debt in time to keep the… So, you scaled up very fast, coding duct tape, can you fix your infrastructure, so when you do get big, you can have a sustainable product? It’s the same question. So, are they ineffective? No. They change minds, they change culture, they change everything, but they don’t necessarily manage to push through with the kind of power you might’ve expected them to have if you were comparing them to the past. You just have to understand, it looks the same, it looks like a protest like 1965, ’63, it’s not the same creature.

That’s right. The police eventually cleared the park and a lot of these protesters, if you ask them, did it accomplish what you were looking for? I think many of them would have said, no.

On Black Lives Matter

In the middle of this pandemic, we’ve seen a massive network protest with the Black Lives Matter movement. And there has been this tension between the infrastructure that you have because they have had it because they have been around since Trayvon Martin’s killing years ago. But they also have these elements of networked protests where people are coming out just by seeing the social media momentum and agreeing with the term “Black Lives Matter.” So, Zeynep I’d like to ask you just to kick off, how have these protests, the Black Lives Matter protests around George Floyd been different from the network protests we’ve seen in the past if at all?

So, I think one thing that’s important to emphasize is that it was never that they were ineffective, it’s just again, it’s a different creature, so it’s starting and the big protests are the start. So, the Ferguson protests in 2014 were arguably the start of the movement. It had been building up with the Trayvon Martin’s murder, [and] people had been talking about it in social media and getting national attention to it. With Ferguson, it kind of broke through as a nationwide movement. And here we are, six years later and we had George Floyd’s killing breakthrough in a way that the previous ones had not, but it’s building on that.

And so we talked about the weaknesses of these movements. Here’s one big strength, they can change people’s minds because you have social media, plus you have the protests and so many Americans because of social media and because of the phones everywhere have witnessed what Black people had been telling us for years, but we’re not getting… Sometimes they weren’t getting believed of course, but even if we believe the particular person’s testimony, there was this idea that these things were just isolated, a few bad apples. But when you see that George Floyd that […] see horrific video… I mean, it’s not just that they’re torturing a man to death, the casualness with which they’re doing it while being filmed and while being sort of pleaded with to stop. I mean, it’s blood-chilling, it’s just shocking. So, it just tells you that everything that we’ve been seeing. I think [it] sort of tipped over… And if you look at the polls, in the United States for the first time, you have a plurality of white people who want the Confederate monuments removed, they want something.

There’s a variety of sort of slogans, everything from reform to abolish to defund, it doesn’t terribly matter exactly which slogan call. It just means that there’s a large number or even a plurality of white people who have come around to the idea that there’s something wrong here, there’s something deeply wrong here, and it took all this time and all this sort of both social media and protest movement and all these things. And this is really important because changing minds is how you change politics in the long run. So, in places like when we talk about say, the Arab Spring countries, or we talk about the Gezi Park movement, Egypt has never had a solid democracy, so you can change people’s minds, but the repression is always going win out.

“I think I’ve counted at least eight people who lost an eye in the last round of George Floyd protests, which is… I mean, this is the United States, this is where we are.”

In a country like the United States, we’re seeing no doubt increased repression. I mean, my social media feed [is full of] people losing eyes, tear gas canisters sitting people. I think I’ve counted at least eight people who lost an eye in the last round of George Floyd protests, which is… I mean, this is the United States, this is where we are.

There’s been a lot.

Yeah, there’s a lot of repression that feels like all these other places in the world that we just sort of looked at as far away, but on the other hand, presumably, we still have elections.

Fingers crossed.

Yeah, fingers crossed. Yeah, it’s not a perfect system, you have the Electoral College… and it’s also, the government is set up as a minority government in some ways, just the senate historically, it’s a big country, and it’s been set up like that from the beginning. But putting all that aside, there’s really no solid way for a completely unpopular government to lose elections by too much and remain in power. They can, as we saw with the popular vote issue and we see with the Senate, they can lose the plurality a little bit, but at some point that tips over. And so they’ve changed, this Black Lives Matter movement has really convinced Americans, a large number of them. And it’s at that point where I’m just looking at it in the National Review, which is a very leading sort of conservative outlet is publishing articles saying, “No, no reform the police, not defund it.” And if that’s your sort of concern —

Yeah, that’s a big step.

That’s an Overton window shifting. That is what Trump did in 2016 too, and that’s what social media does. You can change the acceptable parameters of the conversation. So, if you’ve got the conservatives arguing, “Yes, let’s reform it, not just defund it, defund is too radical.” Yeah, that’s a movement that’s made a lot of progress and it’s going to… Depending on, fingers crossed, we have elections, who knows how it will go because these things are multifactorial, I just think it’s showing you that network movements aren’t necessarily effective or ineffective, but they’re really different than how they play out.

They have an influence.

And in the long run, they can have an enormous influence if they’re not pushed back by massive repression or all those other things that we talk about.

We see the influence that the protests have had, but then unlike most of these network protests, there is an infrastructure, there is leadership that’s been in place for years of the Black Lives Matter organization. So, who leads the change? Is it the protest influencing the mainstream or is it the organizers at the core?

So, without commenting on that organization, I’m not saying good or bad, I don’t think they’re very influential in shaping the movement, to be honest. I mean, because if you just sort of speak to regular protesters, they’ve barely heard that there’s an organization. They’re not getting their information from the organization, they’re not getting their talking points from the organization. I’m not saying the organization is great or it’s terrible, I think, largely speaking, if the organization’s leaders tomorrow said we’re now all going to do this or that, they don’t have that much more influence than some other person with a lot of social media following. You see what I’m saying?

Right.

We lost John Lewis recently and it’s something I’ve written about in my book. In the 1963 March on Washington, he was supposed to give a speech and he did give a speech and some parts of it were deemed as too radical by the movement establishment. Which of course, when I say establishment, I don’t mean privileged people — we’re talking about the Black people’s movement in the ’60s — but people who he’d been working with and they thought they were close to getting the civil rights legislation. Some of the things they thought [were] too sharp, and then there was a sit-down and John Lewis changed a few of his sentences and he had great respect, he had also great respect for these people who had worked their whole lives on their great difficulty in threat.

So, there was this way in which the message was hashed out between the young, more sort of radical… faction and the older kind of the ones that they saw were close to a deal with the administration. There is no such process right now. The Black Lives Matter organization, quote, unquote, could decide that from now on, we’re going to say Black Lives Matter and we’re going to add a “Too” for clarification, and that would have no more weight than some prominent social media person in the movement saying that. It would catch on or not based on that. So, it’s still a network movement. It still doesn’t have a spokesperson. Yeah.

The thing I get is people are coming out because they see the message, Black Lives Matter and they agree with it. But the people that are attacking the movement have labeled it a Marxist movement.

Yeah. It’s really weird because the thing is… What I’m saying is that it almost doesn’t matter if they say they’re Marxist, or they’re Maoists, or they’re… I don’t know. Because the thing is I’m trying to imagine interviewing a regular protester here and say, “What do you think about the labor of theory of value?” And them having even heard of it? I’m serious. That organization has a name that they registered legally… If they decided they were going to take the movement this way or that way, they literally have no more influence on the movement than their social media follower numbers, and as far as I can tell, that’s not even large, there’s lots of people with a much larger following. I mean, I’m not sure they have more influence on what Black Lives Matter as a network movement will do than a TikTok persona that has some established space on TikTok and is doing well.

So, sometimes people, because they don’t understand network movements, they could get focused an organization like that. And when you look at what’s actually happening on the ground, that organization is not NAACP of the civil rights movement, let me put it this way. It does not have that kind of leadership role and that’s why, are they trained Marxist or not? To me as a social movement researcher—

It doesn’t matter.

It’s irrelevant. Yeah.

This is one of the main points I wanted to get at. Which is that you look at Black Lives Matter today and the detractors will be like, “I don’t want to get involved with it because it has been painted in this light as being a Marxist movement.” But the thing is in this day and age, when you have a protest movement that’s sparked by social media, the core beliefs of what’s going on inside the organization matter a lot less than the fact that everybody’s showing up in support of one simple message, which is Black Lives Matter. And it’s interesting to see some of the critics harp on this whole Marxist ideology inside the organization where if they really understood what was going on, they would know that the people inside that organization aren’t going to be the ones that are pushing the policy change, but rather it’s going to be as you mentioned, the people who show up and show up with the influence.

I’m not even sure what it means for them. I mean, Marxism is not a political system that has had a lot of things to say about race, if anything. So, I’m just kind of—

Totally.

It’s almost weird, it’s kind of.

Yeah, it’s just a strange attack.

Not only is it a strange attack, it’s kind of a strange thing for the organizers to say, “We’re trained Marxists,” because I’m thinking, I mean, Marxism means something. It’s a political ideology and it is almost silent on questions of race. It’s about capitalism and class structure, and labor theory of value and all those things. Let me put it this way, if somebody had come and said the Trump movement, which I’ve called ethnonationalism or Herrenvolk democracy, which I think is the correct term for what he’s done is ethnonationalism. And if somebody had said, “I am Trump.org and I’m trained as a chef,” it would almost be as relevant. It’s kind of what is the point of this? I’m like, “You can have the name and you can have the trademark, you can say this, but it is orthogonal to any actual dynamic on the ground.”

Before we end here, let’s talk about the possible influence these mass protests can have. We’ve definitely seen a lot of brands rethinking the way that they operate. We’ve seen the Woodrow Wilson School is going to rename itself. But what do you think in terms of concrete political action, from a policy level, from electoral level, do you think we’ll see beyond the symbolism?

So, here’s the thing, a lot of people sometimes will say these brands are kind of changing, giving these statements, and all of that it’s performative. Of course it’s performative, but you know what? It’s a better world if brands feel they have to be performative and make statements committing to anti-racism. Just the fact that they feel that pressure to me is a symptom of something important. So, sometimes it’s kind of like, “Really? Does everybody have to?” Yes, it’s a good thing because—

It signals.

It signals something and it is much better than them not signaling something, which was kind of saying, “Yeah, the way things are okay.” That’s what you’re signaling when you’re silent. So, I like that even though I don’t think it by itself… I like that as a symptom. So, that’s one important thing. In terms of what change would mean, as someone who studies authoritarian governments, one of the things that we always look at when, say with authoritarian governments, the most important thing is not what they say but what they do.

“Of course it’s performative, but you know what? It’s a better world if brands feel they have to be performative and make statements committing to anti-racism”

You know that I did a lot of work on the pandemic recently, and the day I got on high alert about it was when China shut down Wuhan, 11 million people, I thought, this is serious, because I mean, they may be authoritarian, but they’re not stupid. If they are going to shut down that major city, that signals there is something major going on here… At the time the World Health Organization was saying, “We can get this under control, China was making all these—”

“Not a big deal.”

Yeah, there was a lot of sort of optimistic messaging, but when Wuhan was shut down, I remember just going, “Whoa!” I started immediately changing all my plans for the rest of the year. I literally sat down, it was the first time I started publicly tweeting, and I just went and I told everybody, “Everybody change your plans, this is it, it’s for real. It’s showtime.” So, that was kind of the same thing for my theory of change with very important things like the sort of racism in this country —

Real change in this is going to come when we see changes in budgets, when we see changes in investment, when we see changes in accountability, when we see changes in how law enforcement is done, and what the accountability structures look like, all those things. So, that’s kind of… But the things that people consider performative are not blocked to it. A lot of people think the performative of stuff displace reelection, they do not. Performative stuff creates the condition under which you can push for more. It changes the conversation, it changes when you’re in the workplace or the boardroom, it changes the accountability you can build.

So, it’s not a bad thing by itself, and there’s no reason to think that it’s going to block actual change if people keep pushing for it. So, the actual change part in terms of people’s day to day lives… Let me also put it this way: Sometimes an argument against political correctness is that people think it anyway, and they don’t say it. I’m kind of like, “Yeah, let them think it and not say it, that’s better than them saying it.” I realize making people not use offensive terms does not necessarily change their mind, but you know what? It’s actually good for Black people not to have heard that, even if they know it hasn’t changed that other person’s heart necessarily. Just the fact of not letting that kind of language be okay is important.

The environment matters.

The environment matters, and in the long run children not hearing that kind of language or a generation thinking this is not okay, that’s how you get changed. So, I feel it’s an important step. Now, where will this go with history, with so many things like pushing in so many directions? I think prediction is a fool’s game, but what you can do correctly is identify the dynamics. What you do is you can analyze what are the things that are pushing in different directions and have some idea of what is actually going on. So, will this leak tomorrow? There’s an election coming up, it’s a turning point, the pandemic, the election, all of that. For the United States, 2020 will have a huge chapter in history books, there’s no question about it, but it hasn’t played out.

On masks

Are people going to start wearing masks? I know you’ve been writing a lot about the need to wear masks since March, and I think people might be coming around. What’s happening with it, and why do you think people are still so against it?

Well, it’s actually interesting because when I wrote about masks in mid-March, I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, and it was really the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] wasn’t advising masks, the World Health Organization wasn’t advising masks. Not only that, they were saying masks might be harmful. There’s all this messaging that was wrong and partially driven by trying to preserve masks for health care workers, which again, still was wrong. If that’s the idea, you have to tell people, you have to treat the public, just —

Just be honest.

Treat the public as a partner. So, that was all that. And when I wrote that, I thought one, it would get a lot more pushback from people which it did not, it was kind of time for it. Second, I thought that this was likely a more favorable message for the Republican ideology in some ways because there’s a lot more to do besides mask: the testing, the ventilation, the sort of closing the indoor gatherings for a while. So, there’s all these other things that are very important and some of which are in the government’s purview. And masks is an individual responsibility telling people you have to step up and do your part, and I think both of those true and historically speaking that is more of a Republican ideology thing in that pushing the responsibility for public health on people’s individual behavior. It’s not wrong, but it’s very compatible with that side of the political spectrum —

Sure.

I think the first senator to put a video on masks, it was a Republican senator and it got taken up somewhat quickly, and then, of course, Trump came in, which kind of tells you… Which goes back to what we were talking about, the political realignment. The Republican Party is no longer the traditional Republican Party, it was Trump’s party, and that is not the traditional conservative ideology that the Republican establishment thought was the ideology of the party. This is the ideology of the party. It’s a different ideology and it’s based on tribalism and hostility. And for whatever psychological reasons, he did not like the message, he did not want to wear a mask himself.

And after that, you saw it become completely polarized, which you’ve seen with school question too, people had lots of different views on it and then Trump waited and then you saw it polarized by political party. He comes and almost shakes… I don’t know, like there’s a sort of a jar full of marbles, it’s kind of floating around mix and he comes and shakes it and then everybody separates to each side. That’s his effect on the political discussion. So, after he shook the masks marble, all of a sudden, we started having this sort of pushback, which if you look up the early polls, people were wanting to do something. And mask was, yes, there’s something we can do.

It’s pretty easy.

It’s easy and it turns out they’re probably a lot more effective than we even thought at first because they don’t just protect source control, there’s increasing evidence that they’re somewhat protective for the wearer as well. So, they might be unspeculating, but there’s really suggestive evidence that it might help why we’re seeing so much less severe cases is that because the dose matters. So, even if they don’t completely eliminate the virus from the air, they stop people from spreading it and they protect people somewhat from inhaling more. So, you’re just lowering the dose, which is acting more to sort of limit the severity. So, they might be helping all sorts of ways and people were roaring to go, and then Trump came. So, I do also want to say one thing, while there’s still some resistance, this is a thing in which social media is playing a bad role because every time some person throws a stupid tantrum somewhere, it goes viral, right?

Yeah.

And it’s not the same thing, but I kind of liken it to social contagion in the mass shooting world in which amplifying the killers’ manifest on social media actually helps create copycats rather than make an example of it and dampen it because you just need a few people to sort of say, “Oh, this is terrible, but look at all the attention.” So, I think what we’re doing with the mask-shaming is absolutely backfiring because—

Yeah, it’s ridiculous. If mass-shaming worked then people would be wearing masks, it hasn’t worked.

Not only that, when we sort of amplify the tantrum, and we all point at that person… And I’m not saying the tantrums are terrible, the tantrums are stupid and terrible, but they’re super rare.

Being moralized to on social media—a segment of the population will never accept that and indeed do the opposite.

And also it makes people think that tantrums are a lot more common than they are. They happen, but they’re getting a zillion views. Like one random person in one supermarket and millions of people are thinking, looking at that and saying, “This is the country,” whereas this is not the country. The country is begging to be led by competent public officials and to be given the proper consistent message and to show up and do something. People want to, and that we’re kind of pushing the irresponsible crazies’ message, almost making them stronger than they are by making it look a lot more common than it actually is because the way social media kind of loves those tantrum videos.

Thank you, Zeynep. Where can people find you if they’re looking to follow your work?

Well, I’m on social media, I am on the usual Twitter and I’m a writer at The Atlantic and the New York Times. This year, I’m writing more at The Atlantic, I have my work more there. I have a newsletter—I should be writing more there. I’ve been writing a lot everywhere. Usually not hard to find. Talks too much, writes too much.

No, no, just the right amount.

Silicon Valley-based journalist covering Big Tech and society. Subscribe to my newsletter here: https://bigtechnology.substack.com.

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