Community Readiness indicators: Reflections on ‘Twitter and Tear Gas’

In the ReSOLV project, part of our task is to identify how community readiness impacts the ability of school districts to promote schools safety. In 2020, our work was disrupted by the twin zeitgeist changing events of George Floyd’s murder and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of our great P.I.s, Trish Campie suggested that we look into some of the research that emerged from the Arab Spring to see whether those findings could inform how we conceptualize our work above and beyond what we’ve gathered from our survey data. So, I dove into a few books.

Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynip Tufekci ended up being Arab Spring-adjacent, yet more relevant to our work. Chapter eight specific detailed the indicators that we might want to look at when examining there is sufficient capacity and momentum for a social movement to have an impact a community level. The critical insight is that standard output indicators like size and number of protests will not accurately capture elements that may contribute to lasting change. Therefore, we need to focus more on several underlying capacities. The term “Capacity” is familiar to anyone who knows about our readiness work, though what Prof. Tufekci brings up expands greatly into new domains.

Narrative Capacity. This is the ability to control the message and the distribution of the underlying story. So, are the core tenets and values of a movement accessible (or more how are they accessible?) Can we find them on social media or through traditional outlets?

As an example, I pulled the last week of tweets on #BlackLivesMatter. Here we see the continued relevance of Kalief Browder (who spend years at Rikers’ without a trial), but also the strange emergence of Riley Williams (the woman accused of stealing Speaker Pelosi’s laptop.) Without a deeper dive, we can’t on the surface know if these are related or if the hashtag has been co-opted.

So, for ReSOLV, what we might want to look at is whether and stories on a local level had any resonance? This could involve looking at news stories and social media records, but also measures of awareness in the populace.

Disruptive Capacity. This is the extent that movement can interrupt or change business as usual. A good example of this is the student walkouts that occurred following the Parkland Shooting in 2018 (and actually is a really good example for school safety.) Are there other efforts to influence everyday life? The Montgomery Bus Boycott is really the platonic ideal of this.

Electoral Capacity. I don’t know if this is the biggy, but it can definitely have the biggest impact. To what extend does a movement influence elections and policy on multiple levels? Prof. Tufekci astutely points out that the Occupy Wall Street protests did not apparently have lasting electoral capacity, while the Tea Party influences Republican caucusing and politics to this day. For school safety, we might want to look at policy positions of school board members (if available), and certainly the school board meeting minutes. It would be great if people had archived websites of their plans and priorities, but that would require some deeper research.

To tie in another recent interest, some, but not all of this data can be scraped from online sources. Of course, that depends on whether or not some online forum captured this data and presumes that the individuals involved had the capacity to leave a digital record. But that’s another story…