Keeping Up

I know I haven’t kept up with this blog but it’s not because I’ve stopped writing or blogging. Most of my latest writings have been at “The Message” collection over at the Medium. (Yes, The Message at the Medium.)  Click here for a list of the latest.

I’ve written on a variety of topics ranging from algorithms to Ebola (and networks, institutions and globalization). I’ve also written some more academic articles (many of which are here). You can also track many of them through my Google Scholar page.

My new year’s resolution is to do a better job of keeping a central inventory of all my writing! My other goal is to get more of my PDF publications into plaint-text and HTML formats. My (lame) excuse is that I’m too busy writing! I promise to improve… soon.  In the meantime, drop me a line at zeynep at technosociology dot org for requests of copies of papers (or for press inquiries).

Facebook and Engineering the Public — Crosspost

[I posted this first in the Message collection at Medium, where I do most of my regular writing these days. I’m cross-posting here both for archival purposes, but because many people use RSS (yeay RSS!) to read blogs, including this one.]

There’s been a lot of brouhaha about a recent Facebook study in which Facebook altered the news feed of 689,000 of its users to see if moods were “contagious.” There has huge discussion of its ethics, and another one on its publication. There’s also the argument that the effect sizes were actually not that large (though it seems the researchers kept them small on purpose) and whether the research was well done.

These are all good discussions but I’m more struck by this defense, and this question:

Fourth, it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s nothing intrinsically evil about the idea that large corporations might be trying to manipulate your experience and behavior. Everybody you interact with–including every one of your friends, family, and colleagues–is constantly trying to manipulate your behavior in various ways. … So the meaningful question is not whether people are trying to manipulate your experience and behavior, but whether they’re trying to manipulate you in a way that aligns with or contradicts your own best interests. <read the rest here>

I’m struck by how this kind of power can be seen as no big deal. Large corporations exist to sell us things, and to impose their interests, and I don’t understand why we as the research/academic community should just think that’s totally fine, or resign to it as “the world we live in”. That is the key strength of independent academia: we can speak up in spite of corporate or government interests.

To me, this resignation to online corporate power is a troubling attitude because these large corporations (and governments and political campaigns) now have new tools and stealth methods to quietly model our personality, our vulnerabilities, identify our networks, and effectively nudge and shape our ideas, desires and dreams. These tools are new, this power is new and evolving. It’s exactly the time to speak up!

That is one of the biggest shifts in power between people and big institutions, perhaps the biggest one yet of 21st century. This shift, in my view, is just as important as the fact that we, the people, can now speak to one another directly and horizontally.

I’m not focusing on this one study, or its publication, because even if Facebook never publishes another such study, the only real impact will be the disappointed researchers Facebook employs who have access to proprietary and valuable databases and would like to publish in Nature, Science and PNAS while still working for Facebook. Facebook itself will continue to conduct such experiments daily and hourly, in fact that was why the associated Institutional Review Board (IRB) which oversees ethical considerations of research approved the research: Facebook does this every day.

I’ve been writing and thinking about this a lot. I identify this model of control as a Gramscian model of social control: one in which we are effectively micro-nudged into “desired behavior” as a means of societal control. Seduction, rather than fear and coercion are the currency, and as such, they are a lot more effective. (Yes, short of deep totalitarianism, legitimacy, consent and acquiescence are stronger models of control than fear and torture—there are things you cannot do well in a society defined by fear, and running a nicely-oiled capitalist market economy is one of them).

The secret truth of power of broadcast is that while very effective in restricting limits of acceptable public speech, it was never that good at motivating people individually. Political and ad campaigns suffered from having to live with “broad profiles” which never really fit anyone. What’s a soccer mom but a general category that hides great variation?

With new mix of big data and powerful, oligopolistic platforms (like Facebook) all that is solved, to some degree.

Today, more and more, not only can corporations target you directly, they can model you directly and stealthily. They can figure out answers to questions they have never posed to you, and answers that you do not have any idea they have. Modeling means having answers without making it known you are asking, or having the target know that you know. This is a great information asymmetry, and combined with the behavioral applied science used increasingly by industry, political campaigns and corporations, and the ability to easily conduct random experiments (the A/B test of the said Facebook paper), it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public, and this is true for Facebook, this is true for presidential campaigns, this is true for other large actors: big corporations and governments. (And, in fact, a study published in Nature, dissected at my peer-reviewed paper linked below shows that Facebook can alter voting patterns, and another study shows Facebook likes can be used to pretty accurately model your personality according to established psychology measures).

That, to me, is a scarier and more important question than whether or not such research gets published. As I said, if this scares Facebook from future publishing, the biggest group that loses is the Facebook research team’s aspirations of academic publications. This type of work itself will continue, stealthily, as it has been.

Hence, I object to this framing:

How is publishing the results of one A/B test worse than knowing nothing of the thousands of invisible tests?

The alternative is not that they don’t publish and we forget about it. The alternative is that they publish (or not) but we, as research community, continue to talk about the substantive issue.

So, yes, I say we should care whether Facebook can manipulate emotions, or voting behavior, or whether it can model our personality, or knows your social network, regardless of the merits or strength of finding of one study. We should care that this data is proprietary, with little access to it by the user, little knowledge of who gets to purchase, use and manipulate us with this kind of data. And of course it’s not just Facebook, every major Internet platform, along with governments, are in this game and they are spending a lot of money and effort because this is so important. As academics and the research community, we should be the last people who greet these developments with a shrug because we are few of the remaining communities who both have the expertise to understand the models and the research, as well as an independent standing informed by history and knowledge.


If you want to read more, I have a much longer version of this argument, focusing on the case of political campaigns, but is applicable more broadly. So, click here or on the title below for my paper that is accepted as publication and is forthcoming in the July 2014 issue of First Monday, Volume 19, Number 7.

Engineering the Public: Big Data, Surveillance and Computational Politics

Abstract: Digital technologies have given rise to a new combination ofbig data and computational practices which allow for massive, latent data collection and sophisticated computational modeling, increasing the capacity of those with resources and access to use these tools to carry out highly effective, opaque and unaccountable campaigns of persuasion and social engineering in political, civic and commercial spheres.

PS. Jonathan Zittrain has written up one of the examples in my paper, Facebook throwing an election, in latest issue of TNR. I had used the same example in public talks and writings and elsewhere since at least May of 2013, including an earlier version of this paper I had published, so this is a case of many minds come up with same examples. :-)

Update about the YouTube Ban

I’ve moved an update about Turkey’s Youtube ban from the end of my Medium story on the Twitter ban to here:

UPDATE: On 3/27, YouTube was also blocked in Turkey with the executive decision of the governing agency, TIB. The context of this ban is an alleged recording of Erdogan’s inner circle, including the Foreign Minister, the ramifications of an incursion into with Syria. For many days, a Twitter account who claims to be a mole in Erdogan’s inner circle had been “predicting” that Erdogan was considering war with Syria as a means to gather support or distract. (I am not going to comment on the validity of these claims or the recordings but provide them only to explain the political context). So far, the Youtube ban is a DNS level only which is similar to many previous blocks of Youtube in Turkey and circumvention will be easy (changing DNS settings) and widely undertaken.

While we need to wait for Prime Minister Erdogan to speak, early reports are that it was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which condemned the leak in very strong terms, that requested the block. (Also, a key piece of background information is that Google/Youtube has been refusing to yank the alleged corruption leaks on Youtube).

As with other blocks, the content in question was quickly uploaded to other sites and people have started sharing the links.

Overall, I remain convinced of the argument above: the content is not blockable, and this is quite obvious to the Turkish government which has many technologically competent people, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs who was a frequent twitter user and I have once watched discuss the power of social media with “Arab Spring” youth where it was clear that he knew what he was talking about (and quite smooth about it). These blocks are meant to demonize social media content, and to dissuade Erdogan supporters from seeking this content, knowing what to seek, and being motivated to seek it. If they know what to look for, and if they are motivated to want to look for it, circumvention remains possible and within reach of most.

An interesting confirmation of the difference is remembering what PM Erdogan had said about the previous YouTube ban—which had come about because of content that the government does not truly care about. When asked about the ban, he had said: “I access it [Youtube]”, meaning that he circumvented, “You can access it, too.” Now, in contrast, PM Erdogan devouts good chunks of his limited time in political rallies decrying Twitter and Youtube (and also Facebook) as places that threaten families, and are source of lies and evil.

Finally, it will be interesting to watch if an IP block follows the DNS block as it did with Twitter. If it does not, I’d take it as proof for the argument that the government does not want VPN use to spread because while DNS circumvention allows for YouTube access, it does not allow for Twitter access where most of the political link distribution takes place. A higher-level block on the distributing service (Twitter) rather than the content (Youtube) would be an interesting indication of the priorities of a political actor facing a challenge to its control over the public sphere.

Turkey’s Twitter Ban and Social Media Demonization as a Strategy

I wrote about why it doesn’t work–The day the Turkish government banned itself from Twitter.

But here’s what I do know. The president of Turkey had to circumvent a court order to tweet, and tens of thousands of citizens were right there to talk with him, give him support, chide him for his previous acts, and to generally comment. Twitter may be banned in Turkey legally, but in reality, the only thing that the government has managed to do is ban its own supporters from Twitter… (read more here)

I also wrote about why it doesn’t matter that many people will circumvent: Why everyone is getting Turkey’s Twitter ban wrong. (The point is to demonize social media, not any false belief that it is possible to totally kill information).

During the rally, Erdogan also talked about the threat social media, including Facebook and YouTube, poses to family values. He talked about its disruption of privacy, and how these foreign companies do not obey Turkish court orders but obey US and European courts.

In other words, Erdogan’s strategy is to demonize social media.

It is a strategy of placing social media outside the sacred sphere, as a disruption of family, as a threat to unity, as an outside blade tearing at the fabric of society. (read more here)

 

A loaf of bread, a dead child. Turkey’s protest cycle.

The latest sad news coming out of Turkey was the death of Berkin Elvan, a young boy, who just turned 15, who had been on his way to buy bread for his family in his own neighborhood, where people had also taken to the streets, during the Gezi protests. On the way, he was hit in the head by a tear gas canister and spent 269 agonizing days in a deep coma. Towards the end, his weight was down to 16 kgs from 45 kgs.

Berkin was the youngest victim as can be seen from his child’s face smiling from a photo taken among his friends at school:

Berkin-Elvan

Recently, his health had been failing and people were braced for bad news for the last few days. This morning, after his family tweeted out that “we had lost our son” news of the loss quickly spread in waves of grief that merged with waves of anger, heightened by the fact that nobody had been convicted for his death by a tear gas canister.

This makes Berkin the eighth death associated with Gezi protests, almost all of them young men, including a 19 year old who was beaten to death, and a 22 year old police officer who fell from a bridge during the events and whom the protesters always counted among those they mourn in their memorials. Pictures of his heartbroken family further entrenched the reality: he was just 15, he was on his way to buy bread and nobody was convicted for killing him.

The image of his grief-stricken parents clouded timelines with its raw grief.

berkin mom and dad

Fury and sadness erupted online and offline. People took to the streets around Turkey. The hashtag, #BerkinElvanÖlümsüzdür (Berkin Elvan is immortal) trended worldwide, while another hashtag #HoşçakalBerkinim, “Goodbye my Berkin” also trended worldwide, in sad opposition to the wishes expressed in the first. berkin trends However, unlike what it may look like from outside, Berkin’s death did not renew protests out of the blue. Despite the latest focus on the corruption scandal and crisis within the judiciary, the “Gezi protests” had never disappeared. Instead, lacking a focus or political outlet, the discontent simmered both through occasional protests (over the Internet censorship law, for example) and also online.

The lack of political outlet for the Gezi dissent is a circular question: it was lack of political outlet (due to ossified political system and concentration of power and media censorship) that caused the Gezi eruption in the first place. The Prime minister of Turkey often said that the Gezi protests were not just about the trees, that they were subverted for other causes. Based on the interviews I did at the park, I can vehemently deny one charge that is often made: that a desire for a military coup was among the demands of the protests–such an option almost never came up, and was not mentioned as desirable by the hundreds of protesters I interviewed. On the other hand, it is true the protests were more than about a park and hence have not dissipated because the park was spared. The protesters I interviewed at Gezi talked about a desire for rule of law, their concerns about growing corruption (which would erupt in a scandal about six month later), their fears that concentration of powers had gone too far and that spaces of freedom and of choice were being constricted by a government that wanted to dictate everything. Those concerns have not gone away; if anything, the last nine months deepened the fault lines.

For 269 days while Berkin fought to hang on to life, people remembered him daily on social media. Hashtags would pop up: #uyançoçuk or “wake up child”, and someone would tweet out his name in sadness mixed with hope. His family acquired a widely followed Twitter account and regularly updated people. His innocent frame, his thick eyebrows and smiling eyes became a symbol of hope against the violence that threatened to steal his young life and his future. A few days ago, news started coming out that his heart had stopped, twice, and he was clearly deteriorating. As usual, all these conversations mainly occurred on social media as mainstream media, mostly silent during Gezi, still barely discussed these topics.

Another aspect of Berkin’s death that is deeply evocative in the context of Turkey is that he was on his way to buy bread. Bread is quasi-sacred in Turkey. In Turkey, it is the source of nourishment and it represents both human labor and God’s bounty through nature. If a piece of bread falls to the ground, my grandmother kisses it after picking it up from where it fell. Wasting bread is seen as a sin, and not having bread at a table will get you howls of protest from people who will tell you they’ll be hungry without bread. (Yes, in Turkey, people will eat bread with pasta, for example).

In short order, “Berkin and bread protests” popped up around the country. As with previous waves of novel tactics, it started with one person who did something that others quickly picked up–almost all through social media. In this case, people in public places sat in front of a loaf of bread, in silence, sometimes with a picture of Berkin’s young, fragile face now symbol of loss and devastation. It started with one person:

BicLXUtCYAAycNP Then she sat down by him: berkin ekmek iki Soon it was crowd: berkin ekmek 3 And then the pictures spread on social media, and occasionally picked up by online newspapers. And people elsewhere started doing it: berkin in Mersin avcilar berkin in kadıköy A house in Berkin’s neighborhood placed a loaf of bread in a grief-stricken ribbon outside their door: ekmek kapi Some shops declared that they would not sell bread that day, and even put hashtags in their signs which perhaps best exemplifies the way in which online and offline have meshed in one inseparable reality in fueling these waves of protests: berkin ekmek yokAs I type this, there are protests in multiple cities, including in Istanbul and Ankara, which are reportedly being dispersed with heavy use of tear gas and water cannons–the same cycle that triggered waves of discontent since Gezi protests erupted less than a year ago. My timeline is full of familiar images of protesters, police and streets under cloud of gas.

However, whenever there is something new, it quickly breaks on social media. For example, in Ankara, police reportedly used a new kind of canister which was quickly shared on social media as people searched for answers. (In Gezi, people had become tear gas canister experts. People collected them and carefully discussed their differential effects the way foodies discuss coffee or olive oil). Students in ODTU, Ankara, made fun of these new capsules which they had never seen before, while asking for help identifying them:

As the spiral of protests spread around Turkey, Berkan Elvin’s family called for a mass protest/funeral for their son for tomorrow, the 12th of March, at 2p. They called for this funeral via Twitter, of course, the key conduit for information dissemination for protesters as well as for supporters of the government who are also online in large numbers.

 

They used a “screen capture” a widespread method on Twitter used to circumvent character limits and also for algorithmic invisibility. In Turkey, people will sometimes reply to each other via “screenshots” of the other person’s tweets rather than linking to them or mentioning them. This is done as a means to deny attention, to remain invisible to automated systems (as one will not show up in other person’s connect tab) and also to effectively “talk behind someone’s back.”  In fact, what may look like great polarization in the Twittersphere in Turkey effectively hides the multiple methods by which opposing parties will engage each other directly, sometimes even carrying out conversations back and forth, in a manner that would be invisible to anything but qualitative analysis (you gotta read and understand, in other words, not just scrape big data). Screenshots, subtweets, and following by going to individual web pages rather than formally following are methods galore in Turkish Twitter, at least in its political parts which, these days, seem to expand very quickly.

This is a sad day in so many dimensions. It is a sad day for Turkey: a country with so much potential, mired in a crisis of political representation, legitimacy, concentration of power and collapse of rule of law.

Today is also a sad reminder that so-called “non-lethal” weapons like tear gas canisters are, indeed, often lethal. The first responses to my tweets about Berkin’s death came from Bahrain, a country that suffers from cycles of protest and repression where tear gas is used to break up peaceful citizen assemblies.

Most of all, though it is the saddest day for Berkin’s family and loved ones. Perhaps the most piercing picture to circulate today was from Berkin’s childhood, which he never had a chance to grow out of.  Spotting a mop of hair and his unruly eyebrows, Berkin is seen trying to float a make-shift kite in the streets, as children from poor families can be seen all over Turkey. His kite is small, he has narrow streets rather than open parks to run in, and the kite struggles behind him as he runs, determined to make it fly with all the seriousness the quest deserves: everything.

berkin ucurtma resim

Did he ever manage to make his kite fly? We’ll never be able to ask him as the world run by grown-ups who will never understand how such a thing could be so important, struck him down before he had a chance.

Readings on Surveillance and Rebellion

As with all non-fiction writing, the ideas in my Matter piece on how rebellion and surveillance are intertwined spring from a conversation with other writers, thinkers and academics. Matter does provide links within the piece so as not to interrupt the flow so I wanted to compile some of my favorite academic and non-academic thinkers on this issue for anyone who was interested in more reading.

Clay Shirky perhaps put it best on technology and human-to-human connectivity: “Historically, we have overestimated the value of access to information, and we have always underestimated the value of access to each other.” That remains one of the key insights about social media. His book, Here Comes Everybody, remains a cornerstone of many discussions about Internet’s impacts.

Phil Howard has been prescient, to say the least. His book “Managed Citizen” spells out much of the things we worry about on how new technologies can be used in the political realm to manage us, resulting in poorer democracy. He’s also written current pieces examining how (few) privacy rights we seem to have in the political realm. (This one with Daniel Kreiss). (Phil’s also written a great book on Internet and political change in Muslim countries before the Arab Uprisings shook the world so prescient is very apt in describing his book!)

Daniel Kreiss‘ book which brilliantly chronicled the Obama campaign of 2008, which was much more insurgent compared with the more “managed” 2012 one, remains a must-read. Dan has also written on how campaigns profile us with online data in this aptly titled article: Yes we can (profile you). He’s now examining the 2012 presidential campaigns so that should be quite a comparison with his 2008 observations! I also recommend the article “Limits of Peer Production” which Dan co-wrote with Megan Finn & Fred Turner .

David Karpf‘s awesome book, the Moveon Effect, chronicles how networked politics is changing the social movement organizations. He’s also looked at how “netroots” are going global and reshaping the political game in many countries. David’s book asks really important questions about the gains and loses to social movements from shifting internet-based organizing and has fascinating analysis of what goes on behind the scenes.  Also, don’t be fooled by the title Moveon Effect as Dave’s book also looks at the other side of the aisle which is also being impacted by these changes.

To be certain, these books and articles are not the only scholarship on this topic (far from it!), but I just wanted to provide a few high-quality entry points and focus on books with empirical content (rather than speculative ones which have their place but usually aren’t the books you should read first). My own academic papers on this topic are still under review: here’s draft of one of them on Big Data and Engineering the Public.

Also, I am very much looking forward to finishing Emily Parker’s new book “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground” which puts faces to one of the mechanisms I talk of in my post: internet’s ability to make us visible to each other, with tales from Russia, China and Cuba.

All the books I’ve mentioned above are great reads and they’ve all won awards from the academic community. Feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments!

Three Cheers to Nobel Peace Prize for not Pandering to Celebrity Culture

My timeline this morning was full of disappointment that the brave young activist for women’s rights in Pakistan, the amazing Malala Yousafzi, was not chosen for the Nobel peace prize. Instead, the committee awarded the prize to Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The who?… seemed to be a collective sigh of disappointment.

But let me argue that this was exactly the right choice. The Nobel Peace prize should absolutely go to such under-appreciated, crucial institutions that help build peace, and that are sorely lacking in our complex world.

Yes, I am amazed by Malala. How can one not be? Her courageous young body, shattered by Taliban bullets, her strong, kind stance in that Jon Stewart interview everyone on my Facebook timeline shared.. It is hard not to be moved by her.

But she is but one courageous person. Fortunately for the world, there is no shortage of such brave, courageous individuals. In fact, there is an abundance of them, especially in poor, authoritarian countries. If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malala’s, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities. (That interview’s most telling moment was when Jon Stewart said “I want to adopt you” to her right after she repeatedly mentioned how great her own father was–such a striking sentiment in which our multi-decade involvement in Pakistan is reduced to finding a young woman we admire that we all want to take home as if to put on a shelf to adore).

What the world is desperately lacking, and the Nobel Committee, for once, rewarded, is the kind of boring, institutional work of peace that advances the lives of people. Everyday. Little by little. But without which lives are shattered and countries crumble (as they do now),

What the world needs more of is many, many more institutions like the “Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons” which are crucial to destroying weapons that destroy lives millions of Malalas. We need organizations and institutions that uphold ceasefires, that observe elections, that document human right abuses, that provide the infrastructure for education, for health, that destroy weapons (conventional and unconventional) and that can act as the institutional capacity of much that is good in international human rights law (which we also need to improve and hold up).

Again and again, the world faces awful moments. Civil wars. Ethnic Cleansing. Genocide. Chemical Weapons. Regular weapons that are just as deadly as chemical weapons. And we turn to international law, to the United Nations (such a flawed institution yet what we have), to international treaties, to the declaration of human rights to find high sentiments which are not matched by a multilateral, institutional capacity to do anything. This doesn’t happen by accident. This happens because nations of the world–from superpowers down to the little, less powerful ones–are not interested in the multilateral, international or national work of disarmament, peace-building, school funding, health care.

We end up without good choices. How did we get here, we ask and we end up looking the other way. Until the next time.

In the meantime, activism and social justice too often gets reduced to celebrity culture. Angelina Jolie visits refugee camps–good for her, but the crucial work of providing clean water to thousands of people trapped in such unsanitary conditions gets underfunded, and children die of cholera. No country takes in the refugees. Diseases spread, hunger and cold settle in.

But by then, the celebrity has moved on, the cameras have moved on, and those under-appreciated bureaucrats, technicians, the planners, the institutions that improve lives of millions of people, everyday, get dismissed, underfunded, even ridiculed. Hey, they are just bureaucrats and technocrats! Yes, one by one, they are just that. But as institutions they are what the world needs much, much more of.

Just in case you feel compelled to point out, I am well aware of the shortcoming of multilateral organizations. Overpaid staff and lack of accountability are real issues. But that does not take away from the fact that more institutional capacity with better oversight and principles is the gaping hole in a world in which almost all our major problems are internationalized, at least to a degree, and yet our institutions and tools remain woefully, dramatically inadequate. You name it. Human rights. Health. Weapons. Global Warming. Multilateral capacity within a framework of international law (yep, I’m bored typing it) is the only way forward because the other alternatives are whims of existing powerful nations, or celebrity moments on television which make us feeling good, but not much more than that.

So, three cheers for Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. May their work, and work of organizations like that, help keep future brave young Malala’s alive and thriving so that they don’t have to be heroes, but can be the children that they deserve to be.

“Come, Come, Whoever You Are.” As a Pluralist Movement Emerges from Gezi Park in Turkey

After the Gezi Park occupation was dispersed, dozens of neighborhood forums popped up around Istanbul where people get together to discuss a variety of issues. I’ve been attending these neighborhood forums, which are are organized in an “agora” format where speakers line up and take turns to speak. While media attention remains on the  frequent Taksim Square demonstrations, the forums are lively, continue to be well-attended and are breaking precedent in Turkish politics which started with Gezi. To give a sense of the space, here’s the Abbasaga forum in Besiktas (at 12:30a on a Friday).

In Gezi, one thing that struck me and that I’ve been tweeting about, and that came up in many of the 100+ interviews I conducted with the participants was the spirit of tolerance and diversity. Gezi protests participation included people ranging from nationalist/traditional Kemalists to Kurdish political parties, from the  “internet generation” youth (as they are referred to here) to feminists, from “revolutionary muslims” to many ordinary citizens who do not fit into any of these categories.

(By the way, the media, both here and abroad are missing the story–during the Gezi occupation, they concentrated on the occasional clashes in Taksim square. Now, during the neighborhood forum process, they still only cover Taksim protests. While important, that is not where the heart of the story is).

Many people I interviewed in Gezi told me that, for the first time, they found themselves talking with people with whom they had rarely interacted, with whom they had harbored prejudices, and with whom they had never had this kind of deep, political and substantive conversations. It emerged as the most personally satisfying aspect of the Gezi Park experience for many participants.

This unity was helped along by the police repression as well as  Erdogan’s totalizing, polarizing rhetoric in which protesters were alternatively referred to as marginals, looters (“çapulcu” which became the term they adopted for themselves), terrorists, etc. Being stereotyped in so many negative ways helped create this identity of one of unity and tolerance within difference.

A famous photo from the Gezi Park period illustrates has become a symbol of this Post-Gezi politics in Turkey.

Running from the police in this picture are  two youths, holding hands, one carrying  a flag from the Kurdish BDP party and another an Ataturk (Kemalist) flag (ideologies that almost never speak to each other, or at least kindly). At the corner, another man makes the “wolf” sign that is traditional to ultra-nationalist Turks.

 

To be honest, had I not seen, interviewed in, and experienced Gezi myself, I’d be trying hard to figure out if this was photoshop. One can’t help by feel incredulous by such scenes in Turkey.

It is, however, a true picture–a pluralist generation has sprung up in Turkey under AKP’s strong rule partly because of it, and partly as a reaction to it. And that, mostly, is at the heart of the political crises that is fueling Gezi. This pluralism has no political expression and no real reflection in mainstream media, which is a little more than a government parrot these days, or even “opposition” traditional media which remains relatively firmly encamped in totalizing or outdated ideologies.

(A “dissident” TV station I watched last night –”Halk TV”– was trying to sell a “support package” which included pictures of Ataturk, stickers of Ataturk, flags of Ataturk, a book of Ataturk, a t-shirt with Ataturk’s saying and a poster of Ataturk–hardly an advanced political message in 2013 for a complex, diverse, modern county like Turkey. Such dissent, little more than repeated waving of many pictures of Ataturk, is not attractive especially to the youth, including secular youth, I spoke with in Gezi Park.)

In sum, in Turkey, there is no political party or institutional infrastructure which reflects this generation or this emerging pluralism. In fact, people often call this “Gezi ruhu” or “spirit of Gezi” to try to find a name for this unprecedented political coalescence.

I have come to think of this moment as an anti-postmodern pluralism. Unlike early stage (or, well, “traditional”) postmodern approaches, the “other” is not configured as an opaque, unknowable, “outside” entity. There is multitude but there is also unity and a unifying grand narrative–a unity that is based on empathy rather than a single model of the desirable. The “other” is knowable through common human experience and suffering.  Hence, this is not like post-modernity which rejects unity or gran-narratives. In fact, it is striking how strong the grand, unifying narrative is among many participants.

In this non-post-modern pluralistic sensibility, there is an emphasis on shared stories but these stories are constructed not through erasing difference but through emphasizing empathy, tolerance and shared respect. Unlike traditional modernity which attempts to create one type of individual (a political ideology that characterizes both pre-AKP Turkey and, increasingly, post-AKP Turkey even though the “one type” being attempted has shifted significantly), difference is not fetishized, it is acknowledged as the basis of tolerance. “I’m against homophobia and islamophobia”, a young forum participant said, not seeing any contradictions in his stance: “I want the headscarf to be free and I want gay people to be free.”

As such, pluralism and tolerance are perhaps the most significant political values emerging in the post-Gezi politics.

For example, after a shooting in Kurdish Lice over tensions about building of new military posts, people in forums in Besiktas and Kadikoy, nationalist strong-holds, marched in support of Kurdish grievances. This would have been hard to imagine a month ago.

I have seen feminists conduct workshops in Gezi –specifically targeted to to soccer fans– on why they should not use misogynistic insults.

Muslim groups in Gezi distributed “kandil simit” –traditional for Prophet’s birthday– in Gezi and held prayers on that Islamic holy day.

I’ve seen Muslim groups praying in Gezi while a woman with crewcut, punk haircut –clearly not part of “them”– shood away journalists trying to take pics, who she thought was not respectful to their prayer. “They are praying, not putting on a show for you” she exclaimed and made the journalists keep their distance.

Perhaps the most interesting configuration to have emerged from the Gezi protests has been the LGBT community in Turkey. Long oppressed, it is also a community that has long struggled openly. Unlike other countries in Middle East, Turkey has a strong and burgeoning LGBT community that is increasingly coming out of the closet and organizing.  Like other countries in the Middle East, they face grave prejudice and oppression.

LGBT neighborhoods (Turkey’s “Castro”) in Istanbul are concentrated around Taksim and Gezi Park is, so to speak, in their backyard. They were among the first protesters to try to protect the park and they have been central to its defense and organizing from the beginning. Along the way, they have acquired respect and status among many people who participated in the Gezi process.

Another key player in the Gezi protests  has been “Carsi” –Turkey’s ultras who are fans of Besiktas soccer team. Carsi is known for their rowdy marches, bravery, somewhat unusual ingenuity which at one point involved hotwiring a back-hoe to push back against police APCs, and, unsurprisingly, their machismo.

Hence, some examples from the interaction between Carsi and LGBT organizations, two big players in Gezi Park resistance, illustrates  the fascinating interaction emerging in this process.  A favorite slogan for soccer fans in Turkey is “ibne hakem” or “the referee is a fag.”

Predictably, soccer fans adopted this slogan to politics in Gezi and started referring to various AKP officials as such. Predictably, the LGBT folk were not happy. They approach the soccer fans, Carsi, and asked them not to refer to AKP politicians –or others– as “ibne.” “We are the fags and real fags are here defending Gezi Park” they explained to the bewildered Carsi supporters who probably had rarely seen anyone proclaim the identity as a source of pride. However, Carsi had also seen the LGBT folk brave police repression–which the LGBT people explained is part of everyday life for them. Soccer fans, too, had often experienced clashes with the police.  An understanding was not impossible.

After some back and forth, Carsi soccer fans countered that they might drop “fag” but they needed good insults. “How about sexist Erdogan?” was a suggestion from the LGBT contingent. So, this all ended with Turkey’s ultra-macho soccer fans chanting “Sexist Erdogan.”

In another instance in Gezi Park, I witnessed a Kurdish “teyze” (an older, traditional woman) from southeast Turkey in a heated, compassionate conversation with one of Istanbul’s better known transgendered activists. The dialogue, which I witnessed, was mostly about the need to love and understand each other’s suffering. During this conversation, the Kurdish “teyze” spoke in a thick, Zaza (a dialect of Kurdish) accent while the transgendered activist hugged the rainbow flag he had been waving and used speech locutions that are very specific to the gay community in Turkey. It ended up with them hugging in tears, vowing to keep in touch.

It also ended with me having to sit down to catch my breath that I had just witnessed what I had just witnessed.

I’m not sure I’d have believed all this was possible a month ago. Clearly, though, it was in the making–it did not come out of nowhere.  Rather, AKP’s strong hand in governing has created constituencies for whom plurality and tolerance is a key value. As one Gezi participant said to me: “my problem is that this man [Erdogan] wants to paint us all black. We are a rainbow! There are many colors!” Hence, this tolerance was not just a momentary convenience, but a value that has emerged from an experience of feeling and being shut out.

It’s unclear how much this pluralism will carry on in the future–or how widespread it is in the country in general–but it is a striking and a potentially deeply transformative experience for the participants in the Gezi process as well as the ongoing neighborhood forums.

So, I come to today. In a few hours, the 11th LGBT pride march will start in Taksim. It is the first march with a “permit” in Taksim since the beginning of Gezi protests (though nobody really seems to be taking permits that seriously these days). Many groups, well, pretty much everyone, who has been a part of the Gezi protests will be attending. Most neighborhood forums I attended have expressed a desire to march as well.

This might be the first time that Turkey’s LGBT community leads –and is not just tolerated– a large and diverse march of dissenters whose unifying ideology is emerging as tolerance and plurality.

Today, in Turkish twitter, “#direnayol” is trending which brings together Gezi politics with LGBT symbolism.

In Turkish, “diren” means to resist and has become the symbolic word of the Gezi protests–”#direnankara” to refer to protests in Ankara, for example. When AKP youth floated a badly photoshopped image suggesting that the famous pepper-sprayed “women in red” was was an actress and the whole thing was a set up (there is ample video and multiple Reuters photos of the pepper-spraying incident), twitter users started joking with #direnphotoshop–resist, photoshop.”

“Ayol” on the other hand, is the Turkish linguistic equivalent of a “limped wrist.” It literally connotes a sense like “darling.” So, to say “gel, ayol” is a bit like saying “come, darling.”  In Turkish “ayol” is also a symbol of gay speech, a locution that can be added to  sentences to convey a queer sensibility. For example, “Ayol, it’s an actual revolution” (“ayol, resmen devrim”) had become a slogan of the LGBT community during the Gezi events.

During the Gezi Park Protest, a whirling dervish in a gas mask visited Gezi park (of course, right?) and the image was widely circulated, often along with the saying “Sen de Gel” — a saying meaning, “you, too, come”, from a sufi poem by Rumi.

 

Today, along with the #direnayol hashtag, the following image has been circulating in Turkish Twitter, uniting the LGBT rainbow flag (a very recognizable symbol in Turkey), the dervish, the gas mask, and the call: “You, too, Come.”:

The Rumi poem “Sen de Gel” is inscribed in his shrine in Konya, Turkey and was perhaps best translated in spirit by Coleman Barks:

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows
a thousand times.
Come, yet again, come, come.

So, perhaps, I’ll end by answering a question many friends of mine have asking me–should I come to Turkey during these turbulent times? I’ll repeat the answer I’ve been giving all along. Yes. I’ve even joked that the unsafest part of my visit to Turkey was the ride from the airport in a taxi that had removed the seatbelt–and I mean it. Istanbul is a big city and usual big city precautions apply–and Taksim at the height of a protest is not advisable if you have children with you.

Other than that, yes, do come to Istanbul. Especially now. This is not a caravan of despair.

My Writings on Social Media and Social Movements: A Selection

I write occasionally for other outlets besides my blog.  Hey, some of them are even academic papers! :-) People have been asking me for a selection so here you go.

Blog pieces elsewhere relating to Turkey and analyzing recent events:

Academic papers on social media and social movements:

Also, let me repost two very early pieces that remain relevant.

  • Delusions Aside, The Net’s Potential is Real: This is a pre-Arab Spring piece which responds to Evgeny Morozov’s first book, the Net Delusion, which I thought made some good points and included important corrections to some of the existing hype but also missed the big picture about the Internet’s potential (and was too Internet-centric, in my opinion, and conflated other structural failures with weaknesses of Internet’s impact on social movements ). I am happy to say I stand by my pre-Arab Spring review and feel like history has played out largely in favor of my arguments (though as I make clear in the review, I do not disagree with everything Mozorov said in the Net Delusion).
  • What Gladwell Gets Wrong:  This responds to Malcolm Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker which argued that Internet was not useful for social movements because it was mostly good for weak ties, and because social movements can only flourish from strong ties. I argued then that Gladwell suffers from not understanding the Internet, social movements, or how social ties operate, weak or strong. That one can almost pass without comment now (except to say that Malcolm Gladwell’s has a strong Igon Value Problem); however it is a good reminder of how primitive –and wrong– some discussion on the topic of social movements were just a few years ago.

 

What do #occupygezi Protesters Want? My Observations from Gezi Park

I have spent the last few days interviewing people in Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests as well as hanging out in the park, observing, chatting informally with everyone ranging from journalists to visitors to the park and occasionally getting massively tear gassed. My lungs continue to burn as I type this morning.

For context, let me first explain that most everything you have been seen on TV has been from the Taksim square where the most of the clashes are occurring between the police and few protesters. Those are, for the most part, groups that were  not necessarily part of the Gezi Park protests, but have moved to the area as things developed. Hence, you are getting the wrong impression from TV feeds focused solely on Taksim Square. That is not the Gezi Park protest I have been observing. [Here’s an article from the BBC explaining what it looks like now and what the plans are] [The park itself is often quite crowded and has become a complete tent city, with thousands to tens of thousands people in it at any one point, and hundreds of thousands during the weekend.]

Here’s an aerial view of the area.

The park on the right is now a tent city, and that’s where the protest is taking place. It all started when the government announced it was going to tear down this area and build a replica of an Ottoman army barracks with a shopping mall potentially integrated into it. It’s one of the few remaining green areas in the popular Taksim neighborhood. The small group of initial protesters were attacked 5am in the morning, their tents burnt down, and trees started being uprooted. The news spread via social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, as well as SMS and phone calls, and people started congregating in the area in response. After massive clashes for about a day or so, the police withdrew and the area grew into a large tent city and a protest. (The police and the clashes returned yesterday). For most of my time there, it was a festival like space: loud and boisterous, with occasional breaks for tear gas.

This is what the inside of the park lookseed like before the police attack last night:

There are libraries (since destroyed by the police), food center, restrooms, theater, and lots of formal and informal activities within the park. It’s a lively, peaceful and colorful space. Here’s the library before:

Well, here’s what the library looked like after the police entered the park on June 11th:

During yesterday’s clashes, there were indeed a few people who threw  “Molotov cocktails” at the police in the square –which you may have seen on TV because that is the kind of visual that television stations like to put on a loop– but in my observations, the Gezi park protesters are very alien to that kind of behavior. In fact, during those very clashes they tried to form a human chain around the park and stop such violence from happening. They made calls via their megaphones for it to stop. I have walked most every inch of the park and spoke to a wide range of people. The protesters I spoke with expressed strong commitment to non-violence.

Here’s the human chain attempt to stop the clashes between police and the Molotov throwers (who were about six people) and to protect the park. The chain was dispersed with gas and water canons:

In fact, even the slightest scuffle is in the park calmed down immediately.  I observed this first-hand when a visiting youngster, about 14 or 15, tried to pick a fight with an older man claiming that he had looked at his girlfriend the wrong way. Dozens of people immediately intervened, calmed the youngster, took him away, helped his girlfriend, asked her if she was okay, and generally made sure it was all calm again. “Not here, no fighting, not here” is heard as soon as any tensions arise. People are very proactive. This is not a let-and-let-live space in those regards (though it is in many others).

There is also a campaign within the park, with many signs, asking people not to consume alcohol –yes, I know it’s ironic as government’s attempts to legislate lifestyle issues such as alcohol consumption are part of people’s grievances. However, people I talk to say that it’s very important that they keep the park clean, well-behaved, cooperative and non-violent. Signs everywhere say that “nothing is for sale in the park.” Food, masks, medical and other supplies, clothes, etc. are distributed free of charge. (There is also a burgeoning “street peddler” ring in the perimeter areas of the park, selling helmets, masks and, happily for me, fresh “simit”–Turkish sesame bagels.)

After talking to the park protesters for days here is a very quick compilation of the main complaints and reasons people say brought them to the park:

1- Protesters say that they are worried about Erdogan’s growing authoritarian style of governance. “He thinks we don’t count.” “He never listens to anyone else.” “Why are they trying to pass laws about how I live? What’s it to him?”

Erdogan’s AKP party won the last election (its third) and is admittedly popular with many sectors of society, including some who are now in the Park have voted for him. It has accomplished many good things for the country through a program of reform and development. Any comparisons with Mubarak and pre-Tahrir 2011 Egypt are misplaced and ignorant. The country is polarized; it is not ruled by an unelected autocrat who has alienated everyone.

However, due to the electoral system which punishes small parties (with a 10% barrier for entrance to the parliament) and a spectacularly incompetent opposition, AKP has almost two-thirds of the deputies in the parliament with about 50% of the vote. Due to this set up, they can pass almost any law they want. People said to me “he rules like he has 90%.”

So, that seems to be the heart of the issue. People have a variety of grievances, but concentrate mostly about overreach and “majoritarian authoritarianism.”

For example, Erdogan recently announced that they would be building a third bridge over the Bosphorus strait. Many people felt that the plan was not discussed at all with the public and concerns about environmental impact ignored. Then, he announced that they had decided the bridge would be named “Yavuz Sultan Selim”–an Ottoman king (“padisah”) famous for a massacre of Alevi (Turkey’s alawites) populations. Unsurprisingly, Alevis who compromise a significant portion of the Turkish population were gravely offended. In the predominantly “GAzi” (not Gezi) neighborhood, people have been marching every night since the Taksim protests began. Last night, they blocked the main TEM highway for a while before voluntarily dispersing.

 

I asked someone from the Gazi neighborhood (GAzi neighborhood is not GEzi park.) why they were so angry and why there were protests there every night. “Wasn’t there anyone else in all of Turkey’s history to honor with the name of that bridge?” the person said. “Doesn’t he have a single Alevi friend to ask? Why can’t they ever ask someone about anything before announcing their decision?”

During the protests, Erdogan called the protesters “riff-raff” (capulcu) which has now been adopted by the protesters–they jokingly call themselves the riff-raff party. They are offended but also decided that they will call just respond with humor. Such dismissive language, undoubtedly, helps polarize the situation. “Why can’t he let us even have one little park?” was a common refrain among the people I interviewed. “Why must everything be his way?”

2- A very common and widespread complaint is about censorship in traditional. It is, indeed, much worse than I had thought. I had already blogged about how the CNN Turkey was showing penguin documentaries while the initial major clashes were ongoing, and while CNN International had a live feed to the clashes.

In the square, I chatted with journalists and people who told me they were journalists but joining the protests after their shift ended. They told me, some in tears, that they are not free. They said that the stories they file are shelved. One told me of being told “why don’t you rewrite this column” after writing a sharp critique of Erdogan’s stance during Arab Spring versus his stance now towards the protests.

I watched last night as the governor of Istanbul was “interviewed” on television on CNN Turkey (it’s not the worst or only awful one, but it’s notable.) There were ongoing clashes all day, in the middle of the biggest city in Turkey. The governor had said in the morning that the park would not be attacked. I was in the park all day and was tear gassed on and off all day–this was thoroughly documented. (I left when things got much worse and I couldn’t breathe, or obviously do interviews anymore. I’m there to interview, not to be tear gassed beyond rhyme or reason).

Instead of asking him tough questions, or even things that could be considered any kind of questions, the “interviewer” lobbed phrases that were so non-questions that “softball” would be a compliment. The “interview” ended with the “interviewer” asking the governor that perhaps they should end by having him repeat his call to parents. Oh, yes, the governor said. That’s a good note: “Parents should tell their children not to be in the park anymore. It’s not safe.” That is what passes for an interview.

Also, the few channels who were broadcasting the protests live were JUST hit by large fines by Turkey’s regulatory agency, RTÜK, for “inciting people to violence.” The level of control over the public sphere via media is worse that I had thought, and I was already worried. The journalists I spoke with said to me that it’s not just intimidation by government–many media publishers are also large conglomerates and want to keep good relations with the government for their business interests.

Unsurprisingly, social media, especially Twitter and Facebook have emerged as key protest and information conduits. Turkey also has no equivalent to “Al Jazeera” which played a major role during the Arab Spring. Most protesters I talked with said that this just wouldn’t be possible without especially Twitter and Facebook. Most people heard of what was going on in the park during the initial police attack (when the protest was small, the police moved in, burned the tents and started cutting down the trees) via Twitter and Facebook and showed up to try to protect the park. They couldn’t have heard it on mass media because it was broadcasting anything but the news. Penguins have become a mock symbol of the protest.

3- The police actions are a common cause of complaint among the protesters. The use of tear gas is quick and massive. This is not the first protest that has been subjected to massive tear gas. In fact, it seems to have become a modus operandi and main style of policing of demonstrations. Yesterday, while I was in the park, tear gas volleys regularly landed in the park. My interview recordings are interrupted by “gas breaks”: a bang, coughing. I watched people convulse and throw up from tear gas. I witnessed tear gas being thrown into the park when it was very crowded, creating a dangerous situation as people tried to run away and risked trampling. The park is experienced, though. As people panicked, lots of seemingly experienced protesters, started yelling for people to calm down, opening exits, helping people.

One of the key demands of the protests is freedom as assembly and freedom from this kind of police intervention.

Also, protesters were hit with tear gas canister–what had also happened in Egypt and killed many people. I personally saw a young man bleeding from the head on a stretcher being rushed to the “field hospital” area–which also got attacked with tear gas later. After him, another man came sobbing through the area. “They are aiming the canisters at our head. Aren’t they human? Aren’t we human?” he sobbed.

Here’s a picture I took of person in stretcher–he was bleeding from his head, not captured in the photo:

Here are some pictures during the day when the tear gas was lobbed inside the park. I don’t have a picture for some of the worst clashes when the park was basically engulfed in massive amounts of gas partly because it was a difficult situation and also partly because some of the worst happened after I left. These pictures are from June 11th, when the governor said the park would not be attacked.

I did not take this picture but it shows you how it can get:

This one I took–one of the many tear gas volleys fired into the park while I was there on June 11th.

I personally think tear gas should be regulated internationally and be used only in truly and rarely dangerous situations. We need an arms control treaty on tear gas. Not only is it not non-lethal, it has become a way to deny freedom of assembly. I understand that there are some situations that the police do need to use non-lethal force. The situation, however, seems out of hand–instead of a high bar for use of this substance, it has become something that is just lobbed. Some of this also has been documented in my twitter feed (I can be found as @zeynep).

I know that now I am going to be criticized heavily by some people in Turkey. Let me end with some clarifications. I have friends who are and remain strong AKP supporters and they, too, are mostly aghast at what has been happening. I’ve always tried to explain that the government has popular support and remains popular; however in a polarized country.

Rumors of Internet shut-down are false. In fact, throughout the protests, I have been able to tweet, with pictures, from the park (some mobile operators brought extra repeater trucks to the area). I lost Internet only once–during the worst clashes– and I later learned that one of the repeater trucks was on fire, likely contributing to the problem as well as tens of thousands of people desperately trying to call out. However, I witnessed the ridiculous levels of media censorship first hand and I heard some stories directly from journalists.

Some people asked my why I don’t go interview AKP supporters and their use of social media? In fact, I’d be happy to, at some point. I study social movements and social media so it is natural for me to interview protesters. The notion that AKP supporters do not use social media is false. The idea that AKP is just behind the times with such technologies is also false. The prime minister did indeed call Twitter a menace (or curse) to society, but all his top lieutenants are on social media and very active. So are, as far as I can tell, large portions of AKP’s own public. AKP is a tech-savvy party full of competent people. There is simply no comparison to Mubarak’s inept misunderstanding of the new media ecology.

And that’s it for now. I am now going to go back to the battered, tired Gezi Park and continue doing interviews for as long as I can. I shouldn’t have to interview with a helmet, though, in fear of tear gas canister landing on my head. The governor keeps promising that the park won’t be attacked. Here’s me interviewing yesterday in the park, and here’s hoping to less tear gas.

 Note: Hastily written, sorry for typos and lack of more links. To be corrected later.