Is there a Social-Media Fueled Protest Style? An Analysis From #jan25 to #geziparki

When I tell people I study social media, politics and social movements, I often get a version of the question: “But there were protests before Facebook?”

Sure, I say, but how did people hear about it? Word-of-mouth is, of course, one way but [in the modern era] [and especially in repressive settings]  it’s almost never never fast enough to spread protest of news quickly enough–remember, a political protest is a strategic game with multiple actors including a state which often wants to shut them down. Too slow diffusion of information, and your people will get arrested faster than they can show up at all. History of modern revolutions is always mixed up with the history and the structure of the communicative infrastructure of technology.***

That is why the speed of the initial response curve is crucial to whether a protest will survive or not. In Egypt, activists protested for many years on January 25 before 2011. But there were too few of them (100-150 per year) to sustain against the repression. On 2011, the initial day, there were about 5000-10000 people in Tahrir. It was too many, and it wasn’t the usual suspects (“It wasn’t just your usual activist friends, it was your Facebook friends”, an activist told me explaining how he knew it was different that time) and the movement was able to roll out from there. [Added: See footnote. I'm clarifying one aspect of a complex story. This is, of course, not the whole story!]

Turkey, my home country, is known for big demonstrations. After the Arab Spring, there were demonstrations of about a million people in Diyarbakir (a predominantly Kurdish region) and people asked me if this was Turkish spring. I laughed. Diyarbakır can have a million people to have party to sneeze together. The Kurdish opposition is well-organized and has always been able to bring large numbers to streets. May Day celebrations in Taksim, Turkey are legendary (they alternate between lethal and joyous and are often quite large). But they are also always organized by trade-unions and political parties.

Turkey has has a variety of large demonstrations over the years. Not a single large, widespread spontaneous one, though.

The last somewhat organic, widespread demonstrations I can remember in the 1980, post-coup era are the “1989 Spring” workers’ strikes and actions which were widespread and which culminated in the Zonguldak mine workers strike. And those were also somewhat- to completely-led by the trade unions.

Pretty much every other large, impactful political gathering in Turkey I know of has been organized by a traditional institutions.

So, Turkey has been a NAACP country, not Tahrir.

That is, until yesterday.

So, let’s get some of the Tahrir/Taksim comparisons out of the way. Turkey’s government, increasingly authoritarian or not, is duly elected and fairly popular. They have been quite successful in a number of arenas.  They were elected for the third time, democratically, in 2011. The economy has been doing relatively well amidst global recession, though it has slowed a bit recently and there are signs of worrisome bubbles. So, Turkey is not ruled by a Mubarak.

But it’s also not Sweden. The government has been displaying an increasingly tone-deaf, majoritarian-authoritarian tendency in that they are plowing through with divisive projects. (I should add that the opposition parties are spectacularly incompetent and should share any blame that goes around).

The government has also revolutionized Turkey’s government” services through the expansion of a spectacular level of e-government–which has greatly eased many people’s lives as bureaucracy is a major quality of life issue in countries like Turkey. This, in turn, has altered power relations between civic servants (who form the majority of the secular middle-class which does not vote for AKP) and the mass of citizens (many of whom do vote for AKP).

However, the expansion of e-government has also enabled and been accompanied by expansion of state surveillance. [So, in many ways Turkey is both more free and less free].

There has also been great pressure on media to self-censure (to be honest, most Turkish mainstream media is not lining up for press courage awards, either, so most have been compliant and cowardly to the degree that CNN Turkey was showing cooking shows while CNN international was showing the protests in Turkey as a major news story yesterday). Further, the government has been moving to legally “mandate” lifestyle choices regarding alcohol, Internet content, etc. to create obligatory behaviors rather than recognizing that there are large swaths of the country that does not agree with its views on what one should drink or watch (ironically, also among its own voters.)

So, what’s the underling structure of the protests? It’s an increasingly tone-deaf, majority government who is relatively popular but is pursuing unpopular, divisive projects; an incompetent opposition; a cowardly, compliant mass media scene PLUS widespread, common use of social media.

In Turkey, especially in large cities, almost everyone has at least one cell phone, and many of them are Internet enabled. (You must provide your citizen ID number to get one which also means that the surveillance capacity is also broad although the amount of data means that the surveillance is likely targeted rather than just broad and random). Facebook is very common, with more than 30 million users. (It’s in the top ten worldwide). About 16% of the Interet population also uses Twitter and, as in here, Twitter is very important exactly because who those 16% are. (In fact, probably more important because it is not everyone and creates a somewhat more exclusive space though that is eroding).

One area that has been creating increasing tension between the Turkish government and many citizens in Istanbul has been the urban renewal projects undertaken by AKP. Some, for sure, are popular like the “metrobus” that zips between the two continents in a dedicated lane, bypassing the torturous traffic jams. Others, like the “renewal” of the wonderful, unique tapestry of Tarlabaşı near Taksim, home to Roma, transexuals, urban poor and other misfits, by bulldozing this area to throw up soulless, concrete and glass structures to be built and sold, helpfully, by the prime-minister’s son-in-law, are largely unpopular ,both among the people who live in these areas or who inhabit the beautiful, vibrant areas around Taksim, Beyoglu, Cihangir.

So, it is not a coincidence that the latest incident was sparked by attempts to resist renewal of the “Gezi park” area of Taksim which has the last teeny-tiny bit of green in a very concrete, overbuilt part of Istanbul, historic Taksim. There was some long and complicated back-and-forth about this which ended with the government announcing that all or parts of the park might be replaced with a … shopping mall.

(Disclosure, I personally think most shopping malls are the secret 11th circle of hell, as described in the lost copy of the Dante’s Inferno that will be revealed in Don Brown’s next bestseller book!)

So, when a small –I repeat a very small, especially for Turkey– group of people tried to resist the bulldozers uprooting of the trees in Gezi to begin the construction, I did not think that much of it.

Here’s how small the protests were, from Aaron Stein’s tweet stream.

https://twitter.com/aaronstein1/status/340789304806739969

 

What happened next was a horrific, disproportionate police response which included a lot of tear gas and beating up of protesters. However, I should note that this, too is not unprecedented. Not at all. This Reuters image, which rang around the world, makes the situation fairly clear.

Reuters / Osmn Orsal

Then, the incompetent and cowardly media coverage started acting as usual–which meant a general blackout of crucial news. This, too, is not unprecedented. Many major news events, recently, have been broken on Twitter including the accidental bombing of Kurdish smugglers in Roboski (Uludere in Turkish) which killed 34 civilians, including many minors.  That story was denied and ignored by mainstream TV channels while the journalists knew something had happened. Finally, one of them, Serdar Akinan, was unable to suppress his own journalist instincts and bought his own plane ticket and ran to the region. His poignant photos of mass lines of coffins, published on Twitter, broke the story and created the biggest political crisis for the government. Serdar, unfortunately, got fired from his job as a journalist.

Here’s Serdar’s Twitter pictures breaking the news about the biggest political scandal in Turkey in years, in face of mass media silence on the topic. (Twitter search failing me in finding his original tweet but here he is telling people he is going to the area, by himself, as the silence about the bombings continues on media).

Serdar Akinan's groundbreaking photos from Roboski (Uludere)

 

It was after the Gezi protesters were met with the usual combination of tear-gas and media silence something interesting started happening. The news of the protests started circulating around social media, especially on Twitter and Facebook. I follow a sizable number of people in Turkey and my Twitter friends include AKP supporters as well as media and academics. Everyone was aghast at the idea that a small number of young people, trying to protect trees, were being treated so brutally. Also, the government, which usually tends to get ahead of such events by having the prime minister address incidents, seemingly decided to ignore this round.  They probably thought it was too few, too little, too environmental, too marginal.

On that, it seems they were wrong. Soon after, I started watching hashtags pop-up on Twitter, and established Twitter personas –ranging from media stars to political accounts– start sharing information about solidarity gatherings in other cities, and other neighborhoods in Istanbul. Around 3am, I had pictures from many major neighborhoods in Turkey –Kadıköy, Bakırköy, Beşiktaş, Avcılar, etc– showing thousands of people on the streets, not really knowing what to do, but wanting to do something. There was a lot of banging of pots, flags, and slogans. There were also solidarity protests in Izmit, Adana, Izmir, Ankara, Konya, Afyon, Edirne,Mersin, Trabzon, Antalya, Eskişehir, Aydın and growing.

So, as far as I can remember, these are the first protests in Turkey in the post-80 coup era that are less like NAACP-organized civil rights protests, and more like social-media fueled Tahrir protests.  (Just so people don’t get confused, there are significant differences between Egypt 2011 and Turkey starting with the fact that AKP is a duly elected, relatively popular government that has been growing tone-deaf and authoritarian/majoritarian).

So, is there a social-media style of protest? I think we have enough examples now to say there seems to be, and here are some of their common elements. (Examples include Egypt and Tunisia, M15 in Spain, Occupy, Gezi in Turkey, Greece, etc).

1- Lack of organized, institutional leadership. This also makes it hard for anyone to “sell out” the movement because nobody can negotiate on behalf of it. (For hilarious versions, read Wael Ghonim’s version of how Mubarak officials tried to convince him to call of the protests in return for concessions as he tried to explain that he had no such power!)

On the other hand, this means that the movement cannot negotiate gains either because.. Well, because it cannot negotiate.

2- A feeling of lack of institutional outlet. In the case of Egypt, this was because elections were rigged and politics banned. In Turkey, media has been cowered and opposition parties are spectacularly incompetent.  In Occupy in US, there was a feeling that the government and the media are at the hands of the moneyed interests and corrupt.

3- Non-activist participation. I think this is crucial. Most previous big demonstrations in Turkey are attended by people who have attended demonstrations before.  Tahrir protests 2011, Tunisia December 2010,  Gezi 2013 drew out large numbers of non-activists.

4- Breaking of pluralistic ignorance. I have made this argument before but revolutions, political upheavals, and large movements are often result of breaking of “pluralistic ignorance”–ie the idea that you are the only one, or one of few, with a view. Street demonstrations, in that regard, are a form of social media in that they are powerful to the degree that allow citizens to signal a plurality to their fellow citizens, and help break pluralist ignorance. (Hence, the point isn’t whether the signalling mechanism is digital or not, but whether how visible and social it is).

5-Organized around a “no” not a “go.” Existing social media structures allow for easier collective action around shared grievances to *stop* or *oppose* something (downfall of Mubarak, stopping a government’s overreach, etc) rather than strategic action geared towards obtaining political power. This is probably the single biggest weaknesses of these movements and the reason why they don’t make as much historical impact as their size and power would suggest in historical comparison. However, in the end, politics happens where politics happens and staying out or being unable to join results in a tapering, whimpering out effect as the movement slowly dissipates as it runs out of tactical moves and goas.

6-External Attention. Social media allows for bypassing domestic choke-points of censorship and reach for global attention. This was crucial in the Arab Spring (and we know many people tweeting about it were outside the region which makes Twitter more powerful in its effects, not less.

Here’s CNN International showing Turkey protests while CNN Turkey shows a cooking show. (Image widely circulated on social media):

CNN International covers the Gezi protests while CNN Turkey shows cooking shows.

Through social media, protesters learned that the whole world, or at least some portions of it, was indeed watching. Since protests are as much about signaling more than they are about force (as protesters are almost never more powerful than state security forces), this is a crucial dynamics.

7- Social Media as Structuring the Narrative. Here and in other protests, we saw that social media allows a crowd-sourced, participatory, but also often social-media savvy activist-led structuring of  the meta-narrative of what is happening, and what shape the collective grievances should take. Stories we tell about politics are incredibly important in shaping that very politics and social media has opened a new and complicated novel path in which meta-narratives about political actions emerge and coalesce.

8-Not Easily Steerable Towards Strategic Political Action. This we have seen again and again and is related to point number 5. Social-media fueled collective action lacks the affordances of politics an institutional arrangement –political party, NGO, etc– can provide.

Where is this going? I can’t offer predictions but I do emphasize that this is not going to topple the Turkish government by itself. This is not Tahrir, 2011, but it is an interesting inflection point among the frustrated but powerful segments of the Turkish society who believe that the current government has decided to run roughshod over them and cannot find efficacious outlets for their opposition.

[added] Here’s a striking example of what media cowardice and self-censorship looks like. New York Times covered the Turkey protests on the front page of its online site. Sabah, a major newspaper in Turkey, did not put one of the biggest protests in Turkey on its front page at all.

(Image circulating on social media)

What happens next depends on many factors including the government response and the depth of the feeling among the Gezi protesters. I doubt, however, that this is the last social-media fueled protest we have seen.

OBLIGATORY FOOTNOTE:

*** It should be needless to say at this point but just so someone who thinks this is somehow a profound comment doesn’t feel like they have to point it out fifty times in the comments section: OF COURSE REVOLUTIONS ARE MULTI-CAUSAL, COMPLEX EVENTS AND THE COMMUNICATION INFRASTRUCTURE DOES NOT CAUSE THE UNDERLYING GRIEVANCES BUT RATHER IT HELPS STRUCTURE WHAT KIND OF, IF ANY, COLLECTIVE ACTION IS ORGANIZED AROUND THE GRIEVANCES.

(Sorry for the all-caps but I spent the 2011 “Arab Spring” year having to respond to people who felt compelled to keep saying  political uprisings are about social, economic and cultural grievances as if there were actual serious people who claimed otherwise–and as if that fact meant the communicative infrastructure was irrelevant which is either the view of a naive person who has never lived under a censorship regime where it becomes blindingly obvious why communication infrastructure matters–yes, all the way back to 1848 and even the French revolution as those stories are intertwined with the development of print, telegraph, railroads (which carry news and newspapers), etc.)

**** (Also, I wrote this very fast in an otherwise very busy week. I will correct typos(!), update links, as I get a chance!) This is a “fast and dirty” analysis, not meant to be comprehensive, include every factor, does not list every misstep by the government or by the protesters, nor does it provide the exhaustive or complete list of every factor!

[Final Note: This was a hastily written post but I stand by the analysis, if not the clunky writing. :-) Those asking permission to translate. Thank you. Go ahead, just drop me a line and a link back here so I know about it.

Existing translations I know of:

Italian: http://www.valigiablu.it/proteste-e-social-media-unanalisi-da-jan25-a-geziparki/

French: http://politiquedunetz.sploing.fr/2013/06/est-ce-que-les-medias-sociaux-engendrent-un-type-particulier-de-protestations-une-analyse-de-geziparki-par-zeynep-tufekci/

Let me know if there are others.]


Your Children are not Your Children: Why NYT public editor (@Sullivew) is Wrong on Children’s Right to Privacy

There has been a rash of irresponsible decisions by parents and national media in forcing national exposure on children who are clearly below an age for any reasonable definition of consent. An oft-stated argument is that the exposure was about “something with which there is nothing wrong” and therefore exposure is okay.

That is wrong and a dangerous view of privacy. I think every adult can ponder this for 60 seconds and come up with parts of their life with which there is “nothing wrong” but they would not want subjected to national exposure.

Further, that view gravely misunderstands privacy and the right to consent.  Privacy is not something to be granted only if you prove you deserve it; on the contrary, there should be a strong reason to violate it.

Finally, privacy is contextual and different levels of exposure are not the same thing. Being a transgendered kid in a school is a significantly different experience than having national media articles about your transgendered experience as a six-year-old be the defining features of your online presence.

An example that particularly outraged me was the Time magazine cover last year that showed a mom shown breastfeeding her almost-four-year old kid –in a very unnatural position set up to maximize exposure—with her name printed on the cover–and the kid looking directly into the camera, along with the awful headline “Are you Mom Enough?”

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with breastfeeding a kid that age—though, historically speaking many cultures wean children around two or three years of age. Women want to breastfeed in public? That’s fine too, and if anyone is disturbed they can look away. It’s their problem. Time Magazine wants to do a story on lengthier than usual breastfeeding? Go right ahead–and please talk about lack of maternity leave for new parents (US is the worst among most developed nations) which makes it hard for most women to breastfeed at all.

But when a four year old is asked to stand on a stool –a very weird set-up pretending to be about attachment parenting but is all about the photograph– and look directly to the camera and be on the cover of a national magazine, you have to discuss the issue of consent by children.

While consent can be tricky at times, in cases like this, it’s not. A four year-old cannot understand the concept of national exposure, let alone consent to it. And the media should not override that child’s privacy interests without a very strong reason balanced by that child’s best interests. Let’s not manufacture “controversy” when there should be none, and let’s not pretend a ploy to grab attention is actually about parenting, or that child’s own best interests.

A more recent, but more nuanced, case was the story of a transgender child who was named and photographed in a profile by the New York Times. The NYT public editor, Margaret Sullivan wrote on her blog that the decision to name the child was made because “parental approval, along with the child’s own willingness, should rule the day” and that since either was nothing wrong with being transgender, there were no “privacy concerns” to balance in this case.

First, that young a child’s willingness is meaningless and invoking it is irresponsible. And parents do not own their children’s consent, they are merely entrusted with it–which means that children’s best interests need to be considered.

Second, the idea that if there is nothing wrong with something therefore there are no issues of privacy regarding that topic is probably the most dangerous misunderstanding about privacy out there. Let’s explore both.

First on consent by children: my research means that I mostly talk with and survey two age groups—middle schoolers and college students. I find that it’s hard for even those age groups –much much older than the preschoolers and elementary school kids we are talking about here– to understand national exposure, or to deal with consequences of such decisions. With college students, obviously, we assume that they are young adults–even there, we still need to do a lot more to educate them as they, too, struggle deal with the ramifications of privacy in a networked world where exposure can get out of control much quicker and in hard-to-anticipate manner.  Middle schoolers, on the other hand, often have little thought of exposure beyond their peer groups and also find it difficult to conceptualize the life-transitions that they may go through. (Has everyone really forgotten what it is like to be that age?)

Preschoolers consenting to national exposure? Heck, as sociologist Kieran Healy said in a tweet replying to me, a six year old will consent to most anything if you promise them ice cream.  I am aghast that this is not obvious. They cannot understand the concept of national exposure.

 

As children get older, their ability consent and understanding grows and one starts entering gray areas and societally, we draw an arbitrary line around that gray area and declare eighteen to be adult. I understand that a teenager may decide to choose national exposure–and sometimes such issues can get tricky. I am not at all advocating that trans or queer kids hide –in fact, I’m all for making their schooling experience, as much as possible, separated from their experience of gender tensions.

Second, let’s get to the question of that erroneous understanding of privacy: “if there is nothing wrong with X, then there are no considerations of privacy of exposure.” Put in your favorite X here: breastfeeding, transgender children, who your friends are on Facebook, what movies you like or hate…

Privacy and exposure and contextual variables and are not about secrets from everyone but about your integrity as a person and your right to share information about yourself on your own terms. (Hellen Nissenbaum’s “Privacy in Context” and Daniel J. Solove’s “Nothing to Hide” are two great primers on this topic). The opposite of “secret” or “shameful” is not “national exposure is okay.” Who in any position of power applies that principle to everything about their own lives? How can we justify forcing that view of privacy on children?

There are a lot of complex issues to deal with here—for example, what right do other parties to a social interaction have to reveal its contents? When is an otherwise private matter of public concern? What should consensual privacy decisions look like and how do we deal with violations? How can we education children and young adults who are struggling with these issues? But then there are other issues on which we can draw clearer lines.

Let me give a deliberately provocative example: child sexuality. If you read any research or talk to any preschool teacher, you find that it is normal and fairly common for very young children to have an emergent sense of sexuality. They ask questions, they explore, they touch, they feel. There is nothing wrong with this if kids are allowed to be kids and not drawn into dealing with this on adult terms or be subjected to adult manipulations. Can we or should we nationally expose any one child’s emergent sexuality for adult consumption because there is nothing wrong with it per se?  No, no, no.

So, let’s get back to the case of this transgender child. I applaud her parents for advocating for her. As they have already found out, this can be difficult for children to navigate. Schools should try to help all children feel welcome and to destigmatize the spectrum of human experience.  That age group (like middle-schoolers) often goes through a heightened gender-stereotype period (which comes up in my research) where they become overly-rigidly attached to gender categories in ways they will likely grow out of (the attack of the princess period, the crazy overdone makeup of middle schoolers, etc.)

In the case of this child, though, per parents advocating for her does not mean she has consented to be a “quite literally, the poster child” for this issue. We do not know if she will grow up preferring to not be known as having transitioned to another gender. Maybe she’ll change her mind. It happens and we should give her the space to do so (the definition of freedom, no?) which is obviously harder as a “poster child” with national exposure. Maybe she’ll really prefer not to have this issue define her middle and high school experience (which, barring a name change, her parents have all but guaranteed). Maybe she will want to be a poster child in her own terms. I don’t know, you don’ know, and neither do the parents.

This clearly calls for erring on the side of caution–and the best interest of the child is the space to make her decisions on her own terms, not under a crushing media spotlight.

How about kids with Down Syndrome or autism, asks Margaret Sullivan’s piece. It’s a similar issue but there are obviously differences. For one thing, both of those are more visible differences so a child often does not have a choice on whether their peers know their atypical attributes. On the other hand, a transgendered child may have an experience where many of her peers approach her without that issue in the foreground at all. Further, of course parents of kids with disabilities and media should consider if their kids can consent to be “poster children” for their circumstances. It will dramatically impact their experience growing up in this networked environment. The answer is not an automatic yes.

So, here are some thoughts on how to approach this topic:

1- Is the name and photo of the child essential to the story? If not, please consider caution to be prudent.

2- Is the child too young to appreciate national exposure and therefore cannot consent?  If yes, please assume no consent and ask the next question. (Should be obvious that preschoolers cannot consent and I’d argue that anyone below middle school should be“no consent” and be evaluated case-by-case after that age.)

3–Is there a very specific, tangible and important benefit to the child from the exposure that cannot be gained without the name and the photo? (Surely, the same article can be written without the name or the photo of the kid in this case, no?).  For example, a kidnapped child and an “amber alert” clearly fit into this category. Plastering the kid’s photo on the national news might save the kids life so, yes, let’s do that. But, always, we should also ask the last question:

4-Can we reasonably assume circumstances that the child grows up and wishes the exposure never happened? If yes, can we consider this again?

As a final note, I do know that The New York Times argues that “Katie Couric did it first” by having the parents and the child on the show. Well, that was clearly wrong of the parents and the Katie Couric show–but that doesn’t make subsequent exposures okay. In any case, I wrote more to make the principles explicit than judge which exposure was worst or who gets the most blame.

Finally, I really wish that parents, editors of national media, highly-visible websites, and anyone who feels that it is their prerogative to push this level of exposure on children would recognize that its heart, this is an exercise of power over a vulnerable individual. There may be cases in which there is good reason to do so but “the six-year old child consented” and “there’s nothing wrong with the thing being exposed” are not good reasons.

I end with Khalil Gibran’s timeless poem “On Children.”

On Children

Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Habemus Erratum: How Twitter Could Help Fight the Spread of Errors

A common complaint about online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook is that errors and rumors propagate too easily. For example, Andy Carvin’s recent book A Distant Witness has striking examples from the Arab uprisings of 2011–and documents his extensive efforts to counter and quelch them. It’s certainly important for some people to actively play the role of fact-checkers but a lot of the errors are honest mistakes made by a wide variety of people. I’ve written previously on comparing structural sources of error in traditional journalism with social media environments and there is a lot to be done at the institutional and individual level. But that is never the whole picture. We should also be thinking about the role of design of online platforms on how to counter, correct and halt the spread of errors.

Of course, the way errors propagate (or don’t) also depends on the composition of your social network—as I discovered within seconds after I sent out an erroneous piece of information on Twitter about the new Pope:

I had corrections pouring in almost within seconds. To be honest, it was a careless mistake. I apologize. I was correcting proofs of a peer-reviewed article of mine using a restricted version of Adobe–and I was frustrated. I turned to the excellent “The Lede” section of the New York Times to see how they were covering the announcement of the new Pope. The event seemed like a clear example of a “Media Event” –spectacles performed to be consumed by (often global) publics such as the Olympics, royal weddings, etc. which were first explored by the classic book by Dayan & Katz.

The naming of the Pope had clearly become a global media event but now with the addition of social media to its shaping—most everyone on my Twitter timeline (ranging from Egyptian revolutionaries to Turkish students to academics to journalists) was either talking about it or complaining about why others were talking about it. Almost all worldwide trending topics were about the papal transition. The new Pope-to-be had captivated that crucial, scarce resource: attention.

And then the Pope was announced and immediately, The Lede posted that there was a personal twitter account of the new Pope.  The new Pope’s speech had just mentioned new communication technologies. Robert Mackey, who runs the Lede, is a journalist experienced in using social media and has always been very keen on figuring out false information out there so I started with trusting the information.  It all seemed plausible in my less-than-fully careful state. I glanced over to the alleged account, translated a few of the tweets and put out the aforementioned erroneous tweet and decided that it was about time I returned to wrestling with Adobe.

Of course, as you can see above, my tweeps jumped to correct my careless mistake. I think I had dozens of people within two minutes. (I take this as a compliment to my own efforts to engage with careful, sharp people on social media!) In fact, I have seen this happen many times—Twitter may make it easy for errors to propagate but it also makes the corrections easy to propagate. The process of correction can often be much faster than traditional journalism where major errors –reporting on Iraq’s non-existent stocks of Weapons of Mass Destruction—persist for years and only be corrected after it’s all too late.

Of course, I quickly corrected my error as did The Lede and as did Robert Mackey on Twitter. The problem, remained, though, with the original tweet.  It was still there and I started pondering what to do about it.

Here are my options as Twitter design currently affords:

1- I can delete the erroneous tweet. That would also “disappear” the retweets but it would not alert the retweeters that I had deleted it. How would they know something in their past timeline was now gone? It would be an unknown unknown to them—they wouldn’t know that they don’t know I corrected it. It would also disappear the record of my error—not a big deal in my case but there is reason to think that keeping a record of errors is healthier for journalism.

2- I can keep issuing corrections in the hopes that everyone who retweeted my original tweet will see it. Odds of success? My experiments say very little. People dip in and out of streams so corrections don’t always get seen.

3-I can “mention” everyone who retweeted my erroneous tweet—poke them in the eye with the correction, so to speak. I can also urge them to “retweet” my correction so that their network who saw the error in their own timeline can also see the correction.

However, even as I was thinking all of this (and discussing it on Twitter) more and more people were retweeting my original tweet.  Not only were tweeps not seeing my correction, they were somehow seeing my error, untouched, and not noticing the many, many comments under it correcting it.

Here’s why it’s useful to think about how design and “affordances” –what design allows, makes easy, makes hard, facilitates and inhibits—influence our social processes.  Twitter makes it easy for errors to propagate and also makes it easy for people to challenge errors. But it does not make it easy to correct honest mistakes one makes and wishes to correct.

What would such an affordance—a new feature—look like?

Here’s one suggestion.

First, it has to make sure the “error” is clearly marked as error–which is why Alexis Madrigal put a huge “fake” or “real” or “unverified” in bold colors in of photos he was verifying or debunking during Hurricane Sandy: just the existence of the photo in a high-profile outlet can help propagate the error even if the text says the photo is fake unless the world “fake” and the photo are inextricably intertwined:

Second, it has to be a push mechanism.  Pushing content to people is tricky business but there is no iron law that it cannot be done—but it is certainly open to abuse.  Issues of consent certainly matter and I think it is perfectly justified for Twitter to assume following someone PLUS retweeting their content as implied consent to the occasional, simple correction by the originator.

Third, it has to be straightforward and limited so it does not become a way to push spam or other unwanted content or to repush a message.

So, I suggest Twitter lets me push the same tweet but now visibly slapped with one of three simple labels on it: “ERROR”, “RETRACTED” or “SORRY” nothing more.  There should be a limit to how often you can do this (Only one per hour?). It should go to every person who retweeted the original message based on the assumption that if they are interested enough to retweet, they should be interested enough in the correction.

So, I want something like this to be shown to everyone who retweeted the original message, as well as this appearing on the original tweet itself:

Why not? Twitter already pushes promoted content, and it has made many design changes over the years. It has incorporated many innovations that were pioneered by users into its  platform–that’s how we got the native retweet in the first place. This one could significantly help Twitter’s reliability as a platform—and given its key role in breaking news and a place for citizen journalism, it would be a healthy move.

 

Yes, Graphic Photos Should be Published but New York Post was Wrong to Publish Victim on Tracks

There is a heated argument on whether New York Post should have posted the photo of the last moments of the unfortunate man who was pushed on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. As a person who’s long advocated publishing of graphic photos, I feel compelled to spell out why I think this one was wrong—and why this is not at all like other incidents people are comparing this one to, like the photo of starving child stalked by a vulture which still makes me cry.

I see a lot of graphic pictures. During my visit to Mexico last month, my location got Facebook suspicions. I could not log on without verifying that I was indeed, me.  I chose the standard method of verifying my account by identifying Facebook friends from photos they posted.

I soon hit a glitch. My many Facebook friends in the Middle East and North Africa post pictures not of themselves, but of what’s going on in their countries. Hence, I found myself staring at pictures of people being tear gassed, clubbed, dead children, dead adults, body parts, a lot of blood, people rushing people in make-shift stretchers and taxis, collapsed houses, rubble, mortar, and the occasional baby picture, Christmas tree, and conference photo from my academic friends!

I wanted to log on to Facebook so I tried to see if I could figure it out.  Facebook lets you choose poster of photo among five choices so I tried to guess the country depending on the level of violence.

“This one has dead people in a rubble, so probably Syria or Gaza. The house is pancaked, so likely missile not a mortar, so Gaza?” “Hmm, a person was shot directly with a tear gas canister, probably  Egypt or Bahrain.” “This has a very large crowd, so the demonstration is probably in Egypt, not Bahrain where they would have been dispersed quickly and the Tunisian demonstration was smaller.”

From there on,  I’d look at the list of options and hope there was only one person from Egypt among the choices for what looked like a Cairo protest or one Syrian for the dead child photo. It turns out, countries have signature violence. I managed to make enough guesses and log on.

These days, my social media stream  is one long stream of such graphic photos. I dare not open Facebook unless I’m sitting in a safe space, preferably door closed, and with some time on my hands and an emotional space to deal with whatever I am going to look at.

I often wish more of those pictures made it to mainstream newspapers.  I was incredulous that the front page Washington Post photo of the 11 month old baby boy of BBC cameraperson in Gaza, wrapped in shrouds and no dead baby visible, caused controversy and some people argued it should not have been published.  Compared to what I look at every day –and what many people in the region and other war-torn places live with—that was a very, very tame photo. More photos of human damage of war, famine and other threats to human beings should be published.

I’ve long advocated for publishing graphic photos as appropriate. I’ve defended many such decisions. I think TV news distances and “shrink-wraps” human suffering, and I believe such mode of reporting is against the public interest. I do understand that graphic photos can’t just be splashed everywhere at all times, but I do advocate more displaying of reality of war and other tragedies.

And I think publishing graphic photos is especially important in cases where there is something that can be done, or if we bear some collective responsibility either by acts of omission or commission, to try to do something, or stop doing something. For example, if we had on the ground reporting after every drone strike in Afghanistan, would the humanitarian implications of these attacks receive so little attention? Would “collateral damage” remain so acceptable?

Coming from this background, I’ll admit that when I first saw the graphic photo of the unfortunate person pushed to the tracks in New York City subway on the front page of the Post, I was startled. To be clear, the photo has news value.  There certainly are reasons to publish it, if for no other reason to create the discussion it did on the role and obligations of bystanders in cases of dangers to others in such moments.

But, overall, the publishing of that photo and the manner it was handled is wrong on multiple accounts. Let me try to get away from the specifics a bit and try to draw out some thoughts on ethics of such cases.

1. First let’s be clear. The cases in which there is a split-second in which the decision whether to take the photo or help the victim are very, very, very few.  Almost all graphic photos I have seen in my life are not of this kind. I can hardly think of a few. (No, the other famous cases you are thinking of –starving child and the vulture and the Vietnamese Napalm victim aren’t such photos—I’ll explain in a moment).  So, here’s a clear ethical principle. If the photo represents a choice between potential saving a life, or clicking, that photo should not be purchased, monetized or paid for. The split-second decision is for the photographer to make –what level of danger can we impose on other people?—but the decision to purchase is clear. It should not be purchased. *IF* NY Post paid for that photo, that is wrong.

That split-second moment is harrowing enough. There should be no money equation entering the already difficult moment. The next person who finds herself in such a difficult, tragic moment should instinctively know that there will be no money in this picture. Paying-after-the-fact is wrong not as a single act, but as creating a climate.

2.  If the photo is representative of an on-going, massive crime or tragedy for which that photo is indeed a striking representative of other numerous victims, there is strong argument for the photo. A one-off, random and fluke tragedy –person pushed on to the tracks which happens once a decade or even less often— does not have the same news value in terms of representativeness as one child among tens of thousands of dead in a famine, or one child burnt by Napalm among hundreds of thousands maimed in the same war. In such cases, the impulse to take the picture and to publish it is more defensible, but should still be subject to the split-second rule. It takes a second to take the photo. If the line between life and death is a second, choose life.

3. The pictures people are comparing this to –like that photo of the vulture stalking a child or the girl burnt by Napalm (links found at Kelly McBride’s excellent article here) pass the split second test.  In both cases, the photographer snapped the photo and rushed to aid—the vulture was chased off and UT aided the child and took her to a hospital.  The split second was not between life and death. (Kevin Carter who photographed the starving child committed suicide that year).  Further, in both cases, the victims were representatives of tens of thousands of suffering children whose plight was exemplified and graphically captured by the photo—and the publicizing of the suffering is thus valuable and can potentially help save many, many others. Those photos itself has argument for life on its side, as tragic, harrowing and awful the situation and the choices in that moment may be.

4. Whenever possible, victims’ families should be consulted or considered, although they do not always have the final say. There are many cases of activists, for example, who have different wishes than their families so care and sensitivity and care is called for in this judgment. In this case, the NY Post chose to put the photo on the front page in a sensationalized, insensitive manner in the city where the victim’s family lives. Considering the rare nature of the tragedy, lack of broader news value, and the question that will haunt the victim’s loved ones forever –could he have been saved?—it seems like nothing but crass opportunism.

5. None of us were there so we also need to be sensitive to judging the photographer or the other bystanders.  How dangerous did the situation seem? How many seconds was the unfortunate man on the tracks? Could he have been helped? That is all past, now, and this man is dead.  It is not like the other cases where ethical on-going and active judgment is called for because a tragedy is ongoing due to our acts of commission or omission –such as in cases like wars, famines, and natural disasters.  There is little point to second guessing that sad, tragic awful moment and it is time for let the family mourn. (We can, however, freely celebrate those who do act heroically in such moments such as Wesley Autrey or Chad Lindsey).

In sum:  if the event is one-off and rare in nature, if the subject of the photo is not representative of an ongoing tragedy with many other victims, and if there is a split-second decision in which taking of the photo and trying to save the victim clash, that does not qualify as a graphic photo whose taking, purchasing and publication serves public interest and consequently what New York Post has done is crass and indefensible—and also indefensibly insensitive to the victim’s family.

David Brooks is mistaken, Joe Scarborough is wrong, and Nate Silver type statistical models are good for democracy

Reading about the debate over Nate Silver’s model, I came across this very revealing quote by Joe Scarborough, and how statistical innumeracy is hampering a discussion of polls, statistical models, and election predictions.  According to Politico’s Byers, Scarborough said this on television:

“Nate Silver says this is a 73.6 percent chance that the president is going to win? Nobody in that campaign thinks they have a 73 percent chance — they think they have a 50.1 percent chance of winning. And you talk to the Romney people, it’s the same thing. … And anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.”

In the same article, Byers  says that NYT columnist David Brooks said this on PBS earlier this month: “The pollsters tell us what’s happening now. When they start projecting, they’re getting into silly land.”

David Brooks is mistaken and Joe Scarborough is wrong. Pollsters can’t project but statistical models can and do—and they do some predictions very well. We rely on statistical models for many decisions every single day –-including, crucially, weather, medicine, and pretty much any complex system in which there is an element of uncertainty to the outcome– and dismissing them is not only incorrect, it is politically harmful for two reasons in the case of electoral politics. One, it perpetuates the faux “horse-race” coverage which takes election discussions away from substantive issues and turns into a silly, often unfounded, time-wasting exercise in fake punditry of who is 0.1% ahead. (For example, there may well be reasons to consider Ohio as a toss-up state but “absolute necessity for Romney to win the state if he wants to be president” is not one of them as Chris Cillizza argues).

There is a fundamental confusion here. The election can indeed be won by 50.1% of the national vote –which is what Scarborough is talking about– (more correctly by 270 electoral votes which can be won with even less). But, at the same time, the chances of getting past that 270 electoral votes margin can be 80%. Heck, the odds of Obama passing 270 votes can be 90% and still the election can be close in terms of the margin of winning. The first (how many electoral votes Obama/Romney win and the vote percentage) is the outcome of the election. The second is the odds –the probability– of a particular outcome happening. Polls and statistical models are not predictions about the same thing.

In his column last week, David Brooks says “If there’s one thing we know, it’s that even experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.”  He gives examples of stock market predictions by corporate financial officers. He has certain points I agree with –yes, CFOs are not very good at predictions and yes there is no point in checking individual polls every few hours. However, experts with fancy computer models are good at predicting many thing in the aggregate–including results of elections, which are not about predicting a single person’s behavior (yes, great variance there) but lend themselves well to statistical analysis–the same methods by which we can tell a hurricane was about to hit the United States many days in advance. This isn’t wizardry, this is sound science of complex systems. Uncertainty is an integral part of it–but uncertainty does not mean we don’t know anything and we are completely in the dark, and everything is a toss-up.

Polls tell you the likely outcome with some uncertainty and some sources of error (known and unknown). Statistical models take a bunch of factors (in the case of elections: lots of polls, structural factors (how the economy is doing), what we know about turnout, demographics, etc.) and run lots of simulated “elections” by varying those outcomes according to what we know and we think we can reasonably infer about the range of uncertainty given historical precedents and our logical models, and they produce probability distributions.

So, Nate Silver takes all the polls we have, adds in certain factors to his model that have been shown to have impacted election outcomes in the past and runs lots and lots of lots of elections and looks at the probability distribution of the results. What his model says is that currently, given what we know, if we run a gabazillion modeled “elections”, Obama wins 80% of the time. Note that this isn’t saying if we had all those elections on the same day we’d get different results (we wouldn’t), rather, we are running many simulated elections reflecting the range of uncertainty in our data. The election itself will “collapse” this probability distribution and there will be a single result. [Last two sentences have been added for clarity with much thanks to Nathan Jurgenson for the suggestion and edits.]

Since we will have one election it’s possible that Obama can lose. However, Nate Silver’s and others’ statistical models would remain robust and worth keeping and expanding.  This is important because refusing to run statistical models because they produce probability distributions rather than absolute certainty is irresponsible. For many important issues –climate change!—statistical models are all we have, and all we can have. We still need to take them seriously and act on them (well, that is if you care about life on earth as we know it, blah, blah, blah).

Statistical models are a standard and well-established method in many sciences and are absolutely key to reasonable risk analysis of complex events. Nate Silver may be the face of electoral statistical model but here’s a site run by people at Princeton. This kind of modeling is important work that requires expertise and care but it is not some dark science of wizards. (Also, frankly, Silver gives a lot of information about his model and it all sounds reasonable but it would be great if it became more open source at some point for more peer-review. :-))

So when Nate Silver’s model gives Obama 80% of passing 270 electoral votes, this is not a prediction for a landslide—it is not even overwhelming odds. A one to five chance is pretty close odds. One in five chance of getting hit by a bus today would not make me very happy to step outside the house–nor would I stop treatment for an illness if I were told I had a one in five chance of survival. If I were Romney’s campaign manager, I’d still continue to believe I had a small but reasonable chance of winning and realize that GOTV efforts can swing this close an election. Again, the election remains pretty close but also the odds that Obama will win remain pretty high—those statements are not in conflict. This kind of modeling is scientifically and methodologically sound and well-established.

One reason for the discrepancy between the odds of a win by Obama and closeness of the vote percentages is that the US electoral system is “winner-takes-all” which means that 50.1% of a state gets 100% of the Electoral College votes for a state. And there are many states in which the polls suggest the candidates are only a few percentage points apart. Given that polls have known sources of error (even if you poll perfectly, you will get results outside the margin of error approximately one in twenty times for a 95% confidence interval) and as well as the existence of unknown sources (cell phones? likely voter screens?), and given that polls do not measure factors such as Get-Out-the-Vote efforts which can make a huge difference in close elections in winner-take-all-systems, it remains a very close election. It also remains hugely and significantly tilted towards an Obama win.

In fact I share a wish with Sam Wang of Princeton that sound statistical models –done the way it should be done– should replace the horse-race coverage of every single poll–which drowns out important policy conversations we should be having. As Wang explains, he started doing statistical modeling thinking his results “should be a useful tool to get rid of media noise about individual polls.  … This [meta-analysis of polls] in hand could provide a common set of facts. Space would be opened up for discussion of what really mattered in the campaign – or even discussion of policies.”

In short, if Brooks wants to move away from checking polls all the time, he should be supporting more statistical models and we should hope for more people like Nate Silver and Sam Wang to produce models that can be tested and improved over time. And we should defend statistical models because confusing uncertainty and variance with “oh, we don’t know anything, it could go any which way” does  disservice to important discussions we should be having on many topics.

Free Speech and Power: From Reddit Creeps to anti-Muslim Videos, It’s Not *Just* “Free Speech”

“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” goes the saying. Similarly, nothing in society makes sense except in the light of power. And that goes for speech, too. Speech, just like other freedoms, is an assertion of a right that naturally bumps up against rights of others—most commonly right to dignity, right to privacy, right to be free of violence and sometimes right to private property. Decisions and proclamations about which right (“naturally”) trumps when the right to speech bumps against other rights reveals something about the workings of power, privilege and status in a society.  A series of recent event have made this extraordinarily clear. Let’s start with the easier one.

Reddit, one of the most popular sites on the Internet, one that bills itself as the “front-page of the Internet”, one that is owned by the media conglomerate Condé Nast, one that plays a key role for pushing many Internet memes to go viral and appear on broadcast media, and one that President Barack Obama chose to hold a “Ask Me Anything” session harbors, among many other forums, groups dedicated to sharing and distributing non-consensual “soft-porn” pictures of children and women. (If you were unaware of this, your jaw probably dropped right about now. Yes, this is really true and in fact, those were among more popular sections of Reddit. Such “sub-reddits” –forums– go under such sunny names as “creepshot” and “jailbait”). Children focused “jailbait” forums typically include photos of minors on a beach in splashing around in bathing suits, a youngster practicing gymnastics, students in school with the picture taken from a low-angle, from-the-behind etc. and are peppered with comments about genitals, looks and rape. The more adult-oriented “creepshot” forum typically include non-consensual “upskirt” photos of women’s crotches, breasts, as well private photographs that were shared with boyfriends, exes, being circulated for commentary and leering.

[Clarification in response to comments: In many, many ways, Reddit is a powerful and wonderful community. These forums are but one small portion of all  the great conversations that go on there. Reddit's influence and all the good that goes on there is exactly why I'm arguing the "live and let live" approach for this issue is wrong for Reddit as it is not a "neutral" stance; rather, that it empowers certain values (self-described creeps with interest in predatory behavior towards minors & women ) at the expense of others (rights of children and of women to be in public spaces). If you read through, you'll see that my approach is compatible with a free speech stance.]

There have been multiple attempts, from within the Reddit community as well as from outside, asking Reddit administrators to ban these kinds of forums. After all, Reddit is a moderated community and it bans certain kinds of content. Why allow non-consensual exposure of women? [Added: In particular, Reddit bans "outing" of administrators by publishing their real names so Redditors clearly *do* recognize Internet actions can bring harms.] Why tolerate or defend this pornographic gaze on children? [Added: As can be seen in content I had already linked, Reddit recently banned "sexually suggestive content featuring minors" --after child-porn started circulating on the-- site but instead of a real ban, it turned into a "don't ask, don't tell" as the same "creep" moderators were supposed to enforce the ban, and it is well documented that they did not really do so.]

Redditors [added: I mean Redditors who defend these forums, not all Redditors] typically respond with two points. One is that once you step in public, you have no expectation of privacy.  You can already see the assertion of power this explanation—if you step outside your home, *we* have a right to take a photo of your child playing in the water or up your skirt and post it for sexual commentary. I can hardly think of a better way to exemplify an assertion of patriarchy. The second answer protecting these forums tends to be “well, it’s free speech.” And that’s one we’ve been hearing about lately and that’s the one I’d like to dwell on for a moment.

First, let’s point out that defenders of “absolute free speech” actually do understand that speech has power—and are more than ready to ban it to protect themselves. If you were following the story, you know that this all became a public brouhaha after Adrien Chen exposed the real name and location of the main editor of “creepshot” forum in an article in Gawker. All of a sudden, defense of “free speech” became a secondary concern for Reddit management and they banned linking to Gawker from the site. Leaked text of Reddit moderator chats discussing the situation make it very clear that even those who don’t think Gawker should be banned agree that the Gawker reporter did an awful thing. This deep hypocrisy in Reddit’s position that posting names of child predators [as it is predation to post pictures of minors for sexual exploitation] should be banned, but child predation should be protected by Reddit as “free speech” is so blatantly obvious that one could almost stop there (or read this great post by Lili Loofbourow.

Rather, let’s look at this as a good example for why “free speech” as an absolute value for any community that is not balanced by any other concern is at best an abdication of responsibility, and at worst an attempt to exercise power over vulnerable populations.

Let me start by pointing out that I’m not talking about the government banning Reddit or any speech but rather what the limits a community puts on speech assert –and there is hardly an Internet community that does not ban or discourage certain kinds of speech so the questions isn’t whether but what kind and what that says about the community’s values. In fact, if you read through, you’ll see that I’m concerned with protecting free speech of the vulnerable against the powerful. (Although I should add that I hope that judges consider persisting posting of sexually predatory photos of children as “probable cause” for searching hard disks and phones for pictures that do cross the legal line (see a case here).

However, the common equation between not wanting governments to regulate offensive speech on the Internet and the position “therefore everyone should be allowed to post whatever they want” is not just wrong, it is likely going to be the end of the kind of free speech we want to protect because sooner or later, most governments who do want to ban speech on the Internet for political reasons are going to be able to legitimately point at these sites and most parents and other sane people will come down for strong regulations on the Internet. Yes, I believe that these regulations will then be used to crack down on “unwanted” political speech but be assured that most people in the world, including the United States, will choose “less speech” criticizing the powerful if they are convinced that without such restrictions, there is no way to stop predation of children and violating women’s dignity and privacy from proliferating on mainstream sties(There is high-quality poll data from the General Social Survey which confirms this–free speech as an absolute value is a minority position in the United States). It is up to the Internet community to make this a false equivalence and this requires that “but it’s free speech” is not the first, intermediate and last and only phrase we utter when faced with offensive or intimidating content.

Notice I said proliferating, not existing. Because the way power enters into this debate isn’t whether or not there will be creeps who wade through Flickr to find photos of children on the beach –surely there will be with or without Reddit. Indeed, a common answer to issues like this is “well, creeps we shall always have amongst us.” Indeed, that is true. However, the existence of child predators with or without Reddit is in fact a strong argument for shunning them from major sites, including Reddit. Allowing them to be part of the community is not an assertion of free speech, rather it is assertion by Reddit and Condé Nast of the right of adult men to sexualize children & violate women’s privacy through non-consensual exposure. It’s simple as that and you could almost stop there (or read this great post by Aaron Bady) That assertion of power needs to be met with another assertion: that we value right of women and children to be in the public without predation and intimidation. It’s assertion of one right over the assertion of the right to victimize.

The United States, for example, strongly favors banning speech when it violates property rights. Nothing will get your YouTube video taken down faster than a “DMCA” –copyright—complaint.  “But it is about property rights, not speech” is a frequent answer to this simple point. But of course it is about limits of free speech when it hits other rights.  It is about how to balance competing rights. US copyright law tries to balance “free speech” –the right to say whatever you want— against the right to ownership of ideas or creative products. And you can see it is an attempt at a balance as there are exceptions for fair use as well as expirations based on time of copyright.

Europe, for example, bans Holocaust trivialization or denial as well as some kinds of hate speech. Holocaust denial is criminalized in Europe because it is seen as valuing prevention of another genocide and honoring the victims as more important than someone’s right to deny the Nazis systematically murdered millions. I personally do not even agree that this is a good restriction at this point in history and have long argued with European friends about this–but I see its logic and I present it as an example.

One problem with discussing speech on the Internet is that one gets told “well, if you don’t like it go elsewhere.” I also hear this with privacy violations of major sites—if you don’t like it, go elsewhere. As I’ve repeatedly tried to explain, this, too, is an assertion of power. Due to network effects, Facebook, for example, is fairly mandatory for college kids –it’s like having a phone is in modern societies, there is much you can’t get done if you don’t have one–and the ability to reject Facebook profile of some kind is often the privilege of those who are rich enough in social capital and would be very costly for most regular kids. Having these “creep” forums exists on Reddit, an Internet powerhouse, is similarly an assertion of power and it is one reason that I tend not to go there—not because I’m easily offended but the idea of a forum that even incidentally protects child predation disturbs me too deeply. However, being preyed upon by Reddit or Internet creeps has an effect not just an individuals (see one case of a teenager here) but on all of society because one of the functions of public speech is to set public norms of what’s acceptable—Internet is a powerful norm-shifter.

Indeed, “norm-shifting” function of the Internet is one of the reasons it has proven to be such a threat to authoritarian regimes.  I’ve heard this repeatedly in interviews and casual conversations in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in Middle East and other authoritarian states. It’s not that the Internet allowed people to necessarily decide what they privately thought—many already thought Ben Ali was corrupt and that Mubarak should go—but there were strong norms, backed by repression, which is another assertion of power, against articulating these views. Everyone held these views privately and did not know whether they were a minority or not (a situation political scientists call “preference falsification.”) That said, those unhappy with the status-quo were in fact majority and young people (the “Facebook generation”) helped expose that by shifting norms about publicly acceptable speech about the regime. They openly pointed out lies, exposed torture, criticized cronyism, and called for change. Over time, it became more and more acceptable to make this assertion in public and this fundamentally transformed public sphere laid the ground for social change.  Letting these creep forums exist on powerful Internet hubs also contributes to norm-shifting in a way that I don’t think anyone can argue is desirable or has anything to do with promoting free speech as a value. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to assert that victimization of children and intimidation of women is not strongly, strongly frowned up.

Another common fallacy in arguments about free speech (and technology is general) is the need that we must equally accept all developments that are two-sides of the same coin or a shared affordance of particular technical infrastructure. “Norm-shifting” is obviously a good thing when it is about making it acceptable to criticize corrupt autocrats; it is obviously a bad thing when it is about preying upon children or violating women’s privacy.  The fact that both are made possible by similar socio-technical infrastructures does not in any way imply that we, as societies, should just throw up our hands against the latter merely because we favor the former. Technology is not our overlords, and should not be.  The fact that both outcomes are enabled by the same technology means that we should be even more vigilant to socially, culturally and ethically try to push back against the negative side. (Again, not pushing back is not neutral; it is a statement of priorities and power in society).  Otherwise, there are two possibilities. One is that we will sink lower and lower as it becomes more and more normalized to prey upon children and violate women. Second is that most people will have enough of it all and will side with shutting the whole thing down—led by governments who are more interested in shutting down the parts that threaten their power.

Another variant of the argument has been that “it’s just the Internet.” Chill. This, of course, rests of on something I’ve long been railing against, the notion that the Internet is somehow not real, that it’s virtual or that it is “trivial.” (My friend Nathan Jurgenson coined the phrase “digital dualism” to refer to this tendency). In fact, a reddit contributor makes the argument that Gawker, by publishing the real name and location of the person behind “creepshot” did real harm they have “purposefully taken this off the internet and into real life” and this affects “violantacrez’s future employment and immediate safety.”

“JoelDavis” on Reddit: The reason that axiom [It’s Just the Internet] has taken hold is because the idea is that even if a website gets bogged down in even the worst trolling imaginable, all you have to is realize the website’s no longer worth going to anymore and stop going. Problem solved. With this, a formerly anonymous reddit user has to worry about physical attacks in real life by someone who would view a person like that as a target. In other words, Adrian Chen has purposefully taken this off the internet and into real life so it’s no longer “just the internet.” This affects violentacrez’s future employment and immediate safety. All so Chen could make some money, and no other reason.

 This snippet is very revelatory in how it reveals how the construction of what is real, trivial or virtual is indeed an assertion of power & privilege. “JoelDavis” considers predatory photos of children to be “just the Internet” but a person’s name –just their name linked to real acts they committed—to be “real life.” (I again refer to Lili’s great post about what this reveals).

This stance of “it’s just the Internet” is basically relegating the children preyed upon into the “virtual” realm. They just aren’t real enough to count while Reddit moderators are so hyperreal that exposing their mere name is a grave violation. In fact, digital dualism often surfaces as this kind of “power assertions” when gatekeepers and already-powerful who have access to broad publics trivialize self-expression on the Internet (“it’s just cat videos”), never miss a chance to put down Twitter (“it’s about what you had for lunch”), or consider social interaction on Facebook to be unreal compared to “real life” interaction. In reality, of course, the Internet is many things and there is nothing wrong with cat videos, Twitter is a powerful tool for taking part in the public sphere as well as sharing what’s good for lunch, and Facebook is an integral part of social interaction for many people not just because it’s convenient, but sometimes it’s the only way to keep in touch.

Let me briefly discuss the harder case, the anti-Muslim video that sparked off protests around the world. Many commentators in the West have pointed out that the Muslim world seems to be too easily offended and it is ridiculous to hold protests over a two-bit, clownish attempt to insult. I’d like to assure everyone that many, many, many commentators in Muslim public sphere have pointed out the same thing and have appealed for sanity, tolerance and ignoring of cheap provocations. So, most people on either parts of the world are on the same page there.

But there are a couple of important points that commentators in the West are missing. One is something I’ve written about elsewhere (See here) —to people growing up in restrictive, limited public spheres, and those who look at Europe’s extensive hate speech laws, the notion that this video was at least implicitly approved by the government of the United States is not as illogical as it seems to someone in the United States. I’ve had to explain the unique first amendment framework again and again in the past few months to sane, peaceful and tolerant people in the Middle East who wondered about the video’s legality.

But there is another important side to this. While the Western countries only see a blasphemous video, many people in the Middle East also see hate speech that dehumanizes them and helps justify actual violence upon their lands and their people. And this is an understandable position because of two acts by the Western public sphere in an one-sided exercise of power and assertion of privilege: 1- Ignoring the Iraq  War as soon as the preponderance of US troops left; 2-Ignoring most of what’s going on in Afghanistan including the drone strikes that the few independent observers able to get into the area claim are killing many, many civilians and terrorizing the population. Hence, portrayals of Islam in the United States public sphere are a legitimate cause for concern for anyone who lives in these regions. The differences in the public spheres are quite striking. Whenever I go to the Middle East, people bring up the Iraq War. The lies, the lives lost, the destruction and the aftermath… It hardly ever comes up in the United States… Ever.  It is as if we believe electing a different president allows us to say that it is over as far as we are concerned—regardless of whatever else it may have caused. This is a blatant assertion of power and privilege.

Note that I am not calling for banning blasphemous speech because a minority in the Muslim public sphere takes them as a reason to protest (indeed, the anti-Muslim video protests were relatively small and it is increasingly clear that the attack on Libyan ambassador was a paramilitary assault, not a protest gone awry). This isn’t about a “heckler’s veto”, but a call for understanding that dehumanization of Muslims is indeed a form of intimidation given our very recent history and our current military engagement. Anti-muslim hate speech should be evaluated within that context (and distinguished from criticisms –even blasphemous criticisms—of Islam).

What to do? The same ability to shift-norms can be turned around. A case in point is the backlash against the outrageous “Muslim Rage” cover by Newsweek. This kind of demonization of Muslims by picking a close-up photo of the “Bearded Zombie Muslim Apocalypse” as representative of a billion people is fairly common in Western media and, again, it should be evaluated in the context of recent history in which reckless wars resulted in deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. There was, however, a strong backlash by Muslims who took the hashtag suggested by Newsweek, #muslimrage, and turned it into an ironic, pointed and sometimes hilarious Internet meme. Some US media ran with that as well (See here and here). Many people in my social media timelines shared the funniest tweets and it became a way to diffuse the situation.

Unfortunately, that Newsweek cover will be on every checkout counter while only a small proportion of American people are exposed to Twitter or sites that point out the absurdity treating a billion people with great amount of diversity as three bearded men run amok. (This is not a minor matter—the Stanford/NYU researchers have compiled a report about drone strikes where they claim that the Obama administration “in effect counts all males [killed] in a strike zone as combatants.” If true, this is a striking example of the drastic consequences of dehumanization.)

The real problem for most people in the Muslim public sphere isn’t the blasphemy; it’s that they feel dehumanized and discounted. *Perception* that they are not, that a public out in the West is trying to reach out and listen to them –and understand their grievances with Western policy– goes a long way in diffusing some of these tensions. That is why this kind of pushback we saw with #muslimrage is very valuable –and also maybe, just maybe, recognizing that the Iraq war is not some distant past that we can conveniently ignore because we’d rather not talk about it anymore and that the drones flying over Afghanistan isn’t just their problem but should be open to scrutiny and criticism from people here as well would go a long way in diffusing such tensions.

Similarly, there is a vocal portion of the Internet culture/meme powerhouses such as Reddit that insist on their right to misogyny and predation of children. I understand that they exist out there, with or without Reddit, and with or without the Internet. But surely, the Internet communities that can do so many wonderful things when motivated can also norm-shift against child predators and creeps. They can be told to take their forums elsewhere. Their forums can be flooded by outraged netizens who question their ethics. Administrators of Internet sites can tell them that their link traffic isn’t worth the pain they cause in the world (because the Internet is not virtual, it is part of the world and the pain is real). Twitter is a good example—it used to be flooded with pornbots. My subjective sense is that it no longer is (though I am sure the fight is ongoing). [There was an article explaining this I can’t locate at the moment]. Mainstream sites should attempt to moderate their comments sections or set up some mechanism by which there is a way to stop it from being flooded by intimidating speech.

Again, I’m not talking about banning everything offensive. Not at all.  I’m calling on major sites on the Internet to assert that in this community, we affirm the right of people to exist in an environment that is not hostile to vulnerable populations over the right of people who claim that their right to prey upon children trumps all other rights.

If the Internet communities act with conviction, governments who want to use this kind of “creep forums” as an excuse for broad restrictions can be told no, thank you. These creeps probably can’t be banned completely off the Internet without great damage to the other wonderful things that the Internet allows, but they can be banished from the powerful mainstream sites that many of us visit every day. These sites ban all kinds of speech to promote a certain kind of community, why not this, too?

And this should concern all people actually concerned with protecting free speech the way it is meant to be—speech of the weak against the powerful, not a convenient excuse about their right to victimize and intimidate. Otherwise, I assure you, majority of people on the planet are going to side with their governments if the only choices they are presented are non-governmental interference but a proliferation of vile “speech” on most mainstream sites, or the heavy-hand of the government that, non-coincidentally, will first come down upon dissent and challenge.  That is what non-action will get us and real free-speech advocates should take this very seriously.


Confused by Party ID fluctuations in polls? They Are Probably Telling Us Something about Confounding Variables

There is a lot of hand-wringing and second guessing about the polls this election season. One point of contention seems to be whether the samples of some pollsters are skewed towards one party or the other. A lot of this speculations stems from the fact that voters who self-identify as one party or the other seem to fluctuate from poll to poll, even by the same pollsters. How can something fluctuate this much and still produce useful data?

To understand this, we need to untangle sources of error and fluctuations in poll results and also understand confounding variables. (It is not difficult but requires a bit of information and bit of thinking through).

First, all polls based on samples (rather than surveying the whole population like a census) have a “margin of error“, usually around plus or minus 2-3 percent for national polls such as Gallup, Pew. This margin of error should be understood in light of the “confidence interval” which is often not reported but is almost always 95%. This means that, 95% of the time, the sample results will be plus or minus 2-3 percent of the actual results of the whole population. So, even if everything was perfect and the sample was completely random, we would be off by more than 3 percent in either direction 1 out of 20 times (5% of the time).  (Why don’t we have a smaller margin of error? Because the margin of error moves with the square root of the sample size–the relationship is exponential, not linear so you don’t get three times improvement when you go from a sample of 1500 to a sample of 4500. See rough chart or play yourself with the calculator here. So it would be really costly have a sample large enough (about 10,000 in the US) to get the margin of error under one percent. ).

Hence, a few percent fluctuations are to be expected from poll to poll even if everything is done just  right.

Second, there are systemic errors because samples are rarely purely random. All our regular (frequentist) statistics depend on the Central Limit Theorem which assumes a purely random sample.

Random in the context of polling  means that every single potential respondent in the population has an exactly equal chance of being included in the poll. Well, this never works, no matter the method. Different kinds of people may have different odds of being at home. Note that the problem isn’t that some people aren’t at home. That would be fine. The problem is being at home is associated with being a different kind of voter. For example retirees may be more likely to be at home compared to younger respondents. Young respondents are more likely to have cell-phone only homes and are underrepresented in landline only polls. Again, this would be okay if we could assume that cell-phone only voter patterns look exactly like voting patterns of landline people. There is good reason to think not.

Pollsters deal with the fact that their sample is not purely random by weighting their samples by known quantities. In the United States, we know the pretty reliably the  percentages of  gender, race and age distributions–at a pretty fine level, too.  So, if my sample is 55% female and I know the voting age US population is about 52% female, I can adjust my sample calculations so that a woman in my sample counts slightly more *as if* my sample had the expected distribution of gender. Most pollsters and surveys do this and this is a well-tested and reliable method as long as the samples are not too small and the weighting is done according to well known population parameters.

Third, there can be fluctuations because of underlying changes to the actual variable (which you want to measure) *or* the willingness of respondents to answer polls (which you usually want to discount but in the case of voter surveys, you should not because willingness to answer pollsters is likely predictive of election outcomes as well).

So, here comes Party-ID. First question is whether to treat it as a stable population parameter by which to adjust our samples, or whether to see it as a variable. There is good reason to argue that it may well be stable and there is some work that suggests that it is indeed durable. On  the other hand, since it is indeed fluctuating in so many polls, and we know that it has fluctuated between elections as measured by more reliable exit polls, it is reasonable to treat it as a changing variable measuring something. In other words,  if it is fluctuating so much, does it indicate regular measurement error due to statistical fundamentals of sampling (i.e. you can’t escape some level of variation) or could it be measuring something else? I vote for the latter, given available evidence of fluctuation.

I believe that a reasonable argument is that party ID measures a combination of enthusiasm, willingness to respond to polls and willingness to be persuaded by a party so that you self-identify as a supporter rather than an “independent.” In other words, let’s assume you are lukewarm towards candidate A from political party AA but then something happens and you are excited about candidate A. Your phone rings. “I’m calling from Survey firm XYZnonsleazy pollster and I’d like to ask you a few questions about the upcoming elections.”  You are probably more likely to take that minute to answer that question if you are excited about your candidate and the election compared with “your uninterested in the whole thing” state. Plus, maybe, before you got excited, you identified as an independent.  Now you are excited about candidate A so you self-identify as party AA.

Hence, persuading fence-sitters and exciting supporters can easily result in a sample that has a higher party-ID proportion compared with one taken a few days ago among a less excited, less-persuaded crowd. In other words, partisans and fence-sitters closer to the other side may well be sitting out the poll.

Okay, you say, that means that the poll is less reliable because the sample is skewed and is leaving out some folks. Ah, yes, but it is quite likely that the effect on the election is just as real as party-ID may be a proxy for a confounding variable, excitement and likelihood of voting, which is well-known to strongly influence election results.

What are confounding variables? They are the reason you should run, most of the time, when someone says “correlation does not equal causation” without saying anything more substantive. If there is persistent correlation, something is going on and people should try to figure it out before deciding that something is substantive and of interest to you or not.

A classic example of a confounding is that ice-cream sales and murder rates are correlated. It’s not because we all scream for ice cream and pull out guns in frustration, but it is because there is a confounding variable: summer. Summer is correlated with both ice cream and higher murder rates. In this case, it is highly unlikely that you are interested in this relationship and likely not going to track ice cream sales to predict murders because you may as well look at the temperature–you have direct access to the causative variable.

But, in many cases, the confounding, hidden variable is of great interest because we don’t have access to the confounding variable–which is sometimes referred to as “hidden variable” exactly because we don’t have access to it.

Let’s say you find that people who drink carrot juice regularly are less likely to suffer from cancer. Shall we break open the juicer? Probably not because the likely confounding variable is people interested in a healthy lifestyle. People who are drinking carrot juice are likely taking better care of their health in other ways too because that’s just the kind of people they are. So, carrot juice is a proxy (stand-in) for healthy behaviors. But what if all you could measure was whether people drank carrot juice? I’d argue that it would be perfectly reasonable to use it as a predictive variable while also understanding that the relationship was not causative, but went through a confounding variable. What you should NOT do is prescribe carrot juice. (This stuff is serious and compplicated. This what went wrong with the infamous error when women were recommended hormone replacement therapy thinking it reduced cancers when, in fact, it increased them and the previously observed effect was due to a confounding variable–women who took HRT were probably more health-conscious to begin with).

In polling for elections, it is quite likely that party-ID is like drinking carrot juice. It signals something and, as a signal, it is useful. Hence, if party-ID trend goes in consistent direction from poll-to-poll from the same pollster, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that it is a proxy for a hidden variable, excitement and state of being persuaded of the voter base. (Also keep in mind that there will be small fluctuations due to unavoidable margin of error but those should cancel out over the long-term as the error can be in any direction).

Hence, fluctuating party-ID can function as a predictive variable even though it is not actually the causative variable. The fluctuations in this variable are probably a combination of sample fluctuations (normal and expected and happens with all variables within the margin of error 19 out of 20 times (95% confidence interval) and outside the margin of error 1 out of 20 times PLUS fluctuations in actual voter dispositions. While we cannot tease apart which part of the fluctuation comes from which part, it is safe to assume that statistical fluctuation will even itself out over multiple polls while the structural part that comes from voter excitement and engagement making people shift their self-perception and willingness to answer pollsters, can be useful and predictive even though it is, indeed, correlation not causation.

 

Occupy the Political: Politics of Self-Expression and the Occupy Movement

My colleague Daniel Kreiss and I have  paper titled “Occupying the Political: Occupy Wall Street, Collective Action, and the Rediscovery of Pragmatic Politics” which has been accepted to the journal Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies.  In the paper, we compare some instances of strategic decision making in the civil rights movement with that of the Occupy movement. We argue that social movement participants have become so focused on self-expression as a mode of politics that strategic decision making and intervening (and changing) the broader political arena has taken an unfortunate back seat–and these developments are to the detriment of actual political change.

In other words, if movement participants concentrate this much on “being the change that they seek”, it may hinder their ability to bring about change.

If a movement is to be more than about creating a particular environment for people who have the resources, time and the possibility to occupy a public square for a longish period of time (in other words, for the 99% of working people), it needs to more strongly consider decision making and strategic action avenues that are more than about self-expression–and may even clash with it.

We wrote the paper to hopefully be part of such discussions we know are going on among many people who participated in the Occupy movement and are pondering the next step for politics of dissent and social change.

The full-text of the paper can be found here.

Title:  Occupying the Political: Occupy Wall Street, Collective Action, and the Rediscovery of Pragmatic Politics

Abstract:  In this paper we compare the institutional and strategic decision making structures of the civil rights movement with the Occupy movement with special emphasis on the role of self-expression as a political value versus strategic considerations. We argue that Occupy participants cast the values and form of the movement itself – how it operates and makes decisions – in terms that are synonymous with its very identity and survival. Occupy is the change that its members seek. There is both promise and peril in this approach. Occupy is finding it difficult to engage in institutional politics—which we argue is key to broad and durable societal transformations. We suggest that as Occupy goes home, and as it prepares to come back, it should renegotiate the tension between self-expression and strategic institutional action, and between movement itself as a goal and movement goals. In short, we argue that mistaking an anti-institutional style of participatory democracy and self-expression for both real democracy and radical capitalist critique undermines political power—and ultimately results in less progress towards participatory democracy as the movement becomes politically less relevant and less able to bring about societal change.

 

Feedback welcome!

#Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Teaches a Lesson in Elections in the Age of Twitter and Google Spreadsheets

Shortly after the announcement that Mohamed Morsi had won Egypt’s presidential elections, political scientist Marc Lynch asks a very good question:

Indeed, ex-president Hosni Mobarak had handily “won” the “elections” in 1987, 1993, 1999 and 2005, going to a mere 88% of the vote from a more proper 97% in 1987. The same apparatus that “won” Mobarak’s previous elections was in charge of most of the electoral machinery of the 2012 elections. It’s true that a major uprising|revolution|coup|spring [pick the term that least offends you] happened in 2011,  but attempts at election fixing post-uprising would certainly not be the first or the last time.

There may be many reasons for the apparent results, and it’s certainly possible that the Ancien Régime [or Felool as many Egyptians refer to them] just didn’t have it in them to fight this one.  Maybe they became late-believers in democracy (Though admittedly a weak hypothesis, as old-regime courts first disqualified the front-runners, then nullified the elected parliament, and finally greatly clipped the powers of the presidency in favor of the military council). Or, as some believe, maybe the military cut a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Whatever else went into the apparent results, I’d like to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood (or Ikhwan as Egyptians refer to them) made it harder for the election to be stolen because they combined a superior ground game with active and sophisticated online presence to control the narrative and force a level of transparency. (In other words, they forced it such that if the elections were going to be stolen, it was going to be “in-your-face” stolen which is a very different method with greatly different political implications than “under-the-rug” stolen).

Here’s how.

First, Muslim Brotherhood has a fairly active presence online, and especially in Twitter (although only their English feed is interactive at the moment). Throughout the election night, they kept tweeting out updated results:

I was curious about where they got their numbers so I asked them:

About 10 minutes later, I had a reply that they had people at polling stations who updated them regularly.  [Full disclosure: Due to my research activities, I do personally know at least one of the young woman who runs their English feed; in fact, most of my contacts with Muslim Brotherhood have been with young women as they happen to be quite active on their new media operations]. Other people I knew confirmed that MB had people on the ground at polling stations and were feeding results to the central headquarters as they became available.

This went on all night. As soon as results from all governorates (the official legal ruling structure of Egypt) were in, Muslim Brotherhood’s twitter feed, @Ikhanweb cheerily announced:

 

Plus, Muslim Brotherhood quickly put up a Google spreadsheet that had results from all governorates clearly showed an almost 4 percent victory for their candidade, Mohamed Morsi. I watched many journalists use this spreadsheet as a resource; in fact, Evan Chill quickly translated it to English, making it even more useful to a broader audience.

Meanwhile, Twitter feed for Shafiq’s official spokesperson was fairly quite. All the journalist –and pretty much everyone I know in Egypt– was up into the night and following the results, and the narrative was clearly emerging both on Twitter and on international media that MB had won the vote–but the question remained if they would win the election.

When Shafiq camp finally “woke up”, they had a relatively feeble response, made basic errors and invited ridicule rather than authority.

 

Egypt went to bed that morning with the feeling that MB had won the count, but with great uncertainty what the official results would be. (Keep in mind that this is the very first competitive election for presidency *ever* in Egypt.).

What happened next week was a true soap opera. It took a week for the Egyptian official election commission (PEC) to certify the results. The delay made many people fear that the vote would be rigged. Muslim Brotherhood took to Tahrir to demonstrate that they were not going to give up easily. Many speculated that MB and the SCAF, Egypt’s military council were in negotiations.

The final announcement of the results was almost comical if it had not been such a disservice to that country’s potential. After keeping the country waiting for a week, the head of the PEC showed up 40 minutes late and instead of announcing the results, gave an hour long rambling speech detailing how they dealt with various complaints while Egypt held its breath and world news organizations broadcast this live.

My Egyptian friends first reacted by making fun of this display of old guard authority, but were soon quite angry that this was the image that their country was broadcasting to the world–a country run by the old guard which was not about to give up its monopoly to speak as long as they wanted, no matter the occasion or the question. Many of us took this rambling speech with clear jabs at Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as a sign that the vote was going to be rigged–and that the winner to be announced was the establishment candidate, an ex-premier and a general.

And, yet. And, yet. When it came time for numbers to be added and presidents to be named, head of the PEC, Farouk Sultan, looked up from his papers and a bunch of numbers rolled of his tongue almost as an afterthought. And those numbers were within 0.01% 0.03% of the Muslim Brotherhood tally on that Google Spreadsheet.

 

In fact, revolutionaries and dissidents were quick to run the numbers and compare the official numbers of the PEC with MB numbers. (Heck, not only that, Moftasa Hussein had already applied the Benford’s test, which can be used to detect manual manipulation of numbers which should be more randomly distributed, to the unofficial numbers).

How influential was the fact that Ikhwan had so many verifiable numbers out in the open for the last week in convincing the old-regime apparatus to stick to the numbers as they were? We’ll likely never know. Perhaps it is best to assume that they would have done so anyway. However, it is hard to deny that had they been tempted to fix the numbers, that Google spreadsheet would stare at them at every turn. And the narrative laid by Ikhwan’s online and offline operation would be hard to surmount.

There are certainly huge problems with the electoral process in Egypt (here’s a bunch of them as outlined by Marc Lynch who has taken to calling the current system “Calvinball” ).  Egypt certainly has a ways to go, and hopefully for the better. Many will be watching to see whether Ikhwan can translate its new found position to charter Egypt in a more democratic and humane direction while respecting the rights of minorities and secular groups.

We have, however, just witnessed that they certainly know how to use on-the-ground electoral machinery with a sophisticated and 21st century approach to controlling the media narrative.

 

Does Facebook Cause Loneliness? Short answer, No. Why Are We Discussing this? Long Answer Below.

There is yet another article, this time in the Atlantic, asking the question “Does Facebook cause loneliness?” Like many articles on this topic, it ignores an enormous amount of data which –at a minimum- says, nope. (In fact, the main empirical article cited in the paper also says no). Research by many people (most importantly Keith Hampton) show again and again that Internet/Facebook users are less isolated than people who don’t use social media. Yes, there are complicated interaction effects but the simplest empirical answer to the simple form of the question is … no. By most standards of reasonable evidence, the answer is pretty much out there (even if ignored by most articles on the topic).

Why, then, is this question repeatedly invoked? I have a few thoughts on this. Here they are in a hastily written form (on my way to the airport!)

First, the findings I talk about refer to individual level effects. There are also societal effects to consider—and those are harder to measure. Maybe individual Facebook users are not less isolated than non-Facebook users, but maybe we have become more isolated as a society during the period that mediated-sociality has risen.

The answer to that question is yes, at least for closer ties. We are, on average, more isolated, at least in terms of strong ties. Three separate studies say so–and as we say in social sciences, once is a question, twice is a coincidence, thrice is a finding. (That is the General Social Survey with follow-up here, Pew Internet studies written up by Keith Hampton (with others) and a recent study by Matt Brashears).

I also have a paper (still) under review which shows –using the best dataset available—that Internet users fared better than non-Internet users during this period of increasing isolation. In other words, yes, we have less close friends than before, but Internet users are doing better at bucking this trend. I have a good deal of empirical probing of why this is so—I’ll try to write about it later. In short, I think this is because we are shifting from “ascribed ties” –people you inherit as close ties such as your family and your neighbors—to “achieved ties” –people you connect based on shared affinities and with whom you interact using multiple means of communication. It’s clear why Internet plays into this and fights off isolation. People who can use the Internet better to find and/or keep in touch with people with whom they share affinities with are more likely to be able to compensate for losing the neighborhood/family ties.

What data I’ve seen makes a strong case that social isolation is increased by factors like suburbanization, long-commutes, long work hours, decline of community and civic institutions, etc—not online sociality. As I argued, what data we do have argues that social media (and Facebook) works against this.

So, why so many articles like this which concentrate on the social media aspect (rather than things that appear to be a lot more directly related empirically to isolation)? Why does this question resonate so strongly?

I speculate that there are three reasons. Two are straightforward. Third is something I’m working through empirically and conceptually.

One, we are indeed more isolated, on average. That is true. And since increasing amounts of sociality are conducted –partially—online, it is a natural human tendency to create a narrative from two occurrences that follow each other. We are more online + we are more isolated = we are more isolated because we are more online. This particular conclusion is, in my read of all the available data, wrong but humans are narrative engines. We make stories whenever we see co-occurrences. (“I had a bad feeling in the morning and I broke a mirror before going out–then I had my car accident.” )

Two, face-to-face sociality *is* the bedrock of human communication. A baby few days old will respond differently to a figure in the shape of a human face compared with the same elements arranged randomly. There is something imitable about smiling with a friend. There’s just no replacement for hugging someone. That does not mean that people cannot have meaningful interactions that are not face-to-face, nor does it mean that online interaction is causing less face-to-face interaction. (As I said, data shows that people who interact online socially *on average* also interact more offline socially. It is a more-more setting. More social people are more social—online or offline.)

The third reason that I think such articles are still so popular is a phenomon that I’ve dubbed cyberasociality.

Cyberasociality is the inability or unwillingness of some people to relate toothers via social media as they do when physically-present. (Tufekci, 2010)

I’ve already published a bit about it (here) and I have an article I wrote about it that I will probably just put in my blog before it finishes going through the academic cycle. (Oh, what the heck, Internet. Here’s my unpublished paper on this. I presented these findings at last year’s American Sociological Association conference).

My argument is, briefly this: Just like we convert text (visual) into language in our head (which is all oral in the brain), we need to convert mediated-interaction to that visceral kind of sociality in our brain. And not everyone can do this equally well. And people who are cyberasocial are driving this discussion.

For example, reading is a hack of the brain. It is hijacking our visual systems and appending them to our oral/language centers (All human language is primarily oral. Writing is a recent, thin, barely-hanging there add-on). That is why you don’t need to train ordinary children to speak, but you need to train all children to read. Reading is something we use our cognitive capacity and neural plasticity to achieve. It is not an innate human ability.

Similarly, face-to-face sociality is a deeply-embedded feature. We react to faces and immediate presence in a very strong, very visceral sense. Online –and all mediated– sociality needs a similar hack into our sociality systems. We need to convert mediated-interaction to the same kind of unmediated interaction version we have to get evoke a similar reaction to “present in-person” sociality.

And I believe that this is easier for some people than others. Some are more disposed. There are also questions of technical skill, access, usability, etc. But I believe there is also an underlying personality variation as well.

My data says this is not a cohort effect. I’ve found strong and consistent distinctions among the college-age population. It’s simply not that the young are cybersocial and the old are not. It’s that different people are differently cybersocial. And for those who are cyberasocial, trying to describe online social interaction as “real” is like trying to describe colors on a oil-painting to someone who is color-blind indoors-and then to claim that there is a connection between the colors on the palette to colors of a sunny day.

They look, they squint, they think, they ponder and simply decide everyone else is crazy. There is a lot more to say but I’ll end with a quote from my (unpublished) paper. (My earlier published paper is here) :

I define the topic of my paper as explaining this:

Hardly another month goes by in which there isn’t a new article or book released on the
question of whether the Internet brings us together or separates us. Alternating between
lamentations by pundits on how social media tools are allegedly hollowing out our relationships
(Deresiewicz 2009; Mallaby 2006, Turkle, 2011), or by breathless reporting in newspapers about
how everything is now online, the debate refuses to die, and often seems unaffected by empirical
research on these topics.

And after going through the empirical findings, I speculate that “cyberasociality” is a real phenomenon, that it is not a cohort/age effect, and that for some people, online sociality is hard to comprehend because of deep reasons including being less disposed to converting mediated-sociality to broader sociality.

It remains a possibility that there are people for whom text is unable to evoke the same deep reaction embodied physically co-present interaction arouses. Such an inability, or an unwillingness, could be seen akin to another modern ailment, that of dyslexia (Wolf, 2007). The ability to convert alphabetical symbols to words, and then to seamlessly convert those words into meanings, is one of the more remarkable feats of the human brain and is mastered by most who are given persistent and competent instruction. However, for some segment of the population, this leap may remain unattainable and pose great difficulty even though the person in question may not suffer from any other disadvantage such as technological incompetence or inability or fear of using computers for instrumental purposes.

Whatever causes dyslexia, it would not have been detectable in a pre-literate population as among such people, words are always and only just sounds. In fact, linguists often caution against our tendency to equate words with letters and remind us that language is primarily aural and the transition to visual language is a late development. (Ong, 2004). Dyslexia emerges as a disadvantage only as a society incorporates the ease of use of the written word into the expected competencies into its portfolio, similarly, the increasing incorporation of online-sociality may expose a segment of the population that is similarly disadvantaged from being able to use these technologies as effectively as others.

Thus, conceptually, I propose a modern condition, named cyberasociality, which represents the possibility that some segment of the population remain unable or unwilling to relate to others via social media as they do when physically-present; and that this is not necessarily related to their general levels of sociality or to their competence with or use of computers or similar digital devices.

Finally, these findings may shed light on why the debate about the possibility of establishing deep bonds online refuses to die in spite of empirical findings that show that this is actually happening, at least for a segment of the population. It is possible that there are people who are deeply cyberasocial and are universalizing their subjective experience as the human norm, and thus are persistent in their claims that it is simply not possible to establish meaningful friendships using these technologies. Almost akin to a colorblind person insisting that all this talk of red and green must just reflect something superficial or made-up, and simply does not reflect a real division, the cyberasocial continue to write newspaper articles and even books lamenting the spread of these technologies. That is not to say that these technologies are not ever disruptive of sociality but that their effect may be much more complicated as some of the critics would claim.

Finally, I want to really, really emphasize that my argument is not a judgement or a statement of what’s inferior. I think this is part of normal human variation. I started looking into this as I was more curious about why this debate seemed to never die and this, in my opinion, is part of the story.

PS. Will add more links later! On my way to the airport now:-)