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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

My Writings on Social Media and Social Movements: A Selection

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

Blog pieces elsewhere relating to Turkey and analyzing recent events:

Academic papers on social media and social movements:

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

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


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

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

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

Here’s an aerial view of the area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Takes a Quiz Show Host: #Occupygezi and Culture Jamming aganist CensorshipTurkey

I’ve written about the abject failure of Turkish media to adequately cover the news of the most important protests in the country since the 1980 coup. Many media outlets aired irrelevant documentaries and talk shows (talk show about legal definitions of theft, cooking shows, dolphin training, etc) while clashes spread to dozens of provinces and many neighborhoods in many major cities.

In fact, CNN Turkey’s (owned by Time Warner and Turkish Dogan media group) airing of “penguin” documentaries during intense clashes (while CNN International reported news from Turkey!) became a protest meme.

A prominent actor used his interview on CNN to wear a penguin shirt and desperate Turks tried to lure CNN Turkey back to news by photoshopping penguins into protest pictures:

Perhaps one of the most striking attempts to pierce and criticize the veil of censorship on Turkish media came from a quiz show host, Ali İhsan Varol, whose “Guess the Word” program airs on weeknights.  As citizens of Turkey watched with their jaws on the floor (and many standing up and clapping in front of their TV sets according to my social media feeds), he asked his guests to guess words such as “resistance,” “censorship,” twitter”, “tear gas”, and more. He finished his 70 queries with questions whose answers were “resign” and “apologize.”

The next day, he was not allowed to air live and his fate remains uncertain.

Here’s a short clip of the game. After the clip, the full list of questions and answers.

Here’s a (rough) translation of the questions and answers Ali Ihsan Varol asked his guests on live TV on June 3rd (Turkish here, feedback welcome, very quick translation):

1- A journey undertaken to see, to have fun: GEZI –name of the park that is at the center of the protests.

2- A large garden with trees and flowers in the center of a place of residence that allows people to breathe: PARK

3- In international law, someone who is not a member of armed forces or other armed groups in a country: CIVILIAN

4- An activity geared towards trying to change or improve a situation: A PROTEST [EYLEM]

5- A coming together around a set of ideas without being divided: UNITY

6- The metaphor for understanding what the facts are: TO WAKE UP

7- The people Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said should be “the most important representatives of human dignity and qualities, defense of nation and freedom of speeech”:YOUTH

8- The ability to make decisions according to correct, meaningful interpretation: COMMON SENSE

9- Property that should never be vandalized or damaged, that belong to all the people: PUBLIC PROPERTY

10-Ideology that depends on non-violence to carry out protests: PACIFISM

11-To damage public property on purpose: VANDALISM

12-Democratic solution box: THE BALLOT BOX

13-A voting method to ask the people what they think about political and social problems: REFERENDUM

14-The person that turns the right into not right and the protester into terrorist: PROVOCATEUR

15-People who live in the same country, share a culture: PEOPLE

16-A long-lived plant that is the symbol of being free: TREE

17-An area covered by treas considered symbol of fraternal unity: FOREST

18-The kids from Beşiktaş with the soul of Don Quixote (or chevalier): ÇARŞI

19-The neighborhood whose name means “to divide” but also unites: TAKSIM (Turkish word play here)

20-A word that means a large area: SQUARE

21-To take steps together to protest an event or an happening: PROTEST MARCH

22-To resist, to not give up: RESISTANCE

23-To find an event or an application as unfair, and not accept it and resist it: PROTEST

24-To be able to decide without undue pressure from outside: FREEDOM

25-The act of supporting each other for shared thoughts and goals: SOLIDARITY

26-What happens when all workers stop working: GENERAL STRIKE

27-To come together for a common goal: ORGANIZE

28-A word that means to rise up, to march: INSURRECTION

29-The best name for a TV station: HALK (PEOPLE — the name of the TV station that covered the protests)

30-The totality of qualities that one should abide by or avoid in occupations like media: ETHICS

31-The thing that is referred to in Article 28th of the Turkish Constitution as “Free and Cannot be Censored”:PRESS

32-The communication medium defined by Nezihe Meriç as “A dragon with a thousand heads”: MEDIA

33-An action that means the same thing as approval: SILENCE

34-Limiting the freedom of press, communication, film or books by government: CENSORSHIP

35-The person who is supposed to learn about an event and write about in various outlets: JOURNALIST

36-The microblog and social network site that has been described as a “curse”: TWITTER

37-The person Mustafa Kemal Ataturk said should “write his/her thoughts freely:” JOURNALIST

38-Person who tries to kiss up to power: BROWN NOSER

39-The state of being able to resist power or injustice but being quiet: COWARDICE

40-The branch that is held on to by people after being abandoned by mainstream media: SOCIAL MEDIA

41-A piece of news that gets published by media outlets but that is not true: FALSE NEWS

42-To make things worse by one’s statements or behavior: CANAK TUTMA (metaphor for enabling)

43-The vehicle for interjecting in protests: TOMA (APC)

44-A word that means “Just Don’t:” AMAN. (Turkish word)

45-A public employee whose name comes from Greek for city, state, civics: POLICE

46-The totality of social laws that means rights: LAW

47-The guide to laws: LAWYER

48-Naked power: VIOLENCE

49-To be held by police forces: DETENTION

50-An obstacle created to block a road or a path: BLOCKADE

51-Something that needs to be done sometimes to lessen tensions: TAKE A STEP BACK

52-The feeling of mercy that should be shared by everyone in all occupations: COMPASSION

53-Word for use of violence without any common sense: DISPROPORTIONATE

54-A weapon that attacks eyes, nose, mouth and lung tissue, a weapon oleosresin capsicum: PEPPER SPRAY

55-What APC’s excrete: PRESSURIZED WATER

56-Democracy breather: GAS MASK

57-The main institution whose principle is “the power belongs unconditionally to the people”: TURKEY’S PARLIAMENT

58-The word that means the same as “Cumhur”: PEOPLE (which is how the president is referred to in Turkey: the

head of the people, Cumhurbaşkanı)

59-To limit rights and freedoms: REPRESSION

60-The word that means to see oneself as better than other people: HUBRIS

61-The person who does not allow freedoms to people they rule: DESPOT

62-The internal court which is what propels people to judge their own actions: CONSCIENCE

63-The arabic-root word which means to “go away from the correct path”: DEVIATE

64-The person who is trying to actualize his/her ideas, thoughts: CAPULCU (LOOTER which is what the Prime Minister called the protesters)

65-A town in Hatay that is famous for its baths: REYHANLI (where a bombing was followed by press censorship)

66-A person that concentrates all political power: DICTATOR

67-A person who serves for money: SERVANT

68-A ruling system in which executive power can act independent of judiciary: PRESIDENTIAL SYSTEM (internal Turkish political transition discussion)

69-To voluntarily give up a position: RESIGN

70-The act that makes a person bigger by asking to be forgiven for wrong actions: APOLOGIZE

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.


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.


*** 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:



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.