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The Internet vs the TSA: Is Civil Disobedience Next?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, November 15 2010

Is America on the verge of an airport travelers rebellion against the Transportation Safety Agency (TSA)? In the last few days, there's been a rapid flowering of angry first-person tales from pissed-off travelers, some populist agitating by high-profile bloggers like Jeffrey Goldberg and James Fallows, sites like WeWontFly.com, StopGropingMe.com and FlyWithDignity.org sprouting, and a call to an Alinsky-style protest on November 24th, when passengers are being urged to "opt-out" of the TSA's new "naked-scanner" screening technology for the more time-consuming and embarrassing full-body pat-down now being enforced--which itself is generating lots of traveler anger.

In other words, we just might be on the verge of a real-time test of Malcolm Gladwell's thesis, that weak ties formed on the internet can't sustain something like the lunch-counter civil disobedience tactics of the civil rights days. The TSA is certainly a hot topic online of late, as this chart from Trendistic shows:

Of course, there's long been grumbling about the TSA among the traveling public, and periodic spasms of news attention to the handful of intrepid activists who have tried to assert their rights from time to time. But the conditions for real collective action seems to be ripening. The new backscatter scanners have been raising concerns not just from people who object to their privacy being violated, but also worries about their health effects. Airline pilots have also been speaking out more vocally of late. And finally, new TSA policies launched October 28th calling for more aggressive physical pat-downs for some passengers seem to be the final straw: if you opt-out of the naked scanner, odds are a government agent is soon going to be rubbing up against your private parts. Americans may hate terrorists, but they also hate sexual molestation.

And stories from people who have just had their genitals groped, or their kids' fondled, are starting to proliferate online. John Tyner's November 13th "You Touch My Junk, I'll Have You Arrested" post has received more than 3,000 comments (and now has been reposted on Jalopnik), and his real-time videos of his experience have each garnered more than 50,000 views since then. If you spend just a few minutes searching online you can find many other recent examples of people sharing shocking experiences.

So far, the TSA--which has long been one of the most progressive government agencies in terms of its embrace of social media--seems to be responding to all these complaints by puffing up its chest and saying, stop complaining and take your medicine, it's for your own good. "Blogger Bob," the TSA's official blogger, skirts the issue of whether the new "enhanced" pat-downs are too invasive in his latest post on the topic, for example. And Janet Napolitano, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, isn't budging either. Instead, she's asking for travelers' "patience" and "cooperation" with the new procedures, writing in USA Today: "Each and every one of the security measures we implement serves an important goal."

It would appear that the moment is ripe for public dismay to turn into collective action. But can a very loose knit network of websites coalesce into effective action without clear leadership? A few of the new sites have names attached to them, but not all do. And joining a Facebook group in support of the November 24 "opt-out" or "do not fly" day hardly seems likely to lead to action that day (which is also the most traveled day of the year, just prior to Thankgiving).

Right now, the backlash to the TSA seems solely at the level of consciousness: people are angry and they're using social media effectively to share their stories and spread their anger. But, to invert something I once said at a PdF conference, "if consciousness is global, politics is still local." And the collective action dilemma remains: will you, by yourself, risk public humiliation, arrest, a possible $10,000 fine or civil suit, by talking back to the TSA? Plus missing your flight and probably losing your ticket?

While there may be a few gutsy individuals who will try to gum up the works on November 24th, this is a pretty high bar to expect people to climb over on their own. Anti-TSA activists are going to have to come up with a more effective strategy than the one they're on now if they think the internet is going to solve this problem for them.

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