BROOKE GLADSTONE: With the newsmaking cellphone video recorded by 31-year-old would-be passenger John Tyner at the San Diego Airport when, confronting new invasive body scanners, he opted for the new hands-on pat-down procedures instead and learned they'd be going for his groin.
MAN: Screening, we can make that available for you also.
JOHN TYNER: We could do that out here, but if you touch my junk, I'm going to have you arrested.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When faced with the inevitability of junk touching, he balked again and was told his final option would be to leave the airport.
JOHN TYNER: Now, I don’t understand how a sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying.
WOMAN: This is not - this is not considered a sexual assault. This is –
JOHN TYNER: It would be if you weren’t the government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then he learned that leaving wasn't an option either. He had to submit to a pat-down or risk an 11,000-dollar Transportation Safety Agency fine. He still declined. But his cellphone video, posted online, quickly went viral. Now several groups have called for a national opt-out day on November 24th, the year’s single biggest travel day. Has the Internet pushed America to the brink of a transportation rebellion? Micah Sifry is cofounder of the Personal Democracy Forum and techPresident.com. He says opposition to the new scanners and pat-downs have made for some strange bedfellows.
MICAH SIFRY: We see groups from the right, like Congressman Ron Paul, groups like the ACLU, which is traditionally thought of as being more on the left, all talking about whether the TSA has gone too far, and a lot of bottom-up spontaneous activity that the Internet is so great at fostering.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the TSA has prided itself on being responsive to air travelers, especially via the Internet.
MICAH SIFRY: You know, the TSA was one of the first federal government agencies to start blogging, and we have to give them some credit for really using the TSA blog as a place where air travelers could get answers to their questions and also could vent off some steam. What is curious about the way the TSA’s responding right now, actually, for a couple of days they shut off comments on their blog because they were getting so many negative ones, and they continue to make statements that seem pretty tone deaf. As I read in my blog post, people are worried about terrorism, to be sure, but they don't like to be molested sexually in public, either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but as of Monday, the vast majority of Americans seem to be fine with these new scanners. A CBS poll found that 81 percent of people preferred the new X-ray scanners to the invasive pat-downs. So this looks like a great case to see what the ability of the Internet is to move the masses. There seems to be a division.
MICAH SIFRY: As you know, it’s all in how you phrase the question to get the kind of answer that might tilt one way or the other. Secondly, not every American has experienced what these new procedures are like. But that said, I have my doubts about whether all this online hustle and bustle over this issue, which is sincere, will really convert into civil disobedience. I don't think they're yet organized well enough to make anything change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your blog post you cited Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in The New Yorker in which he argues that the Internet creates only weak ties -
MICAH SIFRY: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and that they aren't strong enough to sustain real activism. For instance, the Civil Rights Movement couldn't have been fomented online because it required a far great commitment than just clicking “like” on your computer. [LAUGHS]
MICAH SIFRY: Well, I think the mistake that Malcolm Gladwell made in his piece was arguing that this was an either-or choice between the strong bonds that were forged in movements like the Civil Rights Movement and the weak ties that somebody has when they “like” something on Facebook. Yeah, but weak ties may lead to stronger ties. And so, the unanswered question about this current wave of concern is whether all these scattered individuals who are linking up virtually will decide that they actually have to form real-life affinity groups to act in particular places at particular times. That’s how weak ties can lead to stronger ties that can lead to real change. And we are in a very early moment. It could be that November 24th’s opt-out day is a bust. But the fact is that this story isn't going away. The TSA seems to have no interest in backing down. They believe they need these new procedures. The other reason is that this is catnip to the media. I mean, what other story combines terrorism and sex? The cable shows and talk radio are going to be all over this for months.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Micah, it’s very hard to test the power of the Internet without factoring in the amplifying effect of the story crossing over to other media.
MICAH SIFRY: No one has ever argued that the Internet enhances people’s power all by itself. That said, it is worth noting that John Tyner did something courageous and unusual in videotaping his own experience and posting it online. And last I checked, it’s been viewed three-quarters of a million times. This is a great example of how the Net empowers individuals to put an issue higher up on the agenda than political actors or political organizations might have done on their own.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you see something special in this TSA flap, something that we can learn from, if we're interested in what the potential is for change online?
MICAH SIFRY: I think it’s part of a continuing unfolding of what it means to live in an age where we're all hyper-networked. The part that interests me most about the rest of the story, which we don't know the end of yet, is whether some group of organizers will figure out how to convert this online anger over this issue into action on the ground that actually can snarl up the TSA’s behavior and force the political system to respond.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Micah, thank you very much.
MICAH SIFRY: My pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Micah Sifry is cofounder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum and techPresident.com.