Bonus: Omar Wasow part 2

photo of Omar Wasow
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
Bonus: Omar Wasow part 2

In this bonus episode, Omar Wasow talks about his paper published last year documenting the political impact and public opinion resulting from the 1960s civil rights movement in America, “Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting.”

Omar Wasow is an Assistant Professor in the Politics department at Pomona College. This is the second part of our interview with Omar Wasow.


Ethan Zuckerman:

I want to transition a little bit and it may seem unrelated at first, but I actually want to promise the listeners that these two topics connect one to one.

Omar mentioned that he went back to grad school in 2005. He did this the right way. He was internet pioneer and then he went and actually got the degrees. That’s why he gets to publish in really fancy journals. I ended up doing much of the same thing. I just didn’t bother getting the degree, but we both had this shift from early internet into scholarship.

But my friend, you published just a killer paper this time last year. It is a revolutionary paper. It’s called Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion and Voting. It’s public in the American Political Science Review. This is the top journal in your field. It looks at black-led protests between 1960 and 1972, and if I’ve got it right, the basic discovery is that nonviolent protests appear to have led to sympathetic media coverage and that appears to have led to Democratic victories at the polls. Whereas, protester-initiated violence has led towards media coverage around social control and seems to show some evidence that white voters went to support Republicans.

Why did this take so long to figure this out? Why are you the first guy to show up 50-plus years later and say, “Look, there’s this direct relationship between protest, media, electoral results”? I mean this is a thunderbolt of a paper. What got you looking at this and why did it take so long to get this out?

Omar Wasow:

Well, first, let me say that’s a very kind introduction and your summary is spot on. I would say to the first part of your question about the timing of this paper, I am standing on the shoulders of many giants, including some of your own work that shows protests are influencing media. And in particular, I’m standing on the shoulders of the activists who figured these insights out in the ’50s and ’60s. There are folks who are very strategically using the media to amplify their own voices throughout the mid-20th century as a way to essentially use moral capital to advance their own agendas.

In some ways, I think maybe the first thing I would say is that I think part of what I tried to do with this paper is really to listen to what activists were saying and doing so that I could see the world through their eyes. In some ways if there’s a theory there or there’s an idea that’s compelling, first and foremost, it’s John Lewis or it’s Ella Baker that deserves credit.

Then I think there are a couple of other things that maybe are worth noting about how the paper evolves, which are that there’s been lots and lots of work looking, for example, at what helps to cause protests to escalate to violence or what motivated people to join the Civil Rights Movement. There’s a lot of work that looked at understanding the growth of the Civil Rights Movement. There was much less work on thinking about how that mapped to elections. It’s clearly these are things that have been studied historically and there’s a lot of sociological work, but in political science protests were a little bit at the margins of the field. So there’s a field of contentious politics, but often these are things…

I mean, the other thing that I think I should speak to a little bit is that a lot of these things are thought of as issues that happen outside of the United States. So if you’re studying contentious politics, that’s something that… We don’t have political violence in America or something kind of like that. Right? So there’s a little bit of disciplinary boundaries that aren’t very interesting and a little bit of…

All of which is to say that, to come back to the final question you asked, what brought me to this work, in some ways I think of myself as a child of the Civil Rights Movement. My parents were both active. My dad was registering voters in Mississippi. I came of age wondering how is it we went from the victories of the mid-60s to the moment I came of age when the dominant political rhetoric was around law and order and tough on crime. I was growing up in New York at the time and it was a period where just law and order was the dominant politic of the day.

So I was trying to understand that arc and that took me to looking at things like public opinion between the 1950s and the 2000s. What you see is a pattern that really links what’s happening on the ground, what protesters are doing on the ground to, as you said, media coverage and then public opinion, which influences politics. Some of what allowed this paper to I think do work that was just, again contributing to a longer conversation was to try and link a bunch of different pieces where people had shown elements of it, protests maybe are influencing media, but less protests influencing media, influencing politics, and that they’re differential effects when we see nonviolent and violent protests.

Ethan Zuckerman:

One of the things that I love about this paper is the rigor of it. You’re not suggesting, hey, I thought a little bit about protests in the 1960s and I think they might’ve worked in this way. Talk to me about how rainfall comes into this paper. Why are we talking about rainfall? What is that allowing you to do in doing some of the statistics that you’re doing with this paper that help make this not like informed speculation but actually allow you to say, “No, no, no, no. The vote shifts this percent”?

Omar Wasow:

As people have often heard, the gold standard with a medical trial is what’s called a randomized controlled trial. You get the blue pill, I get the red pill, and we see do our outcomes differ. If the only difference between you and me was a coin toss about whether you got the red or I got the blue, then we can say, “Well, the blue pill caused some outcome because the only difference between the blue group and the red group was this random assignment.”

One of the challenges when we’re doing historical work or what’s called observational data, we’re not randomly assigning protests to be violent or nonviolent or a city to have a protest or not. Well, how can we get something that is like random assignment in this historical record? There’s a lot of evidence that when it rains, people are less likely to gather outside. That’s not a particularly provocative claim. I even looking through historical newspaper archives find articles where it’s like, Rainfall dampens protest turnout. I mean that’s the headline.

So we see it both historically and just intuitively, and in other research there’s evidence that again rainfall is depressing gatherings.

Okay. What’s beautiful about rainfall is that we can treat rainfall as a mechanism of random assignment. Some cities have rainfall. If there’s rainfall, there’s likely to be a protest. Some cities don’t have rainfall. If they don’t, there’s more likely to be a protest. So we can use rainfall as a kind of what’s called a natural experiment, an approximating of a random assignment mechanism.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Just to make sure that I’m actually getting this, you say, in the perfect world, you would hand out slips of paper to protests in different cities and you would say, “Okay, Cleveland, this one’s going violent. Detroit, y’all are going to be peaceful.” Obviously, we can’t do that, but weirdly enough, rainfall actually sort of does that. It suppresses protests in some places and it enables protests in other places. That’s part of how we get the natural experiment out of this.

Omar Wasow:

That’s right, yeah. I mean if we had godlike powers and could do things, social scientists might say, “Okay. Let’s have a revolution in this country and let’s not have one there.” Of course, we can’t do that, right? So we have to look for things that are in some ways predictive of this thing we care about, in this case maybe something like an uprising. The key idea is that rainfall is influencing protest activity, protest activity is influencing politics, and so voting.

So we can use rainfall as the assignment mechanism, as this way to approximate the coin toss, the random assignment that allows us to say, these two groups are very similar except that some at random had the protests. Some at random didn’t have the protests, and then we can compare those like twins in a twin study and say, okay, well, did the treated twin behave differently than the untreated twin? What I find is that the…

There’s one other detail in this, which is that in April of 1968 Martin Luther King is tragically assassinated, and there are 137 protests that escalate to violence in the week following his assassination. What I look at is not just rainfall generally but rainfall in a very specific time period, and I find that rainfall before King’s assassination doesn’t predict voting in November. Rainfall later in April doesn’t predict voting in November, but rainfall in the week following King’s assassination predicts a shift away from the Democratic Party. Because there’s no really plausible story for why rainfall in one week in April is predicting voting in November but not other weeks, I make the claim that we can say protests that escalate to violence cause white voters to shift to the Republican coalition.

To be clear, there’s lots else going on, right? There are candidates who are making appeals for law and order. There is the underlying antipathy of white voters to black concerns, but all of that’s there in every county. And so it’s rainfall and, to be exact, rainfall through protests, or what we really care about is this protest activity having these effects.

The last thing I’ll say is part of why I think this matters is the protesters are saying, “We want more equality before the law.” There is this echo of the Black Lives Matter claims of we want there to be less state violence against African-Americans. We want there to be more broadly racial justice, and what we get in response to those particular sets of tactics, protests escalating to violence, is in fact a counter-mobilization in favor of more repressive policies.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Clearly, the implications of this paper are very straightforward. We need better umbrella technology for protests. But beyond that, that prediction that essentially that a protest that escalates towards violence can be counter-mobilizing in terms of media effects and voter effects. That turns out to be really controversial. This paper caused quite a stir when it came out.

The political consultant, David Shor, tweeted out a pretty neutral summary of the paper. He was clearly excited about the paper, summarized it in a way that wasn’t all that radically different than the way that I just summarized it, and lost his job. Why was this paper so controversial? Why did people, and particularly people on the left, freak out so much about this paper?

Omar Wasow:

It’s a great question. I mean, it’s still something I’m making sense of, and I want to underline that I think David Shor was wrongly accused of anti-blackness. I thought it was baseless. I feel for him at some core level. I also have some empathy for the people who attacked the paper and Shor is just the messenger. I think there are a couple of things going on.

One is the paper, there’s just this sort of remarkable timing, which is the paper after I’d been working on it for 15 years gets published about four days before George Floyd is killed. So I the wake of Floyd’s murder, there’s a kind of almost funereal-like quality where people are angry and mourning. Into that moment discussions of one or two percentage point shifts in the Democratic vote share feel I think to people in some ways sacrilegious.

As a social scientist, I’m deeply sympathetic to what Shor and others are trying to figure out, which is how does this particular moment influence downstream outcomes. And for other people, they’re like, “A man was murdered. This is not the time to talk about how the Democratic Party does. That’s not what this is about.” I think that’s one lesson for me is to just think about in certain contexts one needs to have a deep regard for what’s the emotional resonant feeling people have. Is there room to even talk about the statistical effects or the political consequences? That’s one thing and I just think that’s in general going to be a challenge for social scientists in a moment that’s deeply emotional.

There’s one other thing, though, which I’m less sympathetic to, which is a kind of reverence for a radical politic that says, if we agree with the cause or we agree with the motivations, we can be deeply sympathetic to people’s anger over the murder of George Floyd. That in some ways any criticism of what’s happening on the ground is off limits. That’s also what I think some of the buzzsaw that David Shor walked into and me as well is that there’s just a sense of to raise any kind of question about this set of ideas or set of issues that we think are a just cause can still lead to… Just because it’s a just cause doesn’t mean that every action on behalf of that cause is just. Just because something is a just cause doesn’t mean we also shouldn’t ask what’s strategic, what’s going to help advance this.

I think some of what I observe in the blowback is a sense of we can’t even ask strategic or practical questions about things which we have a certain kind of reverent idealism about.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And this actually feels like a moment where asking strategic questions is really critical. Because, first of all, we know that the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement were acutely aware of how things played in the press. They were very, very interested in these things. I remember visiting Medgar Evers’s home where he was assassinated, which has been left essentially unchanged and as a shrine. The thing that most stuck with me were the piles of Life magazines. He was very literally watching to see how the movement that was so central to his life was playing out.

But of course, right now we have far greater ability to document, to share and to try to shape coverage of media coming through social media. What sort of lessons do you take away from these 15 years of research that you’ve done to look at this really sacred moment in American civil rights history and look at this relationship? What does this tell us about Defund the Police? What does this tell us about Movement for Black Lives? How do you read the current relationship between social media, protests, mainstream media, politics?

Omar Wasow:

Let me start with a small piece of that and then telescope back. One part which, again, your work gets at is that part of what’s exciting about this moment is that someone like Medgar Evers needed the Life photographer to show up. People like John Lewis needed ABC to show up with heavy cameras and there was a lot of work. I mean just underlining your point about the degree to which this was done with real intention, people were organizing protests in the morning so footage could make it to broadcast nationally out of New York in the evening.

They were casting children as the front of a protest so that the photos would be particularly sympathetic. They were doing all kinds of things. They were picking cities so that they knew that these were… It’s not an accident that Bull Connor was a subject of protest activity. He was selected as a target because it was expected he was going to be brutal as a police chief. All of which is to say there was real intention in a kind of… Both people like John Lewis and Martin Luther King say that this was trying to dramatize injustice, so you were trying to essentially construct highly theatrical protest moments that would be captured by the media and essentially shame the South and America more generally into action.

What’s both exciting and I think speaks to some of the possibility of these technologies now is that you don’t need ABC to do that dramatizing injustice. Darnella Frazier, now famously Pulitzer Prize winning teenager, at the time shows up and has the presence of mind to bear witness and document the murder of George Floyd and do it in a way that paid real attention to… This is a little bit of a tangent but to doing the camerawork so that we can see his face and we can hear him cry. That really matters and that simply with her phone and distributing that video on Facebook, she transforms American politics.

We don’t need big media companies in the way that we did before. And to be clear, the Frazier video is an echo of the video that was shot by the gentleman who documents the beating of Rodney King. So there’s a way in which the democratization of certain technologies, a big video camera of the ’80s or early ’90s, rather, in the King case is still a kind of democratization of technology and that just is a through line straight through to Darnella Frazier and the current moment.

That said, these technologies, I think it’s still unclear to what degree these are going to be fundamentally pro-democratic forces in this moment where we’re also seeing these things used for lots of more authoritarian purposes as well.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Yeah. There’s no guarantee that this combination of increased access to technology, increased access to these networks means that justice wins out, right? We’ve had for every Feidin Santana who ends up picking up a camera and this is why we know about Walter Scott’s murder and why there’s actually accountability for that murder, we have Eric Garner who gets filmed and, in fact, the only person who ends up being prosecuted for it is the man who films it. There’s no guarantee that it works out, but I do think that understanding the ways in which we can document and mobilize at this particular moment in the same way that Medgar Evers and others were so sensitive to that question of where, who, how do we frame this, there’s now really conversations going on around this.

Is this paper in a sense advocacy for nonviolent protest? Is that part of what you’re doing in putting this out or am I adding a normative layer to what’s ultimately a descriptive paper?

Omar Wasow:

I guess I would say a couple of things. I mean, part of the journey for me with this paper was to appreciate as much as I could the logic of violence. Some simple examples, there’s a paper that influenced me that looks at… It’s called The Phoenix Effect of State Violence. I’m getting the name a little bit wrong, but it looks at Jewish resistance to the Third Reich during the Holocaust. There are lots of contexts where we would say violent resistance is moral, is justified.

So I tried to really listen to the Angela Davises and the Malcolm Xes. Even there’s a guy who’s an amazing character, he’s the head in Monroe, Tennessee of both an NAACP chapter and an NRA chapter. It’s only in taking up arms, these are World War II veterans who are resisting the Klan coming into their neighborhood at night, and so they shoot into the sky to scare away essentially domestic terrorists.

I try in the paper to the best of my ability to say, violence has a place in resistance movements, but if you have access to some kind of relatively free and potentially sympathetic media, then there’s this other tactic, which is to… This is the idea of Agenda Seeding, to seed your issues into that media and use the media as your weapon. In that case, nonviolence has a really powerful capacity to give people who are despised an upper hand, people who are statistical minorities the voice of some of the most elite, most powerful figures in society. I mean, I don’t know that that comes through, but what I was trying to say is violence may be justifiable, but it’s not always necessarily the tactic that’s the most effective tactic.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Of course, what’s fascinating about this is at the heart of this paper is this question of asymmetric power in a democracy, right? African-Americans are a minority in the United States and this question of how you get issues like racial justice onto the table requires this sort of asymmetric focus. If we are democratically setting the media agenda, it’s unlikely that the rights of African-Americans are going to make it to the top.

You’re talking about this idea that there may be cases if we have an institution that is doing its job, it’s actually amplifying concerns and, frankly, if we trust it, right? At the end of the day, there’s a certain trust of Life magazine. It’s not a trust that they’re going to do the right thing all the time, but it’s almost a trust they’re predictable and manipulable in a particular way.

I very much see that with Black Lives Matter and similar movements now essentially saying, “Look, we’re going to call out CNN’s absence at a protest because we understand that, first of all, that’s going to play. They’re going to receive that message and try to do something about it.” And then second of all, we understand these dynamics that we if we are protesting in a vacuum, we don’t have that possibility of influencing public opinion. To me, it feels like understanding how this ecosystem works and understanding in a system of maybe untrusted institutions, this is at least an institution that we can predict and influence.

Omar Wasow:

Yes. I think that’s spot on, and I think I’m going to underline one thing you said earlier, which was that in the 1960s it’s important to appreciate that there’s three kinds of media in the country. There’s a pro-segregation, essentially newspapers in the South, newspapers, radio, a little bit of television. There’s a national media, in particular TV, that’s sort of indifferent to the concerns of African-Americans. Then there’s a black press. So the black press is paying attention to black interests, but NBC was not unless African-Americans were forcing those issues to the front page.

I would add one other detail, which is that even when the press is trusted and relatively attentive and somewhat independent, what some of the activists of the 1960s figured was that if we have a protest and everything goes relatively peacefully, some people are arrested, that can look to a relatively indifferent larger white America as the system working as it should. You have the right to engage in civil disobedience. You go to court. That’s how America’s supposed to work, so we don’t need to do anything. What really forced the hand of the country was these incidents that looked extreme. So it’s when nonviolent protesters are met with a brutal, repressive state that the larger conscience of the country is shocked.

That really became the core strategy is how to shock the conscience of the country, and that’s hard because it means in the first case just potentially risking injury, trauma, death as protesters. And then it’s really hard to sustain nationally because your kinfolk are watching people they empathize with deeply getting harmed, and for a lot of people it’s hard to sustain turn the other cheek indefinitely. At some point an eye for an eye becomes a kind of just logic. I think the kinds of tactics that were so successful in the 1960s also have embedded in them an element of their own undoing because it’s an exceedingly difficult tactic to sustain indefinitely.

Now, it is possible to have some effect with large nonviolent protests that generate media, like the March on Washington, but even very big events are hard to produce. It’s a tactic that can work, engaging in tactics that produce repression or producing very large events that get attention, but neither are easy.

Ethan Zuckerman:

Let’s bring it in for a landing. We talked about two, I think, really big ideas here. The first one is this idea that even within networked environments where it seems like networks are more valuable the bigger they are, there’s a subset of networks. There’s niche communities where the value may actually come from being focused, from being highly knowledgeable, from being supportive, from being a community where you can be your authentic self.

We’ve talked about this idea that protest, its documentation can shift media coverage, can shift mood, can shift voting behavior in a way that’s clearly demonstrable. You and I, I think, are both fascinated by the change in the media ecosystem, the change in the social media landscape. Knit the two together somewhat for me. As we’re thinking about this new wave of racial justice movements, was we’re thinking about structural racism in the United States and finally confronting some of these demons that we’ve been living with for hundreds of years, how do you find yourself thinking about this new media environment where it really isn’t the 1960s?

We have a highly partisan media. We have a social media that is both very open but also controlled by a very limited environment. How do you find yourself both as a scholar and an activist trying to navigate the confluence of these two ideas?

Omar Wasow:

Great big, rich question. Let me pick one small part to begin, and that is that going back to your question before about what are some of the lessons of the Agenda Seeding paper, I think one for me is that activists in some ways should try to think like a camera. That there’s just something very powerful about how media will amplify what’s happening on the ground, and that can work for you and against you. I was watching coverage in the early Floyd protests of there’s a Starbucks in LA that was getting vandalized, and CNN sat on that for 10 minutes. That takes the focus away from a concern about state violence against, in particular, unarmed African-American men. We want to keep the focus on the core injustice.

Thinking like a camera can mean a couple of things. One, it can mean in the case of again someone like Darnella Frazier, having the presence of mind to bear witness with your cellphone camera, but it can also mean organizing events that are camera friendly. So in Denver, there was a die-in and there were just these very powerful images of, I don’t know the number, but hundreds of young people in particular laying on the ground. That’s an image that should make the front page of a paper, definitely made the evening news.

Then the third way I think thinking like a camera can matter is just there are moments where somebody might in their rage, in their anger want to, I don’t know, spray paint a wall or throw a brick through a window. And again, we might empathize with the level of anger or rage people have, but that individual can also say, “Well, how is this… ” We used to joke in the early days of the internet, “Don’t send an email that you wouldn’t want to end up on the front page of The New York Times.” I think there’s kind of an echo of that in this idea about what are the kinds of tactics that can be very effective and those tactics will end up, particularly if they are dramatic, in the news, but the burning car may not focus our attention on the issue of injustice.

At the same time, I think it’s also important to note just as we’re adjudicating a little between violence and nonviolence that violence absolutely captures the media’s attention. A burning car will be an image in a newspaper account, and so it’s not that violence can’t… Media covers plane crashes, not plane landings, going back to the metaphor I used a moment ago. So violence is a very powerful way of drawing in the media, but if the focus of the camera is not on injustice, then I would say the evidence historically is that that will pull away from the larger cause. That’s one core idea, so this idea of just thinking like a camera, thinking like how the media might make sense of this.

The other part of your question was thinking about what does this mean in terms of the media ecosystem today and these technologies. There I think we’re in this transitional moment, and I think it’s very hard to know exactly how this is going to play out. On the one hand, there is this more partisan media and I think that matters a lot. At the same time in the South in the ’60s there was pro-segregation media, so I’m not so sure that-

Ethan Zuckerman:

How different it really is.

Omar Wasow:

Yeah. Let me try to come back to some kind of clear takeaways. I think there is an opportunity. What we saw over the last year and a half is that certain kinds of narratives can punch through. So we saw there were police forces that criticized what happened in Minneapolis. You almost never see police forces criticize each other. There were conservative commentators who said what Officer Chauvin did was beyond the pale. So I think there is still fundamentally a capacity for capturing a moral high ground, for certain kinds of stories to capture the national attention and to move public opinion in ways that are consistent with what activists concerned about state violence might want people to be focusing on. I think that kind of core pattern was true in the ’60s. It’s true now.

I think we see evidence of the steady drip, drip, drip of these videos, as disheartening and depressing as they can be and in some cases I can’t even watch them because it’s too emotionally hard, is public opinion, particularly among young people, is shifting. So there’s a sense that discrimination against African-Americans is an issue has become more supported as a position. That the police might discriminate against African-Americans has increased in support.

I think that we do see broad shifts in public opinion, again, consistent with patterns in the past. And I think the cellphone camera footage really is powerful in its capacity to allow people to walk in the shoes of folks who they had never walked in before. It’s not, just to be clear, African-Americans. We see this on other issues as well around the world.

But there are movements and counter-movements, and it’s not clear to me that the ways in which these technologies can be mobilized by conspiracy theorists and disinformation actors and authoritarian states and movements, I’m not sure in the contest between these pro-democratic aspects of the technology and these anti-democratic aspects of the technology which will carry the day. That’s I think for me one of the big ongoing puzzles.

There’s a way in which your work and mine has generally celebrated these democratizing aspects. I mean a service like Tripod was giving everybody a printing press. That’s kind of magical. But it turns out in a lot of cases what that means is that it actually seems to empower authoritarians in a way to promote narratives that are even less consistent with a thriving, honest, democratic society.

Ethan Zuckerman:

And if we weren’t already at the point where we’re going to have to do a two parter around this one, we’d bring in Morozov. We’d talk about how India is starting to control both Twitter and Facebook and control a narrative there. Omar Wasow, what a pleasure and what a joy to connect history going back to the 1990s with some of these issues that are just incredibly fresh today. Thank you so much for being with us.

Omar Wasow:

Thank you so much for having me, Ethan. A real pleasure. Yeah, look forward to our next conversation.

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