The Palestinian protest camps in Gaza are world’s most daring protest

Today is the long-planned climactic day of the Great March of Return, a Palestinian protest on the fenceline of the Gaza Strip. On March 30, Palestinians set up five protest camps a half-kilometer from the Israeli military. These camps are themselves a form of mass protest, reminding the world that two-thirds of Gazans are refugees from towns, villages, and farms within Israeli territory. The protest’s chief demand is the Right of Return, their ability to freely return to their homes and/or to re-establish the communities they have maintained in exile for the past 70 years. Protesters are also demanding an end to the eleven-year blockade of Gaza, imposed in 2007, which has crippled the territory economically. The camps have been the staging grounds for weekly demonstrations, in which ten to thirty thousand protesters rally while at first hundreds, and more recently thousands of protesters have advanced into the unilaterally declared buffer zone along the fence. During these protests, unarmed Palestinians have thrown stones and flaming bottles towards the fence, and used a variety of tools to dismantle part of the wall that keeps them caged and isolated from the rest of the world.

Marchers, journalists, protesters engaged in confrontation and those who have peacefully approached the fence have all been subjected to an unprecedent barrage of violent force on the part of the Israeli military, who are positioned in towers and earthen embankments on their side of the fence. Israeli snipers have shot over 2,500 people and as of today, killed over fifty Palestinians. Yet week after week they keep coming.

The Great Return March in Gaza continues to be the most daring tactical encounter between protesters and security forces on the planet.

If you’ve seen the film Gandhi, you know the scene where people line up and risk beatings to defend their strike. Journalistic coverage of this march on the Dharasana Salt Works was a devastating proof the moral bankruptcy of British Rule in India. I’ve long said this could not be repeated when the opponent has deadly weapons. The Gaza protests have proven me wrong.

The Gaza protesters are unarmed militants, not satyagrahis. They are not arriving empty-handed but with stones in their hands. But they have injured no one on the Israeli side. They are deploying unequal means: inflicting symbolic damage while suffering brutal and deadly violence. And their response to that violence is not to switch to the deadlier means at their disposal (guns and rockets), but to keep coming back.

This is the dynamic of the Soweto Uprising, a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Unequal violence proved morally unsustainable for the regime, ultimately isolating it from its support system in the United States and Europe. The dynamic on the side of Israel and its backers remains unknown; will shooting thousands of essentially defenseless civilians provoke a moral reckoning? That choice is up to us.

You probably haven’t seen this protest from the inside. To do so, see the last footage captured by Yaser Murtaja, who was killed by Israeli gunfire in April. It offers a flash of insight into what the ongoing Gaza protests entail. Watch it.

After the break, four things you need to know about the protests…

Read More »

Bolivia’s limited de-criminalization of abortion has been reversed

After a year of drafting and debate, the significant but limited liberalization of Bolivia’s abortion laws lasted just six weeks. It was signed into law on December 15, 2017, as part of an omnibus reform of the country’s Criminal Code, but that law was repealed in its entirety on January 27, 2018. Between these two dates, the major challenge to the law was not about abortion but rather an extended strike by medical workers who opposed provisions in the law that criminalize malpractice. Transport workers also objected to new ways of being held liable for traffic accidents.

Reportedly, the abortion provisions—which would have exempted more women from the general criminalization of abortion in Bolivia, and allowed qualifying women to fill out a form rather than seek authorization from a judge—were a matter of internal tension within the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party.

The medical strike unexpectedly became a convergence point for various critics of the government, who formed the Coordinadora de Defensa de la Democracia (Coordination in Defense of Democracy) and demanded the government respect the February 2016 referendum vote that rejected President Morales running for a fourth term.

President Evo Morales signed the full repeal of the Criminal Code amendments in an unusual ceremony in which he did not speak a word.

Culverting of the Choqueyapu River, under construction in 2008

La Paz’s water pollution crisis, as retold by comic book artists

The metropolis of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, is living on the edge of multiple water crises. Water suppliers struggle to keep pace with its rapid population growth. Its overall supply is dependent on glacial melt water, which may not survive the 21st century (as covered previously on this blog: “Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg”). And the cities’ principal river, the Choqueyapu, is a site of dramatic pollution.

This last issue is the subject of Choqueyapu: Un río enfermo que nos alimenta (Choqueyapu: A sick river that feeds us). Bolivian newspaper Página Siete has re-released one of its most important investigative pieces of 2017 in an online comic-book format.  The narrative follows a drop of glacial meltwater as it travels past industrial sites, through the city center, and out to the vegetable and fruit-growing fields that lie downstream of the city. There, farmer Eugenia Mamani explains how her downstream community has adapted: “In the early morning the clean water comes” (because polluting industries and the slaughterhouse aren’t operating). “We irrigate from 3am onwards; during the day it comes in dirty and we no longer use it. We have to make sacrifices [to make] our products.”

La Paz’s water pollution has many causes, from industrial waste to the riverside slaughterhouse to urban runoff to mining waste to inadequate water treatment. It all ends up flowing downstream. As the comic and other reporting shows, solutions like pollution inspectors, slaughterhouse modernization, and a new water treatment plant are all behind schedule. One of the few public works that affects the river, the culverting of its downtown segment in 2008 (see above photo), has only added to its problems by creating de-oxygenated segment right in the middle of its flow.

Like many environmental matters, this is a slow-motion crisis with no end in sight.

 

 

Bolivia moves to decriminalize some early-term abortions, sparking misogynist outbursts

Bolivia is on the verge of a mild liberalization of its abortion laws after the Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved changes this week. On Wednesday, December 6, the Bolivian Senate approved a rewrite of the article of the country’s penal code that deals with abortion. While the code continues to treat abortion as a crime, and to threaten women who have them with one to three years in jail, it carves out new exceptions for some women who terminate their pregnancies within the first eight weeks of pregnancy. Women who are parents or caregivers to elderly or disabled members of their household, or who are students, may seek abortions without penalty. Perhaps more importantly, the revised law replaces a system that required pregnant women to seek judicial authorization for abortion with a simple form to be filled out within a medical setting. The simpler process will also be available under cases that were already permitted: abortion to protect the life or health of the mother, in the cases of rape, incest, or assisted reproduction without the woman’s consent; detection of fetal abnormalities that are fatal, and if the woman is a minor. The governing MAS-IPSP party backed the changes and President Evo Morales is expected sign them into law.

Bolivia’s current abortion law (es), enacted in 1973 under dictator Hugo Banzer, has been a public health disaster. Since it required authorization from a judge, and provided a very narrow set of circumstances to do so, it made seeking a legal abortion into a slow, uncertain, and costly process. In a recent two and half-year period, Bolivian hospitals recorded performing just 120 legal abortions, an average of fewer than 50 per year. Meanwhile, some 200 women seek clandestine abortions each day, according to a March 2017 Health Ministry estimate. Of these, around 115 seek follow-up care in hospitals for the side effects of abortion-inducing drugs or in recovery from clandestine surgeries. Over forty women died from the side effects of clandestine abortion in 2011, making unsafe abortion a major contributor to the country’s alarmingly high maternal mortality rate (National Study of Maternal Mortality (es), using 2011 data). Abortion led to 8% of all deaths of pregnant or post-partum women, and 13% of deaths under obstetric care.

The revisions to the law will not change the overarching framework surrounding abortion in Bolivia: criminalization. They do, however, acknowledge the ways that limiting family size and ending unwanted pregnancies can support women’s roles as caregivers and as students. These roles are the ones foregrounded by the Bolivian campaign group

Bolivian feminists continue to demand that the state “Decriminalize my decision.”: “Our demand is the decriminalization! (It) is an… advance in the context of a conservative onslaught… we continue moving towards decriminalization.” (translation by Telesur)

https://twitter.com/monicanovillo/status/938408989934669824

For Elizabeth Salguero, former Minister of Cultures and prominent MAS-IPSP politician, the changes mark “a great step forward for sexual and reproductive rights.”

The yearlong debate on this bill has been marked by protest from the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical Christian groups who frame their opposition in terms of defending life. The Plataforma por la Vida y la Familia (Platform for Life and the Family) is calling on President Evo Morales to veto the legislation. However, the opposition campaign has been marred by impolitic outbursts from within its own ranks. As the Senate bill was being voted upon (eventually backed 23–9), opposition Senator Arturo Murillo shocked the audience by saying:

Kill yourselves. Let those women who say they want to do whatever they want with their bodies kill themselves. Do it, commit suicide, but don’t kill the life of another.

Mátense ustedes, mátense las mujeres que dicen que quieren hacer lo que les da la gana con su cuerpo, háganlo, suicídense, pero no maten una vida ajena

It was a phrase that stripped away all pretense of religious conviction, and the sanctity of human life, from his opposition to abortion. Yet Murillo’s apology “to those I offended” demanded “respect for my principles and my way of thinking about this sensitive topic.”

Senator Perez was not the first abortion opponent to be moved to a public outburst during this debate. Back in April, Jesuit priest and Radio Fides personality Eduardo Pérez Iribarne complained on the morning show Cafe de la Mañana that the president’s cabinet was unqualified to speak to family issues like abortion:

In the cabinet, I would like to ask who, besides [Vice President] Álvaro García Linera and his wife, lives with their family? Starting with Evo, [they are] divorce women and men, living separately, here and there. And this cabinet of people displaced for life is going to set the standard for how to have abortions?!

En el gabinete me gustaría preguntar, fuera de Álvaro García Linera y su esposa ¿qué miembros del gabinete tienen una convivencia familiar? Empezando de Evo, divorciadas, divorciados, separados, con aquí allá. Y ese gabinete de gente desplazada por la vida va a dar pautas sobre cómo hay que hacer los abortos.

If this weren’t enough, Father Pérez also piled on to Health Minister Ariana Campero (Wikipedia), a single woman who became the Bolivia’s younger cabinet member at age 28. Since then, she has endured cringe-inducing on-stage sexual harassment from a gubernatorial candidate and the Vice President, as well as a presidential admonition not to become a lesbian. On the same morning as his comments about divorcées in the cabinet Pérez effectively suggested that Campero was unqualified and had slept her way onto the cabinet:

Excuse me, miss, I don’t dare call her doctor, I don’t dare! It could be because I am gay man, but I don’t dare call her a doctor, I prefer to call her the Minister of Health. And why are you the Minister? I don’t know, I have been told rumors, but I don’t want to broadcast them because they are gossip.

¡Discúlpeme, señora, no me atrevo a llamarla médica, no me atrevo! Será porque soy un maricón, pero no me atrevo a llamarle médica, prefiero llamarla Ministra de Salud. ¿Por qué está de ministra? No sé, me han contado chismes, pero no quiero difundir porque son chismes.

576px-Protesta_papa_abortoMinister Campero responded in an op-ed: “Surely for you my six sins are being a woman, young, a doctor who studied medicine in Cuba, feminist, communist, and single; that is why you said what you said. Seguramente para usted mis seis pecados sean ser mujer, joven, médica graduada en Cuba, feminista, comunista y soltera; por ello dijo lo que dijo.

The abortion debate has long revolved around the question of whether restrictions on abortion are born of concern for the sanctity of life, as one side claims, or about restricting the behavior of women who simply can’t be trusted. In this year’s Bolivian debate, the mildest steps to liberalize access to abortion have set off extreme attacks on women from abortion opponents, reinforcing the pro-choice claims that anti-abortion politics is rooted in misogyny.

Photos: Panel: National Pact for Depenalizing Abortion (Cambio newspaper). Abortion hat photo by Stéphane M. Grueso (El Perroflauta Digital).

No, TIPNIS solidarity isn’t a “conveyor belt” for US-backed regime change

An article published Monday in CounterPunch has resurfaced a narrative that frames Bolivian indigenous and environmentalist movements (particularly the campaign in defense of TIPNIS) as a stalking horse for United States-backed efforts to remove and replace the Evo Morales government. The accusation is false, although like many conspiratorial narratives it weaves together facts, half-truths, inventions, and genuine moral feelings into a plausible narrative. Since the particular narrative involves a solidarity letter that I largely drafted, and it keeps cropping up even after six years, I will address it here.

The allegation that opposition to the Evo Morales government is coordinated by the United States (or the domestic right-wing opposition) is rooted in a real history. US government opposition is real and well-known. Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) and Morales’ Chapare cocalero base were principal targets of a US-backed drug war, which they resisted. When the MAS-IPSP emerged as a political force, the United States government acted to resist its rise, supported his opponent in the 2005 presidential election, and encouraged establishment political forces when they regrouped in a separatist movement governing between four and six of Bolivia’s nine departments. That campaign fell apart in the September 2008 political crisis. So, wariness of the US government as a nexus of opposition is understandable.

However, the Bolivian government has indiscriminately accused large mass mobilizations from below and from the left of being right-wing- or US-controlled fronts. In 2010 and 2011 alone, the government alleged that the CIDOB indigenous confederation, the Potosí regional strike (in a region that voted over 70% for the MAS-IPSP), and the general strike by the Bolivian Workers Central (the national trade union confederation) were all covert attempts at a coup and fronts for anti-Evo conspiracies. A Google search for “Evo Morales” “ve conspiración” derecha reveals more recent examples of allegedly conspiring groups: cooperative miners, Achacachi peasants, opponents of the election procedures for the judiciary, and former Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena.

Given the president’s life story, I empathize with his tendency to see a conspiracy behind every opponent. But empathy is not validation.

Here’s why these charges are baseless in this case:

The lowland indigenous movement was not, and is not engaged in regime change, nor has it ever posed an existential threat to the Morales government. This should go without saying, but a movement whose force is primarily moral self-sacrifice, demonstrated through arduous cross-country marches, hunger strikes, and vigils is not going to expel Morales from power. The solidarity efforts that paralyzed several regions of the country with general strikes in late September and early October 2011 were aimed at winning a protection law for TIPNIS, legislation that required votes from MAS-IPSP representatives. There’s no regime change here at all.

The notion of outside control over a highly arduous form of protest like the CIDOB/CONAMAQ marches has always been absurd. The risks and effort involved cannot be bought, certainly not by the kind of organizational training initiatives that USAID provided to CIDOB well before the march. The decision to begin the march, and to continue with the march in the face of tear gas and mass arrest, was made by these movements themselves.

The United States government, alleged by this narrative to be coordinating opposition to the road, has never opposed the TIPNIS highway, nor has it coordinated any significant press push around the issue.

The international solidarity campaign for TIPNIS was built around movement-to-movement contacts between activists outside Bolivia and inside Bolivia, drawing on a long tradition of solidarity with both the anti-imperial vision of grassroots protest in Bolivia and global efforts for environmental sustainability and indigenous rights. The September 2011 letter spoke directly from that position:

As supporters of justice, indigenous rights, and environmental sustainability on a global scale, we have closely watched events in Bolivia since the turn of the century. We have observed and supported Bolivian social movements’ challenges to neoliberal economic policies and to the privatization of water and other natural resources. We value the proactive diplomacy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia in
supporting the rights of indigenous peoples, meaningful and effective responses to climate change, recognition of the right to water and sanitation, and formal acknowledgement by the State of the rights of ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole.
We have also watched with great interest and respect as Bolivians sought to incorporate these principles into their Constitution of 2009 and their national laws, including the Law on the Rights of Mother Earth. We are pleased that Bolivia has proactively asserted the place of international civil society in the global debate on climate change, particularly in Copenhagen and by hosting the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010 and we look forward to participating in the 2nd Summit next spring. However, the country’s pioneering work on all these issues also comes with a great responsibility. Bolivia’s continued ability to press forward this vital agenda will
be affected by its consistency and moral credibility on matters of human rights and environmental protection.

Solidarity campaigns with TIPNIS have in all ways been much stronger and larger within Bolivia than outside of it. The letter’s 59 foreign signatories and two Bolivian signatories reflect nothing more than that it was an international solidarity letter. At the same time as we were finding signers for the letter, street protests occurred in eight of nine departmental capitals, a 24-hour general strike of the COB labor union confederation was held in solidarity, and department-wide strike was held in Beni. The Beni Civic Committee coordinated a general strike and coordinated road blockades in the capital Trinidad, Santa Rosa, San Borja, Riberalta, and Rurrenabaque. The Beni strike extended through a third day, with the participation of unions of teachers, bank workers, shopkeepers, and health workers. On that third day, September 28, the Bolivian Worker’s Central called for a general strike, which affected nearly all major cities and in the tradition of “mobilized strikes” generated large afternoon rallies. Attendance was estimated at over 10,000 in La Paz and in the town of Riberalta, Beni. In Cochabamba, teachers, university students, and municipal workers blockaded major avenues while the public transport system observed a general closure. When the march finally reached La Paz in mid-October, tens of thousands of Paceños lined the route or joined in, while the capital city’s Mayor gave the marchers a key to the city.

Stansfield Smith writes in Counterpunch that “all international issues can only be understood in the context of the role and the actions of the US Empire,” but what he effectively means is that all domestic issues in Bolivia are international issues. And, in his view, they can only be understood as struggles between an “anti-imperial” government and critics who are presumed to be tools of imperialism. We have seen that the government freely makes such accusations, often against former and future allies, without evidence. In the case of Bolivian lowland indigenous movement and critical domestic NGOs, accusations of conspiring with foreign powers have become a mechanism of control. Pretending that we are resisting imperialism by ignoring grassroots social movements does a disservice to the real work of solidarity.

Feature photo by @MiriamJemio

Bolivian police break up epic road blockade in Achacachi

Early on Sunday morning, September 17, over sixteen hundred Bolivian police massed in the high desert plateau east of Lake Titicaca. Perhaps the largest police mobilization under the presidency of Evo Morales, these forces gathered to interrupt an extraordinary local protest that had blockaded roads and interrupted travel by road in the region for an unprecedented 26 days. The operation used its overwhelming numbers, police vehicles, and a substantial amount of tear gas to break up the Achacachi blockade. Over forty-five people were arrested, twenty-one of whom are being held without bail in Patacamaya and San Pedro prisons. The intervention looks to be a decisive turn in the municipality’s protests, which have been ongoing throughout 2017.

Woman with an Aymara-style slingshot faces off with dozens of riot police during their September 17 blockade clearing operation. This photo (and photo above) by Javier Alejandro Mamani (APG). See Gallery at Rimay Pampa.

The protesters, who have numbered in the thousands, are backing a demand that Édgar Ramos (of the governing MAS-IPSP party) step down as mayor of Achacachi municipality over allegations of corruption. That demand prompted protests in February, in which anti-Ramos demonstrators damaged the mayor’s property and his organizational allies in Achacachi city. In response, Ramos’ rural allies looted the city’s commercial district. In July, the national government advanced an investigation of the anti-Ramos forces, notably Achacachi Neighborhood Federation (Federación de Juntas Vecinales; Fejuve) leader Esnor Condori, but not of pro-Ramos forces. Reversing an earlier decisions to grant house arrest, a judge jailed Condori and two urban teachers affiliated with the movement, Pastor Salas and Gonzalo Laime, in San Pedro. The day after they were jailed, August 22, the blockade began.

In a remarkable month of mobilization, the mostly urban Achacachi protesters who began the blockade (in so far as a town of nine thousand people is considered urban on the Altiplano) both maintained steady control over regional roadways and built a surprising network of alliances. They were joined in protest by Felipe Quispe, the famed, but retired leader of the national peasant confederation CSUTCB, who is a native of Achacachi Municipality. They signed a pact of mutual support with TIPNIS community leaders still reeling from the August law that permits development in their territory. And on August 28, a march of Achacachi women descended from the Altiplano and El Alto to stand before the San Pedro Prison. Their signs read:

Damn those who defend corrupt mayors with their power.
Jail for this looter
Evo, listen: Your mayor is corrupt
“Malditos aquellos que con su poder defiende a alcaldes corruptos”,
“Cárcel para este saqueador”
“Evo escucha, tu alcalde es un corrupto”

The Achacachi women stayed in the capital of La Paz, staging regular demonstrations and setting up a sit-in blockade in front of the Ministry of Justice. Their mobilization seems to have built more surprising ties to parts of the Paceño population, while the highland traditionalist organization CONAMAQ Orgánica, regional labor federation COD-La Paz, and the traditionally radical teacher’s union all offered their support.

On Friday, September 15, these groups combined to hold a cabildo—a mass public meeting that can issue statements or coordinate protests—in the Plaza San Francisco, the traditional heart of grassroots protest in Bolivia, four blocks below the presidential palace in La Paz.

The cabildo termed itself “Achacachi Somos Todos” (We are all Achacachi) and managed to generalize the demands of the local movement, related to the mayor and the detained protest leaders, into “an Agenda that comes from the Aymara people to the whole country.” The six points of departure raised and approved in the cabildo include (1) the struggle against corruption, (2) the struggle against the politicization of the criminal justice system, (3) the right to dissidence and critique, (4) respect for individual and collective rights, (5) critical debate about the vision for Bolivia’s development based on local demands and perspectives, and (6) rejection of the instrumentalizing of indigenous peoples for political ends.

Achacachi municipality, particularly the smaller town of Warisata and the many Aymara rural communities that make up most of its population, was the point of ignition for the 2003 Gas War, and a key part of the rural mobilizations that preceded it. At that time, a thousand marchers from the Altiplano led by Felipe Quispe implanted themselves in the overwhelmingly indigenous city of El Alto (just above La Paz on the edge of the Altiplano plateau) and became an articulating force for collaborative protest. Today, Achacachi Municipality is divided along partisan lines (which are partially town/village lines), but its mobilization again seems to be bringing other movements together. It is very much an alliance of outsiders, those grassroots social forces that have had the harshest break-ups with the national government. But the process of connection among them should be watched closely as the Achacachi movement regroups from Sunday morning’s police intervention.

Broad Legitimacy for Road Blockades as Protest Tactic in Bolivia

Road blockades are a frequent form of protest in Bolivia, at many different scales. A small demonstration may claim a single roadway, or a coordinated effort can deliberately paralyze transport across an entire region. Sometimes small protests in just the right place can lead to big consequences. Bolivia is one of the most highly mobilized countries in the world in terms of protest: In a 2012 national survey by LAPOP (the Latin American Public Opinion Project), just under 17% of 2,999 people polled said they had taken part in a protest in the last 12 months. The 508 who said yes were asked if they had blockaded a road or other public space, and 229 confirmed that they had. In other words, one out of every 13 adult Bolivians polled had taken part in a road blockade. Asked in the same year whether they approved of different kinds of political action, Bolivians rated blockading a bit lower than simply demonstrating, but ahead of creating a political party.

In 2002 and 2004, LAPOP asked Bolivians a more incisive question about road blockades:

“Sometimes there are protests that provoke difficulties because the streets are closed. In those cases, what should the government do? A veces hay protestas que provocan dificultades porque se cierran las calles. En esos casos, ¿qué debe hacer el gobierno?

The result was overwhelming: Large majorities (76.48% in 2002; 71.89% in 2004) chose “Negotiate with the protesters although this may take days or weeks, affecting the economy of the country” over “Order the police to open the roads.” (Negociar con los manifestantes aunque esto pueda tardar días o semanas, afectando la economía del país vs. Mandar a la policía para abrir los caminos).

Add to this the fact that the ruling political party, the Movement Towards Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the People emerged from the Chapare cocalero movement, which frequently used blockades as a protest tool. And that it came to power in 2005 on a wave of unrest that was powered by blockades and sparked into national revolt in Achacachi. And that road blockades were also a frequent tool of the grassroots left in the 2006–09 struggle against a separatist right-wing movement in the east of the country.

Accordingly, the Morales government has often approached blockades with tolerance on the ground. It’s the exceptional application of intensive force to break up a blockade that attracts well-deserved attention: the 2010 police raid on the Caranavi blockade demanding a citrus plant, the 2016 effort to break up blockades by the cooperative miners federation, and this week’s operation in Achacachi. The first two efforts had deadly consequences: two townspeople were killed in Caranavi, and five miners and one Vice Minister died in last years confrontations. While the current operation caused no fatalities, it represents an important break point between the government and a movement that had been a solid part of its broad grassroots base until now.

 

Bad science journalism: Gay facial recognition

Journalistic accounts of soon-to-be-published study called “Deep neural networks are more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from facial images” (by Michal Kosinski and Yilun Wang) have gone viral and already prompted some outraged reactions from LGBT groups GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign. The study primed a deep neural network face recognition program on photos of white homosexual and heterosexual adults obtained on a dating website, and used it to create a “classifier” that rates which photographs were most distinctively those of gay or lesbian people. This classifier’s ability to distinguish gays and lesbian individuals was compared with human observers on test samples from the data, and on Facebook profile pictures with a stated sexual orientation.

This is all a vaguely interesting computer science project about self-presentation (all of the images were curated by the people involved and put on profiles stating an “interest in” one sex or  the other), machine learning, and perception. Interesting, that is, until it is attached to fears about artificial omniscience and ubiquitous surveillance, and debates about nature and nurture. Then it becomes at turns frightening and polemical.

Before we get there (and I’ll update this post with some comments about the authors’ dubious understanding of the many social layers that separate, say pre-natal hormones and early adult physical presentation, the fluidity of sexual orientation, and the presumed future capacity of artificial intelligence to make omniscient predictions), we have to ask whether the results of this study justify this kind of grand implications. In other words, we first need to know what exactly the study shows.

Let me begin with two simple asks for journalists reporting on science:

  1. Read the whole scientific paper and explain to readers what actual evidence is being presented!
  2. Also, remember that “discussion” sections of papers lack the scientific validity that is attached to results of the research method involved.
  3. Be literate in math.
  4. Never ever present a numerical result without explaining what that number means.

Unfortunately, major accounts of the paper (such as this one in the Guardian) fail to follow this simple rule. And, as is often the case, the problem starts with the headline:

New AI can guess whether you’re gay or straight from a photograph
An algorithm deduced the sexuality of people on a dating site with up to 91% accuracy, raising tricky ethical questions

Now, does the paper show that the AI can guess your sexuality from a photograph with 91% accuracy? Nope.

As the paper states:

The AUC = .91 does not imply that 91% of gay men in a given population can be identified, or that the classification results are correct 91% of the time.

Here’s the 91% claim. The AI is shown five photos from two individuals on the dating website. Based on what it has learned from other photos, it offers a guess as to which is more likely to be gay. In 91% of the cases where there is a gay man and a straight man being compared it guesses correctly. Accurate headline:

AI can distinguish gay men based on five dating profile pics 91% of the time.

When presented with just one pair of images of men, the AI guessed right 81% of the time. Human judges—recruited by Mechanical Turk and untrained on any images—guessed right just 61% of the time. For women, both were right less often: 71% for the AI and 54% for the humans. In this test, 50% is rock bottom, the equivalent of zero gaydar.)

But it gets worse. Let’s try to apply the paper to original question raised by the headline. How well can this AI judge an individual person’s sexuality? That’s the critical ability, from which dystopian surveillance fears arise. For this, the researchers seemed to have tuned the data very carefully. Remember too, this is still an operation performed on profile pics, this time from Facebook.

First, the AI classifier still seems to work, though not as well:

The classifier could accurately distinguish between gay Facebook users and heterosexual dating-website users in 74% of cases…
But when presented with the task not of telling a gay profile pic from a straight one, but of evaluating a whether given profile pic is gay, the machine’s performance fell apart:

The performance of the classifier depends on the desired trade-off between precision (e.g., the fraction of gay people among those classified as gay) and recall (e.g., the fraction of gay people in the population correctly identified as gay). Aiming for high precision reduces recall, and vice versa.

Let us illustrate this trade-off… We simulated a sample of 1,000 men by randomly drawing participants, and their respective probabilities of being gay, from the sample used in Study 1a. As the prevalence of same-gender sexual orientation among men in the U.S. is about 6–7%, we drew 70 probabilities from the gay participants, and 930 from the heterosexual participants. We only considered participants for whom at least 5 facial images were available; note that the accuracy of the classifier in their case reached an AUC = .91. Setting the threshold above which a given case should be labeled as being gay depends on a desired trade-off between precision and recall. To maximize precision (while sacrificing recall), one should select a high threshold or select only a few cases with the highest probability of being gay. Among 1% (i.e., 10) of individuals with the highest probability of being gay in our simulated sample, 9 were indeed gay and 1 was heterosexual, leading to the precision of 90% (9/10 = 90%). This means, however, that only 9 out of 70 gay men were identified, leading to a low recall of 13% (9/70 = 13%). To boost recall, one needs to sacrifice some of the precision. Among 30 individuals with the highest probability of being gay, 23 were gay and 7 were heterosexual (precision = 23/30= 77%; recall = 23/70= 33%). Among the top 100 males most likely to be gay, 47 were gay (precision = 47%; recall = 68%).
Tuned to its highest setting, the machine could find nine of the seventy gay men and threw one straight man in the gay box. Set to a broader setting, the machine found 47 of the 70 gay men, but also labelled 53 straight men as gay.
Now, we have a big technical problem: the artificial gaydar can only find most of the gay people when it produces a pool of “gay looking” people that is majority straight. So no matter how repressive and homophobic the society, it’s hard not to imagine that the “gay looking” 5% of the population will put up with this kind of system.
Of course, if we imagine that gay and straight people really have different faces and we just haven’t found the magic formula yet (and the authors seem to leap to this conclusion, for what it’s worth) then we can imagine a better AI figuring out how to tell the difference. But there are plenty of reasons to doubt that this ever has been or ever will be the case.