Why Opt-Out Day went bust, and why there’s still hope

Posted on
Nov 30, 2010

"HEY! Only I get to touch him there."

Folks, forgive me for writing about the TSA yet again. I promise, I’ll get back to blathering on about all the stuff you love to hear, but I wanted to do a post-mortem on last week’s events as they pertain to airport security. The part of my brain dedicated to marketing won’t let me have any peace until I do.

Last Wednesday was the day before Thanksgiving – notoriously one of the busiest travel days of the year. It was also National Opt-Out Day, a internet-driven campaign aimed at getting as many travelers as possible to opt-out of the scanners. The plan was a simple one: opt-out as a means of protest, to illustrate to the TSA just how fed-up everyone was with these new security procedures.

The idea would be to clog up the security lines, delay passengers, and get the point across that the people weren’t going to take it anymore. There was a high propensity for havoc to be raised everywhere. But instead … well, things went pretty smoothly (it kind of echoed my own experiences. Injustices are happening, and some individuals are making noise about it, but in the end? NOTHING IS HAPPENING). Folks reported few lines, no delays, and no problems whatsover. The TSA  explained that hardly anyone had opted out (and I’m guessing they did so with a shit-eating grin on their face). They even posted a photo of two adorable TSA-loving moppets on their blog to illustrate their own awesomeness.

What the TSA didn’t note was that hardly anyone opted out because hardly anyone was selected for additional screening. Gizmodo even published a montage of tweets from folks who claimed that the backscatter machines weren’t used at all. It was a brilliant move on the TSA’s part, really. News articles pounced on the story, and used plenty of quotes from the TSA to further the message that the no one was opting out, and that lines were moving smoothly.

Personally, I don’t think that Opt-Out Day failed, per se (but if I have to read the word “fizzle” one more time in a headline, I will punch someone. Seriously, journalists – USE AN EFFING THESAURUS). I just think it didn’t work in the way folks had intended. First, let’s talk about where things went wrong, and why so few people participated in the protest. I think there were a few reasons …

  • The threshold for participating was too high. There are loads of people who don’t like the scanners – and they’re a very loud, vocal community. But very few of them were flying on the day before Thanksgiving. Unless you had already shelled out a bunch of cash on a ticket (and were actually going somewhere) you couldn’t make your opinions known. Staging a protest or a march, where everyone could attend, would have been much more effective.
  • There were too many innocent by-standers. Opt-Out Day wouldn’t have only inconvenienced the TSA, but thousands of other passengers, too. It’s hard to persuade people to get behind a cause that will be a bother to not only themselves, but a multitude of people that they’re trying, in the end, to help.
  • Internet killed the surprise attack. Opt-Out Day generated a lot of buzz online – but as word spread, it also reached the TSA – and gave them plenty of time to prepare for and quash any civil disobedience.
  • The results were too easily measured. Because the protest had concrete, tangible goals (success would be measured by how hectic, insane, and miserable the security lines were), all the TSA had to do was keep it together, and they could effectively spread the message that they had quashed not only Opt-Out Day, but the legitimate claims the folks behind it had made (i.e., “Opt-Out day failed because the scanners are safe and not an invasion of privacy.”) If there had been less concrete goals (like, say, sending bikini-clad protesters to all local airports), the movement could have more easily claimed success, even if the hadn’t actually made that much of a discernible difference.
  • People who really got the message weren’t participating. Many folks who were against the scanners elected to not fly at all. In a sense, this was the ultimate success – if people truly agreed with the message of Opt-Out Day, they’d stay home! The downside, of course, is that if they stayed home, they weren’t able to participate in the protest and … sigh. It meant that the folks who most opposed the scanners were at home, doing nothing.
  • Success depended on the TSA. The goal of Opt-Out day was to get loads of people to opt-out, creating a general sense of chaos. But that didn’t happen. The TSA gleefully reported that very few people opted out (in fact, they were quoted everywhere on the issue). But what the TSA failed to state (and what, seemingly, most news organizations failed to report) was that few people opted out because very few people were sent to the scanners in the first place. There might be power in dissent, but the TSA robbed people of it by treating them like humans. Weird.

So things weren’t the crazy clusterf*ck that the organizers of the event might have intended. That hasn’t stopped the organizers of Opt-Out Day from claiming success. They’re stating that the movement they’ve created goes far beyond just one day (which is a fair statement, but if that’s true, then don’t name your website OptOutDay.com. Name it the American Flyers Freedom Coalition or something.). There’s also some reports that the failure of Opt-Out Day has strengthened the TSA even more (something I hate to think about, but suspect has some validity to it).

Did National Opt-Out Day fail in their mission? Well … yes and no. If their goal was to get people to opt-out, then yeah. Kind of. If their goal was to get the TSA, the national news, and hundreds of people to listen to them and react (however meekly) to their demands, then yeah, it was a success. Unfortunately, they didn’t establish that as their goal in the first place, so it doesn’t seem like they won, even though they made some decent achievements. Let’s look at a few of them …

  • Newspapers have deemed this stuff newsworthy. While the coverage of Opt-Out Day isn’t incredibly favorable, it’s nice to know that online protests can actually get press. And the TSA is making a huge effort to stress how dead this movement is – which they wouldn’t be doing unless they thought it had legs.
  • Very few people went through the scanners. According to reports and tweets from folks traveling on Wednesday, very few people were selected for additional screening in the first place. And that means fewer people were groped or irradiated – which, if I remember properly, was the goal behind Opt-Out Day in the first place..
  • People still hate the scanners. Just because a protest goes awry doesn’t mean people suddenly start to feel differently about that issue (take a look at the comments on the TSA blog if you don’t believe me. They’re delightful). I’ve been to a lot of crappy protests over the years – getting teargassed didn’t cause me to start favoring child labor, and watching some douchebag insult my husband hasn’t changed my support of big, fantastic gay weddings (or small, tasteful gay weddings, either).
  • The TSA is cleaning up its act. Apparently security was a breeze last Wednesday, as security stations were manned with extra staff, metal detectors, and more in anticipation of the protest. There were even rumors of  TSA agents behaving in a manner both friendly and efficient. As a means of combating all the bad press they’ve received lately, it looks the the TSA has actually started treating travelers like customers. Which is AWESOME.

Bottom line? I think that had the folks behind Opt-Out Day had better messaging, and less measurable goals, they could more easily claim last Wednesday as a win. But as it stands, they took a serious beating. It might be time for a rebrand (I wasn’t kidding about the name I suggested earlier). In the meantime, t seems like folks are treating the scanners like they did illegal wiretap – they might be unconstitutional, but as long as we aren’t personally inconvenienced, we aren’t going to do a thing about it.

As for me, I still hate the scanners,  but I think they’re going to be around for a while longer. They’ll be seldom used (more for show than anything else), and those of us who travel frequently will continue to be annoyed  by them. Public uproar will continue, but it won’t have the same force it did before Wednesday (at least, not until something else happens – like a traumatized little girl talks to Nancy Grace about her experiences traveling to the Midwest for Christmas). Politicians will continue to remain quiet, because if they do say anything against the scanners, they will be lambasted as being “soft on terrorism.” Eventually, the scanners will be phased out, with absolutely zero fanfare, only to be replaced by something equally ineffective but slightly less rape-y. Years from now, we’ll have definitive proof that the backscatter machines were irradiating us, when our children’s children start glowing in the dark.

At least, that’s my prediction. Of course, I could be entirely off-base on all of this. The TSA, drunk on its own power, might continue down the slippery slope it’s been threatening to. Resistance really will be futile. We won’t even be given the option to opt-out. We’ll all whine on reddit, twitter, and our blogs, and no good will come of it. The full-body scans will continue until some douchebag tries smuggling a bomb inside of his body, at which point cavity searches will become the norm, and I will move to Canada.

What are your thoughts?

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