TIME person of the year

How International Leaders Are Doing in TIME’s Person of the Year Poll

Modi, Merkel, Putin and more

Vote Now for TIME’s Person of the Year.

This time last year, Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Prime Ministerial candidate. He was also among the world leaders and politicians featured in TIME’s Person of the Year readers’ poll for 2013, finishing at fourth place with 14% of the vote. This year, Modi, who got the top job after the BJP stormed to victory in India’s national elections in May, is leading the readers’ poll with over 10.7% of the votes cast as of Thursday afternoon.

With nine days to go until voting closes, here’s a look at the world leaders who fared best in the 2013 poll—and where they stand this year.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptian President

2013 rank: 1. Current rank in 2014 poll: 38th

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was still sporting a generals’ epaulettes on his shoulders when TIME readers crowned him the winner of the 2013 Person of the Year poll. By January, the general—who ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, last summer—had become a field marshal. And soon the uniform was replaced with a dark suit as al-Sisi ran for the presidency, eventually winning the May elections by a wide margin.

As we noted when he spoke to TIME in September, his rule has been widely criticized for crackdowns on Morsi’s supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and on free speech and journalists. Talking about Morsi’s ouster in 2013, al-Sisi defended the military’s action, saying “it was the Egyptian people who demanded that change of identity.”

Should Abdel Fattah al-Sisi Be TIME’s Person of the Year? Vote Below for #TIMEPOY

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish President

2013 rank: 2. Current rank in 2014 poll: 40th

When he finished second in the 2013 poll, Erdogan was Turkey’s Prime Minister, a job he would have had to give up next year because of term limits set by his ruling Justice and Development, or AK, party. And so, after over a decade as P.M., he contested what were the country’s first direct presidential elections, promising to add some executive heft to the largely ceremonial office. Voters responded in droves. Despite facing anti-government protests during his final term as Prime Minister, he comfortably swept to victory in August, cementing his position as the most powerful Turkish leader in decades. He has also found himself a new home: a sprawling palace four times the size of Louis XIV’s extravagant digs in Versailles and, according to reports, no less sumptuous, with green granite inlays and washrooms decked in silk wallpaper. Originally intended for the Prime Minister, it reportedly cost more than $600 million to erect.

Should Recep Tayyip Erdogan Be TIME’s Person of the Year? Vote Below for #TIMEPOY

Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister

2013 rank: 4. Current rank in 2014 poll: 1st

Modi was one of the strongest performers in the TIME readers’ poll last year. At the time, the controversial Indian politician was already widely tipped to lead his party to victory and unseat the ruling Congress Party-led coalition government in elections in May, 2014. Few, however, predicted the scale of his eventual triumph, with the BJP securing the first parliamentary majority for a single party in 30 years. Promising to revive India’s slowing economy, Modi tapped into disenchantment with the Congress, the grand old party of Indian independence which, by the end of its latest term in office, was mired in a series of high-profile corruption scandals and struggling to boost growth.

Should Narendra Modi Be TIME’s Person of the Year? Vote Below for #TIMEPOY

Bashar al-Assad

2013 rank: 10. Current rank in 2014 poll: 25th

With the Syrian conflict now in its fourth year, Assad continues to hold on to power in Damascus, even as vast swathes of the country fall into the hands of extremist militants. On Wednesday, Russia reaffirmed it’s support for the Assad regime, with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying: “We share the view that the main factor driving the situation in the Middle East is the terrorist threat. Russia will continue supporting Syria … in countering this threat.”

Should Bashar al-Assad Be TIME’s Person of the Year? Vote Below for #TIMEPOY

Other leaders from the 2013 poll who also feature in this year’s survey include the Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came 11th last year and currently stands at 5th place, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who came 15th last year and current stands at 16th place.

Since 1927, TIME has named a person who for better or worse has most influenced the news and our lives in the past year.

The Person of the Year is selected by TIME’s editors, but readers are asked to weigh in by commenting on any TIME Facebook post that includes #TIMEPOY, tweeting your vote using #TIMEPOY, or by heading over to TIME.com’s Person of the Year voting hub, where Pinnion’s technology is recording, visualizing and analyzing results as they are received. Votes from Twitter, Facebook and TIME.com’s voting hub are pooled together to create the totals displayed on the site. You can see the results of the poll and vote on your choice for person of the year here.

TIME person of the year

Narendra Modi Leads TIME’s Person of the Year Poll

Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India waves to the crowd as he arrives to give a speech during a reception by the Indian community in honor of his visit to the United States at Madison Square Garden, Sept. 28, 2014, in New York. Jason DeCrow—AP

India's leader is well ahead of the Ferguson, Mo., protesters and Russia's Vladimir Putin

Vote Now for TIME’s Person of the Year.

Narendra Modi, the newly elected Indian prime minister, has a significant lead in TIME’s 2014 Person of the Year polls, with 11.1% of the vote as of Wednesday evening. The leader of the world’s largest democracy has raised hopes among Indians that he’ll invigorate the country’s economy and tear down the bureaucratic red tape that has slowed development.

Should Narendra Modi Be TIME’s Person of the Year? Vote Below for #TIMEPOY

The Ferguson, Mo., protesters now stand at 8.8% as of late Wednesday, edging out Russian President Vladimir Putin (5.9%), who was TIME’s Person of the Year in 2007, and the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner ever, Malala Yousafzai (5%).

The earlier bump for the protesters came amid violent unrest in the St. Louis suburb and subsequent demonstrations that rippled across the U.S. Thousands expressed solidarity with slain 18-year-old Michael Brown’s family following the grand jury announcement not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for causing his death. Crowds from New York to Los Angeles gathered and chanted the rallying cry, “Black lives matter.”

Since 1927, TIME has named a person who for better or worse has most influenced the news and our lives in the past year.

The Person of the Year is selected by TIME’s editors, but readers are asked to weigh in by commenting on any TIME Facebook post that includes #TIMEPOY, tweeting your vote using #TIMEPOY, or by heading over to TIME.com’s Person of the Year voting hub, where Pinnion’s technology is recording, visualizing and analyzing results as they are received. Votes from Twitter, Facebook and TIME.com’s voting hub are pooled together to create the totals displayed on the site. You can see the results of the poll and vote on your choice for person of the year here.

TIME europe

German Chancellor Says Russia’s Actions Are Unjustifiable

Chancellor Angela Merkel in the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Nov. 26, 2014.
Chancellor Angela Merkel in the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Nov. 26, 2014. Stefanie Loos—Reuters

Angela Merkel appears to be taking a tougher stance against Vladimir Putin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel Wednesday suggested she is prepared for a drawn-out confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine crisis

“We need patience and staying power to overcome the crisis,” Merkel told German lawmakers in a speech to Berlin’s parliament. She added that economic sanctions on Russia “remain unavoidable” as long as government forces continue to battle pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, Bloomberg reports.

Merkel continued that while the crisis may have been triggered by Russia’s concerns over the impact of Ukraine’s free trade agreement with the European Union, “none of this justifies or excuses Russia’s annexation of Crimea.”

Russia’s actions, she said, interrupt “the peaceful international order and breach international law.”

MORE: Russia wants a “100% guarantee” that Ukraine won’t join NATO

The German chancellor’s speech to parliament follows an address Merkel made in Australia Monday, during which more openly critical of Putin than in the past, suggesting her patience with Putin is running out after months of negotiations. Merkel and Putin met during the G20 conference, but that reportedly did not go well for either leader.

[Bloomberg]

TIME russia

Russia’s Lackluster Economy Means Putin Simply Can’t Afford a New Cold War

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to toast with ambassadors in the Alexander Hall after a ceremony of presentation of credentials by foreign ambassadors in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. Alexander Zemlianichenko—AP

Moscow needs the West

One of the axioms of global geopolitics is that a country can project power only as far as its economic might allows. There is good reason why the United States, by far the world’s largest economy, has been the dominant force in all things political and military for the past 60 years. And we can see China now rising to superpower status on the back of its spectacular economic ascent.

Vladimir Putin should take note. As Russia’s president attempts to reassert his nation’s clout in Europe, he is doing so on an ever shakier economic foundation. The question for Putin going forward is whether his stumbling economy can support his geopolitical ambitions. The answer is anything but clear.

Russia’s economy was struggling even before Putin’s adventurous foray into Ukraine. The country had been one of the high-fliers of the developing world, so much so that Goldman Sachs included Russia in its BRICs — the emerging economies that would shape the economic future — along with Brazil, India and China. But a feeble investment climate, endemic corruption and excessive dependence on natural resource exports eventually laid Russia low. Growth last year sunk to only 1.3%, down from the 7% to 8% rates experienced a decade ago.

Since Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, Russia’s economic situation has worsened severely. GDP inched upwards only 0.7% in the third quarter from a year earlier, and the International Monetary Fund is forecasting mere 0.2% growth for all of 2014. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union in the wake of Putin’s intervention in Ukraine have blocked some major Russian banks and companies from accessing financing in the West, starving them of much-needed foreign capital. As a result, the value of the Russian currency, the ruble, has deteriorated by 30% against the dollar so far this year, routinely hitting new record lows along the way.

In a recently released study, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development predicted that Western sanctions would help push Russia into a mild recession in 2015. Sanctions, the bank noted, “negatively affected business confidence, limited the ability of companies and banks to access international debt markets and contributed to an increase in private capital outflow.”

Meanwhile, Putin’s countermeasures have made matters worse. His decision to ban the import of some foodstuffs from the West has caused prices for fresh produce and other necessities to rise. Combined with the weakening ruble, that’s pushing up inflation, which bites into the pocketbook of the average Russian family. Moscow’s economy minister recently said that he expects inflation to exceed 9% by early 2015. The nasty mixture of a depreciating currency and escalating prices have forced the central bank to hike interest rates, which will act as a further drag on growth.

Headwinds from the global economy are making matters even worse. Tumbling oil prices spell bad news, both for overall growth and the financial position of the government, which is reliant on tax revenues from its energy industry to fund the budget. In 2013, oil and gas accounted for 68% of Russia’s total exports, while duties on those exports, combined with taxes on mining, accounted for 50% of the federal government’s revenue.

Putin so far hasn’t flinched. Instead, he has been scrambling to evade Western sanctions and find new sources of exports and investment in Asia. On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, held in Beijing this month, Russia agreed to a deal to supply even more natural gas to China, on top of a $400 billion pact inked earlier this year.

That “pivot” to Asia will take time to bear fruit, however. Right now, none of the negative factors damaging Russia’s economic prospects look likely to turn positive any time soon. “We expect the stagnation trend to continue and potentially accelerate next year, exacerbated by lower oil prices, tighter monetary policy and continued uncertainty on the geopolitical front,” noted Barclays economist Eldar Vakhitov in a recent report.

Still, Putin’s economic woes haven’t yet translated into political problems. The Russian public appears to be patriotically rallying around Putin’s aggressive foreign policy and setting aside concerns about the economic fallout. In the latest poll conducted by the Levada Center, a Moscow-based independent research organization, an amazing 60% of the respondents said they believed that Russia was heading in the right direction, up significantly from 40% a year earlier. Putin’s approval rating stands at an even more astronomical 88%.

What the future may hold is another issue. A good part of Putin’s political success has been based on his record of improving people’s welfare, but with no relief in sight for Russia’s economic troubles, it may only be a matter a time before the general populace begins to feel the pinch more sharply. Nor can Putin ignore his economy’s need for foreign investment and technology to upgrade industry and create jobs. He may eventually find himself facing a critical choice — maintaining his foreign policy goals or softening his stance towards the West out of economic necessity.

Recall that the Soviet Union collapsed, after all, because its economy could not sustain its international policies. Putin has to watch that history doesn’t repeat itself.

TIME russia

Putin’s Loss of German Trust Seals the West’s Isolation of Russia

President Putin gives press conference following G20 Summit
Russia's President Vladimir Putin looks on at a press conference following the G20 Leaders' Summit in Brisbane, Australia. Klimentyev Mikhail—EPA

After a night spent debating the Ukraine crisis with the Russian President, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out more determined than ever to push the Kremlin out of Eastern Europe

Vladimir Putin has long had a soft spot for Germany. As an officer of the KGB in the late 1980s, he was stationed in the East German city of Dresden, where he developed a love of the language and, according to his memoirs, for the enormous steins of pilsner he drank at a beer hall in the town of Radeberg with friends.

As President, Putin’s foreign and economic policies have always looked to Germany as a pivotal ally, a vital partner in trade and a sympathetic ear for Russian interests. He seemed to feel that no matter what political headwinds came his way, the German sense of pragmatism would prevail in keeping Berlin on his side. That illusion has just been shattered.

During a speech on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel predicted a drawn-out confrontation with Moscow. Breaking from her normally subdued political style, she even invoked the worst years of the 20th century in describing the West’s conflict with Russia over Ukraine. “After the horrors of two world wars and the end of the Cold War, this challenges the peaceful order in Europe,” she said, referring to what she called Putin’s “old-thinking” view of Eastern Europe as Russia’s stomping ground. “I am convinced this won’t succeed,” she said. In the end, the West would win out against the challenge emanating from Russia, “even if the path will be long and hard and full of setbacks,” Merkel told a conference in Brisbane, Australia.

It was in many ways the low point for Putin’s deepening estrangement from the West. During the G20 summit of world leaders held in Brisbane over the weekend, the Russian leader was broadly ostracized by the most powerful figures at the table, and some of them were far less diplomatic toward Putin than Merkel has been. In greeting Putin on Saturday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly said, “I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”

Later that day, Merkel came to the Hilton Hotel in central Brisbane for an unscheduled meeting with Putin that reportedly lasted almost six hours, running well into Sunday morning. The subject was the conflict in Ukraine, and according to the Kremlin, Putin did his best to “clarify in detail the Russian approach to this situation.” But his efforts to win Merkel’s sympathy – or at least her understanding – appear to have done the opposite. He emerged from their encounter apparently so exhausted that he decided to leave the summit early, saying he needed to get some sleep.

The letdown seemed all the more painful considering his recent attempt to reach out to the German public. A few days before the G20 summit began, Putin decided to give a rare one-on-one interview to the national German television network ARD, whose correspondent grilled him on Russia’s support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Putin tried to sound conciliatory. “Of course we expect the situation to change for the better,” he said. “Of course we expect the Ukrainian crisis to end. Of course we want to have normal relations with our partners, including in the United States and Europe.”

Particularly for Germany, he argued, it is important to work things out with Russia, because their economies are so closely intertwined. Trade with Russia accounts for as many as 300,000 German jobs, Putin said, and by going along with the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia, Berlin risks hurting its own economic growth. “Sooner or later,” he said, “it will begin to affect you as much as us.”

The warning, more plaintive than defiant in its tone, was aimed as much at the political elites in Germany as its powerful business interests, which rely on Russia for natural resources and a huge consumer market. Last year the trade between the two countries was worth more than $100 billion, compared to less than $40 billion between the U.S. and Russia. To fuel its energy-intensive industrial base, Germany also gets a third of its oil and gas from Russia, and 14% of everything that Russia imports is made in Germany.

But Putin, for all his appeals to German pragmatism, was wrong to hope that Russia’s isolation could boomerang back on the German economy, or on Merkel’s popularity. Even as the sanctions war choked off trade between Russia and the West, Germany’s total exports reached an all-time high in September. At the same time, Russia’s reputation among the German public has been scraping bottom. In a nationwide survey conducted in August, a German pollster reportedly found that 82% of Germans do not believe that Russia can be trusted, while 70% called for tougher sanctions against the Russian economy.

“So it seems clear that Putin has miscalculated,” says Joerg Forbrig, an expert on Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Certainly when it comes to Germany.”

This is a costly mistake. In trying to sway Berlin, Putin pursued his best, and perhaps only, chance of breaking the West’s resolve against him. The business lobby in Germany is both more powerful and more sympathetic toward Russia than any major European state, and the German electorate has generally favored a neutral stance on foreign policy.

Just a few weeks after Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in March, nearly half of Germans said that their government should not take sides in the conflict, while 35% urged their leaders to seek an understanding with Moscow. This core of German Russophiles now looks to have evaporated, and with it Putin loses the only Western partner that could have stopped the isolation of his country.

Many in Moscow have watched that turn in German feelings with surprise. “Even during the Cold War, we were laying [oil and gas] pipelines to Germany,” says Leonid Kalashnikov, vice chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament. “Back then nobody seemed to mind.”

Under Putin, those energy links have been vastly expanded. In 2011, he launched the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline to pump fuel from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. (In a sign of just how well-connected Putin was in Berlin at the time, Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, took a job as chairman of that pipeline project after his term as chancellor ran out in 2005.) But at the end of September, Merkel said the European Union may need to break its addiction to Russian fuel in the long term, especially if the Kremlin’s expansionist policies continue to violate “basic principles.”

But even the threat of losing the European market – disastrous as that would be for the Russian economy – is not likely to make the Kremlin yield. “There’s one thing the West just doesn’t understand,” says Kalashnikov. “They can use sanctions to coerce a small country. But Russia is not one of them. We will not get on our knees and do as we’re told.”

Thanks largely to his own anti-Western bluster, Putin’s support in Russia now relies more than ever on his defiance toward the West, and he will sooner accept the role of a pariah abroad than weakling at home. “We’re just not going to chastise him into changing his tune,” says Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Much more likely, the West’s ostracism will “foreclose” any remaining channels for swaying Putin through dialogue, adds Rojansky. But if Putin was searching for such a channel during his night of debating with Merkel, he has come up empty-handed. It’s not clear if he has anywhere else in the West to turn.

Read next: Russia to Create Its Own ‘Alternative Wikipedia’

TIME movies

Review: Red Army: Much More Than Just a Hockey Doc

Red Army from Sony Pictures Classics Sony Pictures Classics

Ex-Soviet rink star Slava Fetisov brandishes his rough charisma in Gabe Polsky's playful, poignant profile

In America, ice hockey lags a distant fourth among professional team sports, far behind football, baseball and basketball. Men push a tiny puck across a skating rink, collide with one another and, all too rarely, score a goal. But even those who don’t know or don’t like hockey can appreciate the pure, complicated synergy of the game, especially as it was played by the Red Army team in its dominant decades, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, focusing on defenseman Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, brims with male camaraderie: high spirits and some robust verbal sparring.

Most forms of filmmaking demand star quality, but none more than the documentary, in which an attractive personality can drive home the political or human message. Polsky found his star in Fetisov, part of the legendary Green Line of the U.S.S.R. ice hockey team. During his 13 seasons, the Red Army squad won seven World Championships (out of a possible 10) and two Olympic gold medals, losing only in 1980 to the U.S. team in the “Miracle on Ice” semifinal game. Defying the Soviet hierarchy, Fetisov left Russia for North America to play for the National Hockey League, spurring an exodus of other Soviet and European stars to the NHL. Many of his fellow Russians joined him on the Detroit Red Wings, which in 1997 and 1998 won the Stanley Cup.

Those are Fetisov’s statistics. The man is even more impressive: a dominant presence off the ice and in front of Polsky’s camera, whether declaring his political independence, misting up at the memory of his first coach or, when the mood strikes him, giving his director a middle-finger salute. So charismatic is Fetisov that this exuberant, affecting film portrait could escape the niche of documentaries and become a popular attraction on the order of Searching for Sugar Man. The film has similar heart, humor and unbelievable-but-true narrative twists.

In the NHL, star players often skate freely toward the goal, a one-man show. In Soviet hockey, “The man with the puck is the servant of the other skaters.” Their coaches stressed teamwork, as developed in a decade of junior-league training, until the intricate weaving of the Green Line skaters approached the choreography of the Bolshoi Ballet or the chess mastery of Garry Kasparov. (One NHL announcer calls them “the Soviet Symphony.”) The long years of excruciating practice forged a comradeship, in the best sense, of Fetisov and his mates. Surviving the 1980 Lake Placid humiliation, and weathering disagreements that seemed like betrayals, the Green Liners were a band of brothers. Some of them reunited with Fetisov in the NHL years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Fetisov, who speaks excellent English from his many years in North America, is still a Russian at heart. He returned there, and at the urging of Vladimir Putin served as Minister of Sport from 2002 to 2008. Fetisov deflects some of Polsky’s questions by saying, “I’m a politician now.” As a Soviet skater, he was also a political and social force: he and his team lifted the U.S.S.R. at a time when the West was the best at everything but hockey. As one Russian commentator notes, “The story of hockey is the story of our country.”

Ice hockey is not exactly America’s story, and at the moment Russia is not the most popular foreign power. But this playful, poignant film presents a human story that transcends decades, borders and ideologies.

TIME russia

Russia to Create Its Own ‘Alternative Wikipedia’

Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to journalist Hubert Seipel of the German TV channel ARD on Nov. 13, 2014 in Russia.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to journalist Hubert Seipel of the German TV channel ARD on Nov. 13, 2014 in Russia. Klimentyev Mikhail—Corbis

Putin has previously called the Internet a "CIA Special project"

Russia will create its own version of Wikipedia in order to give people access to “detailed and reliable” information, Russia’s presidential library announced Friday.

“Analysis of this resource showed that it is not capable of providing information about the region and life of the country in a detailed or sufficient way,” the library said, Reuters reports.

The creation of an “alternative” has already begun, using more than 50,000 books from 27 libraries, according to the announcement. It is unclear if access to the original Wikipedia will be affected or how freely citizens will be able to edit the pages.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously called the Internet a “CIA Special project.” Russian authorities have had the power to block access to websites without a court order since February, and two of the first websites banned were pages critical of the government.

[Reuters]

TIME Foreign Policy

All the Presidents’ Looks: 9 Pictures of Commanders-in-Costume

It’s not every day when the pageantry of leading the free world looks so specifically like an actual pageant. But indeed, when Presidents of the United States don the traditional garb of the country they’re visiting, just about anything can happen.

From the hilariously uncomfortable (Putin, Bush, ponchos) to the kind-of-awesome (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s colorful threads in Ghana), here’s photographic evidence that sometimes diplomacy requires more wardrobe changes than a Cher concert.

TIME russia

CNN to Stop Broadcasting in Russia

A new law puts limits on media companies' foreign ownership

CNN will cease broadcasting in Russia following the recent passage of a law that puts limits on media companies’ foreign ownership.

In October, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring foreign-owned media companies in Russia to cut non-Russian ownership to 20 percent by the end of 2016, Bloomberg reports.

“Turner International is assessing its distribution options for CNN in Russia in light of recent changes in Russian media legislation,” Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting division said in a statement. “We are bringing our existing distribution relationships to an end while we do that. We hope to re-enter the market in due course, and will notify our partners of any update about resuming these services.”

CNN’s bureau in Moscow is unaffected by the change.

[Bloomberg]

 

 

TIME Opinion

Instagram Is Right to Censor Chelsea Handler

2014 Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize For American Humor Honoring Jay Leno
Chelsea Handler at the 2014 Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize For Americacn Humor at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on October 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. Kris Connor--Getty Images) Kris Connor—Getty Images

Allowing nudity on Instagram would hurt more women than it would help

It’s Halloween, which means it’s the perfect time to stir up a smoking hot gender-politics brouhaha in the Internet cauldron. This time, it’s over comedian Chelsea Handler’s nipples, and whether she should be able to post pictures of them on Instagram.

The drama started Thursday night, when Handler posted a topless photo of herself riding a horse on Instagram, to mock Vladimir Putin’s topless horseback selfie from 2009. Her photo was accompanied with the caption, “Anything a man can do, a woman has the right to do better. #kremlin.” But Instagram took the photo down, citing its Community Guidelines, which prohibit sharing of “nudity or mature content.” Handler posted the notice that her post had been removed, with the caption “If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it’s ok, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?” She then took to Twitter, calling the removal “sexist.”

Breastfeeding moms have voiced similar outrage at social networks like Facebook and Instagram, complaining that their nursing photos have been taken down for being too revealing. And pro-nudity movements like the Free the Nipple campaign have argued that nudity laws policies like this amount to “female oppression.”

Yes, in an ideal world, women’s nipples would seem just as unsexy and random as men’s. But we don’t live in that world, and Instagram is right to censor Handler and other women who post topless pictures. Not because there’s anything wrong with female nudity, but because that kind of monitoring helps keep revenge porn and child porn off of the network. It’s not that kids on Instagram need to be protected from seeing naked photos of Chelsea Handler–it’s they need to be protected from themselves.

See, kids love taking nude selfies, and they have notoriously bad judgement when it comes to putting stuff on the Internet. A study in June by Drexel University found that 28% of undergrads said they had sent photographic sexts while underage. Another study, published in Pediatrics in September, also found that 28% of surveyed teens admitted to sending naked photos, and 57% said they’d been asked for a sext. At the same time, Instagram is quickly eclipsing Facebook as the social network of choice for young teens. According to a survey by investment banking company Piper Jaffray, 76% of teens say they use Instagram, while only 59% use Twitter and 45% use Facebook. So if Instagram didn’t have its nudity policy, it stands to reason that teens might just start posting their naked selfies there.

The nudity policy also keeps Instagram from being a revenge porn destination. A 2013 study by McAfee security company found that 13% of adults have had their personal content leaked without their permission, and 1 in 10 say they’ve had exes threaten to post personal photos. Of those who threatened to leak photos, 60% followed through. Without their policy, Instagram would be a destination for revenge porn as well.

To be fair, Instagram doesn’t have a share mechanism, so it would be harder for porn to go viral. But on the other hand, Instagram profiles can also contain personal details about users’ immediate surroundings, which could make teens or potential revenge porn victims even more vulnerable.

This is also a question of practicality. Ideally, Instagram would be able to distinguish between a naked 13-year old and a breastfeeding mom. In reality, it would be unrealistic to expect Instagram to comb through their content, keeping track of when every user turns 18, whether the user is posting photos of themselves or of someone else, and whether every naked photo was posted with consent. And even if they could do that, would you really want Instagram calling you up to verify you knew about that whipped-cream photo your ex posted? It would be creepy.

This kind of policy is what makes Instagram different than Tumblr, which has fewer restrictions and much more porn. Granted, Tumblr has recently made that content harder to find on its site, but it’s still a destination for revenge porn. And as Maureen O’Connor wrote for New York Magazine, the process of getting revenge porn taken down can be humiliating: victims have to send Tumblr a picture of themselves holding a piece of paper with their full name, to verify they’re the person in the pictures.

So which is more important: the rights of a few bold comedians or breastfeeding moms to feel validated by their Facebook followers, or the privacy of people who might have their private photos posted without consent? I would side with the latter any day of the week.

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