Brow Beat

Follow Friday: Every U.S. Drone Attack

The conversation about American-deployed drone aircraft often centers around one perception: Nobody talks about drones. And when they do, it rarely goes anywhere. When a lone question on the American use of the unmanned assassination aircrafts in counterterrorism popped up in a presidential debate this fall, both Romney and Obama agreed not to disagree about the program. Next question, please.

Drones—or rather, the broader silence on the use of drones—have nearly become a meme online, however. It’s a catch-all anti-narrative to the news cycle. Fiscal cliff got you worried? Drones are killing children in Pakistan. Is Hillary Clinton 2016 already winning public support? What about widespread international opposition to the U.S. drone program? Justin Bieber murder castration plot? NO. Drones. Also this cat.

NYU grad student Josh Begley is behind two of the more successful attempts to insert the drone debate into media coverage: an app called Drone+, banned by Apple, which would alert users each time the U.S. carries out a drone strike, and include the death toll. This week, Begley fired up @dronestream, a Twitter timeline of every documented U.S. drone strike from 2002-2012.

The feed uses data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which only covers actions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia (Afghanistan is, notably, not included).* They count 354 total drone strikes, 302 under the Obama administration, with somewhere between 2,597 and 3,398 people killed, including between 473 and 889 civilians—and 176 children.

Begley started his project on Tuesday, after claiming that the Twitter project would take about 10 minutes to complete. As of Friday morning, he’s still at May, 2010.

On Reddit, Begley explained that the stream has a dual purpose, to help him learn more about drone strikes, and to “surface” the data for others to do the same. @Dronestream works best as a forced juxtaposition: It extracts self-contained data from its context and peppers it in the Twitter feed of its followers, just as Drone+ would interrupt its users with pop-up messages as drone strikes happened in real time. Because the tweets are sporadic, it’s also worth looking at the stream on its own page, as one uninterrupted feed of people killed by unmanned drones. Patterns emerge, like “double tapping,” where the same target is hit multiple times. There’s also the troubling mix of targets hit and collateral damage, whether it’s first responders or children related to the intended dead.

Granted, this is just the surface. To get a deeper understanding of the drones and their impact, you’ll want to consult other sources—like the Living Under Drones report, which compiled over 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts on drone strikes in Pakistan. There you’ll find more detailed descriptions of the way drones violently interrupt everyday lives:

“I was going to [a] chromite mine for work. On the way, as the car was going there, a drone targeted the car… . All I remember is a blast, and that I saw a bit of fire in the car before I lost consciousness. The people in the back completely burned up, and the car caught fire.” Dawood was taken to several locations for treatment, before he awoke in Peshawar. “[The] driver and I lost our legs …”

By contrast, the value of @Dronestream’s repeated interruption is not in its depth, but in its simplicity. And, at this point, simple reminders that this is going on remain necessary.

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* This post originally misstated the name of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.