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Zwarte Piet:

a Facebook/social media re-view of the 2013 debate

Team Members

Damian Trilling, Anne Brons, Koen Leurs, Daniela van Geenen, Samantha Carter, & Janelle Ward



The Zwarte Piet Controversy and Social Media

Research Questions





Every November, the Dutch welcome the arrival of Sinterklaas with a public festival called intocht. According to the legend, he arrives every year with a steamboat from Spain accompanied by his helpers, the controversial Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes), and mounts a white horse, called Americo. Children and families (some dressed as Sinterklaas or Zwarte Pieten) gather to sing Sinterklaas songs, and welcome Sinterklaas at the docks. Throughout cities and villages in the Netherlands the crowds number in the thousands to watch Sinterklaas and collect pepernoten (ginger cookies) that his Black helpers hand out. In Siri Venning’s personal account of the event recorded in her thesis, she spoke to a participant who described the intocht as “an important and intrinsically Dutch tradition.” In 2013, the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition - in particular, the presence of Zwarte Piet - came under intense international fire, as many denounced it as an ugly remnant of the Dutch colonial past. The coupling of the celebration’s significance in Dutch culture and the allegations of minstrelsy have resulted in the tradition becoming the “starting point for a heated debate over allochtonen (non-western minorities) and their integration or inburgering into a Dutch society seen as threatened by foreign cultures” (Venning 2).

For many, the festival is an important part of Dutch culture. For others, however, the festival’s use of Zwarte Piet is unacceptable. In 2011, Quincy Gario and Kno’Ledge Cesare attended intocht dressed in t-shirts that read ‘Zwarte Piet is racism.’ These two men were arrested immediately for what police would later claim was public disturbance. The two men were released hours after being detained, but the movement that they started has continued to build momentum. After the arrest, the project 'Zwarte Piet is racism’ has grown via a Facebook page and online community. In October 2013, the largest protest to date took place in Amsterdam against Zwarte Piet. The city council gathered to respond to the complaints of protesters. The meeting was filmed and screened in a separate room in order to accommodate more protesters. Both rooms were filled to capacity, with more people spilling out into the hallway.

Last year, 2013, the debate reached far beyond Dutch borders. In January, a United Nations committee sent the Dutch government a letter expressing concern about the tradition and requesting a response to a series of questions. The letter explained that the United Nations had received information that Zwarte Piet’s costume was “[perpetuating] a stereotyped image of… people of African descent as second-class citizens” and “fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society” (United Nations letter). The letter concluded with a list of questions for which the council requested answers. For example, there was a request to inform the council “about steps adopted by [the Dutch] Government to address the wider concern expressed by African people and people of African descent regarding the Black Pete figure” (United Nations letter). The letter was the beginning of a long interaction that culminated in a back lash against Verene Shepherd, head of the United Nations working group who sent the government the letter in January. Shepherd responded to the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s, assertion that the color of Zwarte Piet could not be changed, by stating that “the working group cannot understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throw-back to slavery, and that in the 21st century, this practice should stop” (Criado).

Many Dutch citizens felt that Shepherd had overstepped her boundaries by commenting on a Dutch cultural tradition. She was also accused of having personal bias as a person of African decent herself, though her opinion resonates with those of the ‘Zwarte Piet is Racism’ movement started by Quincy Gario. In a 2012 interview conducted by group member Koen Leurs, Gario shared that he was motivated by a personal incident in which he was called ‘Zwarte Piet’ by children on the street (interview with Koen Leurs, 27.04.2012). Gario started the movement to raise awareness in the Netherlands about what he felt were painful stereotypes stemming from colonialism lingering in the celebration of Sinterklaas. Quincy Gario started a tumblr along with a Facebook page (Zwarte Piet is Racism) to engage a critical community online. In response, another Facebook page was created to illuminate the views of those who wish to retain the tradition.

As criticism mounted, the Facebook page Pietitie was started in order to express support for the maintenance of Piet. The page garnered more than a million likes in one day and has a total of more than two million supporters. As Criado succinctly summarizes, “around one in three Dutch Facebook users would like to keep the Petes’ image intact.” There are a variety of arguments defending the tradition against those who wish to change it. Karen Millington’s BBC article provides examples of some of these perspectives. One respondent told the BBC that they “cannot help thinking that everybody who feels offended wants to feel offended.” Dutch MP Martin Bosma of Geert Wilders’ right leaning Freedom Party expresses an opinion that echoes the tension the Zwarte Piet debate embodies between Dutch traditions and allochtonen.

The debate has grown in strength in accordance with an increasingly heterogeneous Dutch population. With more residents coming from countries like Suriname and the Netherland Antilles (Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire), the Netherlands is negotiating new perspectives on age old traditions. The wave of immigrants, at the same time, have made traditions such as intocht more important, “in order to safeguard the Dutch national identity," like author and columnist Arnon Grunberg suggested in a New York Times article in January 2013. At first glance, the debate may seem like an outlandish discussion about a quaint children’s tradition. Often, however, underneath these comments is the idea “that ‘they’ should keep their mitts off ‘our tradition’” (Grunberg). Consequently, at stake are much larger questions about the role newcomers will play in contemporary Dutch society.

The Zwarte Piet Controversy and Social Media

Opponents of the Zwarte Piet tradition tend to point towards history. They point towards a colonial legacy that survives in the caricature of Black Pete. Supporters often respond by asserting that the tradition is connected to childhood, and the story has nothing to do with race. Many claim that the character’s face is black due to the soot as he drops through the chimney. In an article called ‘Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands’ by John Helsloot, he states that “by and large the Dutch deny… any relation to a portrayal in caricature of a black person, producing instead associations that are difficult to grasp.” Helsloot explains this tendency by utilizing Ann Laura Stoler’s concept of ‘aphasia.’ Stoler defines aphasia as “an occlusion of knowledge” that makes word and concept association difficult. Due the this difficulty, “aphasiacs… reject categories that are viable” and “produce… incomprehensible associations” (Helsloot). Stoler asserts that ‘collective amnesia’ is not enough to describe what is taking place. Colonialism always leaves traces of itself that reappear. Aphasia means people disconnect these traces from their signification in an attempt to deny. Stoler's use of the concept of 'aphasia' offers a great theoretical framework through which to analyze the opponents of the Zwarte Piet tradition.

Given the heated nature of this debate and its notable presence on Facebook, it is crucial to take a closer look at how Facebook users are expressing their views on this issue. Social media sites like Facebook are a growing outlet for people to express views. Social networking sites like Facebook and microblogging sites like Twitter thrive on user-generated content. Founded by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook began in 2004 as a Harvard College application and rapidly expanded. It is now one of the most popular online social applications with 1.19 billion monthly users. Social media are web-based technologies and services designed to facilitate collaboration and sharing between users (Ward 2009). They are not about centralized control and static web pages, rather, their value lies in capturing the collective intelligence of many individuals (O’Reilly, 2005). Users are co-developers and co-creators. Via posting, commenting, liking, and sharing, users themselves may choose to pursue goals that differ from producers or other users (Chadwick, 2009, p. 23). The Zwarte Piet debate has a strong online presence mainly unfolding on two Facebook pages, both of which exemplify the ways in which Facebook is being utilized by users for their own ends.

The controversy over Zwarte Piet has a strong presence on a variety of social media sites. In this paper we have chosen to examine two of the most well-known groups on Facebook: Zwarte Piet is Racisme (ZPIR), and Pietitie, an online petition to keep Zwarte Piet. Our research aims to explore the nature of the online debate through a close examination the active users and of the commentary on either page. The analysis is framed by the following research questions:

Research Questions

1. How are Facebook users engaging with the Zwarte Piet debate?

2. What are the networking practices of Facebook users (through liking and commenting) on different sides of the debate?

3. How can we classify Facebook comments on the two opposing Zwarte Piet pages?



Programming language python

Two toolkits: Natural language processing toolkit (NLTK) - for removing stop words (Bird, Loper, & Klein, 2009) - for brings words back to normal form (singular and the verb stem) (De Smedt & Daelemans, 2012)

Wordjij for cooccurance analyses of these files, see Danowski (2013)

NetViz: application to download text- and table-files from Facebook, see Rieder (2013)

Digital Methods Comment Analytics tool



We approached a component of the debate on Facebook with the use of tools for data extraction, content analysis and network analysis. These tools are explained in detail within the passages below.

1. Facebook data extraction using NetVizz

To download data from the Zwarte Piet is Racisme and Pietitie Facebook pages, we made use of Netvizz. Netvizz is a Facebook application that allows one to download personal friend networks, groups, as well as pages (Rieder, 2013). One can download ‘posts by page only’ or ‘posts by page and users.’ On the ZPIR and Pietitie pages only the site owners published posts, thus we selected the first option. Pietitie was created on October 22, 2013.We downloaded all 40 posts that were posted since the inception of the page. To compare ZPIR with Pietitie, we downloaded the 90 posts that were published in the same period. We used the de-anonimization tool to assess whether there were users engaging on both Facebook pages.

2. Gephi Visualizations

We analyzed and visualized the networks of both pages with Gephi. For spatialization of the data, we chose the layout algorithm Force Atlas 2. Force Atlas 2 is a force-directed algorithm to simulate connections in a physical network, in which nodes that are highly connected with other nodes are attracted to each other at the center, and nodes with less connections are pushed to the edges (Jacomy, Heymann, Venturini & Bastian, 2012). Data derived from scraping with NetVizz can be uploaded and opened in Gephi directly. Gephi offers different ranking and partition parameters to differentiate nodes and edges within the simulation visually. We will specify the used parameters as part of the explanation of results.

3. Content Analysis

To analyze the content of the posted comments, we proceeded in two steps:

First, we pre-processed the data using a self-written Python-script (see appendix 1). Making use of the Natural language processing toolkit (NLTK), we removed stop words (Bird, Loper, & Klein, 2009). Next, we removed terms we deemed irrelevant, as they were used by a diverse range of participants in the discourse (like “http”. See the script in appendix 1 for details). We used the module to singularize nouns and to bring verbs to their inifinitve (De Smedt & Daelemans, 2012). The script also included a counter to calculate the frequency of words usage. Additionally, the counter calculated the number of words of each comment to determine the mean length of each comment, as well as the standard deviation and the median. In a second step, we used the Program wordij for co-occurance analyses of the output of the script (Danowski, 2013). The output of wordij, a Pajek file, was then imported into Gephi for further analysis.

4. Wizard Statistics

Data deriving from data extraction with NetVizz can be confirmed to a comma-separated values (csv) format or a tabular format like Excel to upload these data to the program Wizard. Wizard offers the option to arrange and filter data in the data laboratory, to calculate data and to visualize particular categories. We used Wizard to compare the extracted data from both pages in terms of different categories based on metadata informing about, for example, gender and user locale.


We will provide descriptive information about the two Facebook pages, Zwarte Piet is Racisme and Pietitie, in that order.


The Zwarte Piet is Racisme Facebook page was established first on October 31, 2011. The page is liked by 13,895 people. Starting from October 22, 2013, 90 posts were posted on ZPIR by the site owner, with 9,733 users liking or commenting a total of 60,125 times. These pages attracted between 1527 and 21 likes and 2152 and 9 comments. Each post was shared on average 36.2 times (SD 8,798). Zwarte Piet is Racisme likes 57 other pages. We have visualized these likes in order to consider the role the page plays in the wider network sites. Using Netvizz, the page-like network was downloaded, with a depth of 2. We analyzed and visualized the page-like network using Gephi.


Fig. 1 Visualization of the pages Zwarte Piet is Racisme itself likes

Dominant nodes in the visualization are The Empire Project, and NTR’s De Slavernij. The Empire Project is “an immersive documentary about the unintended consequences of Dutch colonialism,” and NTR de Slavernij, creates informational, cultural and educational programs in order to contribute to a democratic knowledge society. De Slavernij is a theme on which the NTR has recently put more emphasis.


The Pietitie Facebook Page was set up on October 22, 2013. The page is liked by 2,112,570 people. Between October 22, 2013 and December 6, 2013, 40 posts were published on Pietitie by the owner of the page. These posts attracted between 141,436 and 1,060 likes and between 55,631 and 37 comments. Each post was shared on average 3472,5 times (enormous SD 1742,976). Pietitie itself does not like other Facebook pages.

We continue describing demographic estimations of users as well as user engagement on both pages.


Netvizz is unable to gather information on those who have liked the page. We focus on user engagement (linking, commenting, sharing) with posts on the site. On ZPIR, the average user engagement is as follows. The 9,823 engaging users on average liked 6.1 posts (SD 0.797) and left 6.1 comments (SD 1.013). Considering further engagement, we were interested in learning whether groupings of users emerged around the pages posted on the page. Figure 2 below is an illustrative rendering by Gephi of the clusters of interaction patterns on ZPIR page, showing the interaction of people with the 90 posts on the basis of the Modularity algorithm.

Fig. 3 Illustrative Gephi rendering of interaction pattern clusters on ZPIR Facebook page

Above simulation is constructed by the use of graph visualization software Gephi. We used layout algorithm Force Atlas 2, with the no-overlap parameters and scale set to 2.0. We partitioned the data using the Modularity statistics algorithms; an algorithm to detect communities visually. It allows for identification of dense clusters, while a score of higher than 0.35 indicates that detection is useful. In the case of ZPIR a score of 0.366 was calculated for modularity. The colors indicate the clustering of groups of posts and people.

In terms of demographics, we can describe gender estimations as well as locations (based on language settings) for the ZPIR and Pietitie Facebook pages respectively.

Fig. 2 Gender composition of active users on ZPIR Facebook page

Fig. 3 Pie chart of gender composition on ZPIR Facebook page

Above is the gender distribution of active users on the Zwarte Piet is Racisme Facebook page. Majority of the active users are the page are listed as female. 56.3% of active users are female and 43.7% are male.

Fig. 4 Distribution of user locale on ZPIR Facebook page

Fig. 5 Pie chart of the distribution of user locale on the ZPIR Facebook page

Figure 4 and 5 indicate that the majority of the active users on the ZPIR Facebook page originate from the Netherlands. The 6,896 active users from the Netherlands are distantly followed by 1,711 active users originating from the United States.


Fig. 6 Gephi simulation of user engagement related to posts on Pietitie Facebook page

Similar to the simulation of interaction patterns on ZPIR, the above visualization shows the interaction of users with the 40 posts on Pietitie. What becomes apparent analyzing the data laboratory and data visualization, is that while the Pietitie page consists of half as many posts than on ZPIR, posts on Pietitie motivated users more often to comment. We continue by describing user engagement and demographic estimations on the Pietitie page. The 617,192 users engaging with the Pietitie Facebook page on average liked 3.7 posts (SD 0.872), left 0.5 comments (SD 0.189).

Fig. 6 Gender composition of active users on the Pietitie Facebook page

Fig. 7 Pie chart of active users on the Pietitie Facebook page

The difference between male and female active users on the Pietitie Facebook page is much greater in comparison to the ZPIR Facebook page, as figure 8 and 9 illustrate. 61.8% of the active users on the Pietitie Facebook page are female and 38.2% are male.

Fig. 8 Distribution of user locale on Pietitie Facebook page

Fig. 9 Pie chart of the distribution of user locale on the Pietitie Facebook page

Judging from Facebook user language settings, a larger percentage of the active users on the Pietitie Facebook page originate from the Netherlands in comparison to the ZPIR Facebook page. There are 568, 510 active users from the Netherlands, distantly trailed by the United States with 23,177 active users.

Below is a summary of the ways (post type) in which people participate in the debate.

Fig. 10 Post type on the ZPIR Facebook page

Fig. 11 Post type on the Pietitie Facebook page

Follows is an overview of quantitiy of posts on the ZPIR and Pietitie Facebook page, with a particular focus on the Verene Shepherd's effect on comments at the end of October. As mentioned in the introduction, Verene Shepherd was the United Nations official that spoke out against the Zwarte Piet tradition. Her comments caused a spike in online activity.

Fig. 12 Number of comments posted on ZPIR Facebook page each day since 2013-10-10

Fig. 13 Number of comments posted on Pietitie Facebook page each day since 2013-10-10

The comments on the ZPIR Facebook page never total the same as the Pietitie Facebook page. The highest number of comments on the ZPIR Facebook page occurs on 5 November, 2013 and totals about 4,000. By contrast, the highest number of comments Pietitie page occurs on 24 November, 2013 and reaches almost 60,000. The quantity of comments on the ZPIR Facebook page, however, remains more consistent, whereas the Pietitie page has more extremes. There is a spike in comments on the 23rd of October, 2013 and on the 24th of November, 2013. On the 23rd of October, the are more than 30,000 comments. On the 24th of November there are more then 45,000 comments on the Pietitie Facebook page. The first increase corresponds in date to Verene Shepherd’s, head of the committee charged with investigating the Zwarte Piet tradition in the Netherlands, comments condemning the tradition. When the term ‘Verene’ (referring to the United Nations spokeswoman who questioned the role of Zwarte Piet in the celebration of Sinterklaas) is queried on the Pietitie Facebook page, there is an increase in comments containing her name around the 23rd of October, 2013. Here is the graph for the query ‘Verene’:

Fig. 14 Number of comments containing the word ‘Verene’ on the Pietitie Facebook page

There are more than 300 comments containing the word ‘Verene’ on the Pietitie page on 23 October, 2013. In comparison, the ZPIR Facebook page never exceeds ten comments containing the word ‘Verene.’ While both numbers are slight, the maximum percentage of comments containing the term is doubled on the Pietitie page. Below is a graph of comments containing the term ‘Verene’ on the ZPIR Facebook page.

Fig. 15 Number of comments containing the word ‘Verene’ on the ZPIR Facebook page

Overlapping users on both pages

To measure the overlap of users who frequented both Facebook pages we extracted two lists of usernames. By comparing the two lists it becomes apparent that the number of users who were active on ‘Pietitie’, which means that they commented on posts or liked posts, is significantly larger than the number of users who dealt with posts on ‘Zwarte Piet is Racism’ (ZPIR). The number of users who were engaging with ‘Pietitie’ by commenting on posts and liking posts amounts to 617152 users, whereas the number of users who were engaging in a comparable way with ZPIR is more than sixty times smaller: 9733 users. This difference also correspondents with the total users who liked both of the pages. While more than two million users liked ‘Pietitie’ within a relatively short time, approximately the timeframe in which the Sinterklaas-tradition was celebrated in 2013, ZPIR received almost 14.000 likes within the two years this Facebook page existed. According to the description of ‘Pietitie’ given by the founder of the page, the page aimed to receive as many as possible likes as soon as possible to protest against the ‘afschaffing’(abolition) of the traditional Sinterklaas-celebrations. These likes then are comparable to a petition that is aiming at people to subscribe to fight for a certain concern. The large number of users who get engaged with the page shortly by commenting on posts and liking them, is in line with this purpose of the founders, reacting on political debates about the possible racist performance of the tradtion. While the establishment of ZPIR was also related to particular incidents like the arrestations of Quincy Gario and Kno’Ledge Cesare, the ‘campagne’, as the founder calls it, seems to incorporate a long term goal: a ritual that celebrates relatedness, without exclusion and racist shades.

An interesting observation is that the number of overlapping users amounts to 1930 users, which means that almost 20% of the users who were engaging with ZPIR dealt with posts and comments on the other page as well. It seems that one-fifth of the ZPIR-users found it important to engage with the different sides of the debate by giving their opinions. While the differences in the character of the pages could create doubt that (the content of, and interactions on) both pages are comparable, the larger number of overlapping users substantiated our approach to the debate on Facebook.


RQ2 (How can we classify Facebook comments on the two (opposing) Zwarte Piet pages?)

To get a first impression of the discourse within the comments on the two FB-pages, we first have a look at frequently used words that shape this discourse. Table one below shows some of these terms. We see that both groups contain almost the same amount of non-trivial comments - we removed comments that contained less than 10 characters, as especially on the pietitie group there were many comments just containing a single letter (from some kind of voting) or phrases like “OK” . Therefore, one already sees that zpir seems to contain more substantial discussions. This is confirmed by the average length per post. On Pietitie, the 137,989 comments had an average length of M = 76.9 (SD = 202,97) characters. On ZPIR, the 60,483 comments are on average much longer: M = 259.9 (SD = 455.32) characters. The median differences show the same pattern: 17.0 (Pietitie) vs. 134.0 (ZPIR) characters.

In general, the argument that it is just a children’s holiday and a tradition is prevalent on Pietitie, while the racism-argument is - not surprisingly - prevalent on ZPIR. Interestingly, a lot of comments on Pietitie seem simply to contain variations of the argument “Zwarte piet has to stay” (see the extremely large frequency of “blijf”)



Total Number of Messages



Number of Messages analyzed (= those longer than 10 characters)




(Children’s Celebration)
























(United Nations)



Table 1 Word frequency comparison on the ZPIR and Pietitie Facebook Page

The following two graphs illustrate the discourse on the two pages by showing which words are frequently used together. They are based on a co-word analysis of the cleaned dataset. On the Zwarte Piet is Racisme-page (Fig. 16), we can distinguish three clusters: obviously, the argument that it is racist (green) the argument that Zwarte Piet is a childrens’ holiday that belongs to the Netherlands (blue); and a more diverse group of messages that tentatively can be discribed as “it-just-has-to-stay”-frame, mainly due to the combination of words “gewoon” and “blijf” (pink). So interestingly, also people who are in favor of Zwarte Piet seem to contribute, which corresponds to the fact that there is considerable overlap between the users. On the Pietitie-page (Fig. 17), we identified two main frames: One arguing that it is children’s holiday (just like on the ZPIR-page!), and one referring to the United Nations, which was the direct AANLEIDING to create the page.

Fig. 16 Image of word usage in ZPIR Facebook page comments

Fig. 16 Image of word usage in Pietitie Facebook page comments


In 2013, the Zwarte Piet tradition in the Netherlands came under more organized and public criticism than ever before. The debate escalated further when a United Nations committee sent an official letter to the Dutch government inquiring about the tradition and encouraging that more public discussion be facilitated. The debate has been partially initiated and maintained through online platforms such as Facebook. This report was meant to provide more information regarding two Facebook pages representing one component of the online debate taking place in regards to Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands.

Our results reveal key components of the debate as it is played out on the respective Facebook pages. We employed a close examination of the Zwarte Piet is Racisme Facebook page and the Pietitie Facebook page in order to extract the contours of the debate as it has taken place online. We used Netvizz to extract data from Facebook. With Wizard, we were able to gather information regarding the demographics of active users and the means by which they engage. Afterwards, the group used a variety of digital tools to analyze the data and answer our research questions. We used gephi to visualize. In order analyze the content analysis of the comments, we used a self-written python-script (see appendix 1). We also used a comment analysis tool developed by Bernhard Rieder to count total amount of comments posted to both pages as well as the occurence of specific terms, such as 'Verene.'

On both pages, the majority of active users were women, though the percentrage was much higher on the Pietitie page. Most of the active users also originated from the Netherlands. In the case of the ZPIR Facebook page, there was a significant percentage of activity from the United States though it was still distantly trailing. We can conclude then that the majority of the active users were female users from the Netherlands.

When comparing the pages, the different analyses emphasize that Zwarte Piet is Racisme is a site oriented towards longer-term engagement. The page for instance positions itself in the wider anti-discrimination field in the Netherlands by linking to other anti-racist pages. User engagement on the page is also more intensive in comparison with Pietitie. Although there are fewer users on the page, the intensity and length of comments is higher. The Pietitie page, in contrast, does not link to any other site. It is very much an incident-based page, user activity on the page is minimal. Indicative for its role as a petition, the site is mostly a node in the pro-Sinterklaas movement as a way to signal one’s position. The page exists by virtue of people just liking Pietitie (and not further actually engaging on the site), while Zwarte Piet also thrives on user engagement on the page itself.

Another interesting observation is that the number of overlapping users amounts to 1930 users, which means that almost 20% of the users who were engaging with ZPIR dealt with posts and comments on the other page as well. It seems that one-fifth of the ZPIR-users found it important to engage with the different sides of the debate by giving their opinions. While the differences in the character of the pages could create doubt that (the content of, and interactions on) both pages are comparable, the larger number of overlapping users substantiated our approach to the debate on Facebook.


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Topic revision: r5 - 20 Jan 2014, SamanthaCarter
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