Occupying the Digital Mainstream


by Paolo Gerbaudo

“Don’t they get it? Don’t they understand that Facebook and Twitter are part of the government surveillance machine?” Comments like this are a vignette of the evolution within online activism in recent years. They are often heard from the mouths of veterans of the anti-globalisation movement in reference to the deeds of younger activists who have been at the forefront of the occupation movements of 2011-13.

Where once anti-globalisation activists pursued a cyber-separatist strategy that saw the internet as a space to construct islands of resistance outside of the control of state and capital, today people have been animated by the desire to break into the digital mainstream. They regard the mass web of commercial internet services controlled by corporate monopolies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, not so much a moral-free space to be avoided, but as a battlefield to be invaded, and whose mass outreach capabilities need to be harnessed and used for their own ends.

“Don’t hate the media, become the media”, Jello Biafra’s famous motto, then adopted by the alternative news website Indymedia, perfectly captured the anti-globalisation movement’s Internet communications. Activists were convinced that setting up an autonomous communicative infrastructure was a fundamental condition for any genuine alternative communication. Building on the tradition of alternative media in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, in the context of the underground press, fanzine cultures and pirate radios, tech activists hoped to break the monopoly of corporate news media responsible for channeling neoliberal propaganda and shutting down all alternative points of view.

This vision lay at the foundation of an array of alternative media initiatives pursued between the late 90s and early 2000s. The most visible manifestation of this strategy was indeed Indymedia, the first global alternative news initiative with tens of editorial nodes all over the world. At the height of counter-summit protests, Indymedia became the veritable voice of the anti-globalisation movement and it also constituted a fundamental organisational infrastructure for protestors, with editorial nodes often doubling up as political collectives directly involved in organising protest campaigns.

Besides Indymedia, alternative service providers (ISPs) such as Riseup, Aktivix, Inventati and Autistici catered for the internal communication needs of the movement. They provided secure personal email accounts as well as listservs allowing conversations on a number of topics of interest, ranging from protest organisation to squatting and permaculture. The imaginary underlying these services was one of “Islands in the Net”, as expressed in the name of one of the most important activist ISPs in Italy. Activists thought of their spaces on the internet as something akin to the Temporary Autonomous Zones (T.A.Z.) described by Hakim Bey, temporary islands in a rebel archipelago outside of the control of State and capital.

Some of these experiences are now over. London Indymedia, for example, has recently declared its dissolution. Other experiences continue, as is the case with alternative listservs like Riseup and Autistici. Newer experiences have been initiated, as exemplified by the cases of alternative social networking sites such as Diaspora and Lorea, that propose themselves as an alternative to corporate social media. No doubt there is a lot of value in many of these experiences. However, it is apparent that the cyber-separatist strategies that laid at the core of the digital vision of the anti-globalisation movement, and the aim to build an alternative internet, have lost much of the traction they had 10-15 years ago.

Rather than creating an alternative internet, that is free, self-managed and non-commercial, contemporary tech activists seem much more concerned with harnessing the potential of the corporate internet, making use of the capabilities of gigantic corporate social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. We can draw a line from the revolutionary movement in Egypt during 2011, which used the Facebook page, Kullena Khaled Said, to call hundreds of thousands to take to the streets, to activists in Spain, Greece, the US, Turkey and Brazil, who have all strived to use social media as a means for mass mobilisation. Instead of trying to create alternative spaces, they have struggled to occupy the digital mainstream.

This enthusiastic adoption of corporate platforms has sparked many criticisms, some of them justified, some of them less so. Indeed, in the aftermath of the NSA & PRISM revelations, which demonstrated the extent to which governments utilise social networking sites as dependable information gathering tools, it has become clearer than ever that using these tools exposes oneself to espionage. Security agencies have an unparalleled chance to gather internal information about protest movements and their participants. Furthermore, it is clear that far from being “free spaces”, social network sites  such as Facebook and Twitter are subject to censorship, as seen in the case of Kurdish Facebook fanpages and the Anarchist meme fanpage being repeatedly closed by Zuckerberg’s company.

The actions of the new generation of tech activists bear the mark of the majoritarian and popular ambition of the Occupy wave, and the fact that these new movements do not content themselves with constructing minoritarian spaces of resistance. By using corporate social networking platforms, activists invade spaces they know do not belong to them and over which they have little control. Instead of aiming to create temporary autonomous zones on the internet, they harbour the desire to use social network sites as a means of mass mobilisation, which might allow social movements to break out of their life-style ghettoes and reconnect with the 99% of the population they are purporting to fight for.

Piece originally published at Occupied Times | Creative Commons Licence