Dossier on connective and collective practices:

Small media activism
in the twenty-first century

by Chris Robé

Links to parts of the dossier:

Introduction: reflections on Indymedia at a moment of uncertainty

In 2009 when I began research for my last book on anarchist-inflected video activism of the last fifty years, the global media activism scene appeared to be in a torpor. This was shocking to many since it followed only ten years after the international christening of the alter-globalization movement during the 1999 Seattle protests that shutdown the World Trade Organization meetings occurring there and birthed the creation of Indymedia, a D.I.Y. organization that somewhat grandiosely pronounced that anyone can “be the media.”

The history of Indymedia has been recounted numerous times, but it is worth stressing that its arrival on the scene anticipated much of the future direction that the Web would take. It provided the first-ever website where users could post comments, videos, news stories, pictures, and other wild musings relatively unmoderated.[1] [open endnotes in new window] The hundreds of self-appointed citizen journalists and activists uploading firsthand reports from the ground regarding the protests in Seattle eclipsed the coverage by commercial media outlets, at times causing the site to crash as user hits soared into the millions. This moment signaled a sea change in relations between online news and the major news media. Once considered a backwater for wayward anarchists, academics, artists, and lovers of porn, the Internet revealed its power to report breaking news rapidly in ways that legacy media organizations struggled to emulate.

By 2006, 200 Indymedia chapters stretched across the globe, mostly located in urban centers. But the alter-globalization movement, with  which Indymedia was always inextricably intertwined, faced worldwide historic challenges by 2009. The 2001 attacks of September 11th on the World Trade Center provided the United States government with an alibi to criminalize once protected protest activities and flex its military might internationally under the guise of “the war on terror.” A war in Iraq, based upon conjured evidence of weapons of mass destruction and the Bush administration’s Islamophobic conflation of Iraq with Al-Qaeda support, raged on and accompanied another war in Afghanistan. The larger concerns of the alter-globalization movement regarding the environment, economy, and self-determination of various disenfranchised communities became eclipsed by antiwar organizing.

Web 1.0, where Indymedia planted its roots, transformed into a more business-friendly configuration where commercial media sites like Facebook and Twitter corralled the open publishing format forged by Indymedia. In their turn, these giants plundered user data and monetized individuals’ faith in the democratic ways of the Internet. It seemed Indymedia had sacrificed countless hours of free labor building the wealth of the tech giants and now could no longer compete with the slick designs and easy access of these new sites. Finally, a devastating worldwide economic recession metastasized out of a housing bubble in 2007.

The protests against the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004 where groups like I-Witness Video Collective and Glass Bead Collective provided critical independent video coverage regarding the protests, the convention, and police retaliation against protesters. (Image by Ted Warren, AP)

Exuberant visions that foresaw a shimmering wave of progressive social movements faded into dour reflections on a passing moment. A writer in Turbulence, one of the countless magazines inspired by the alter-globalization movement, encapsulated the disillusionment at the time:

“The movement had never existed. It was a mirage, produced in a moment of hugely and rapidly increased capacity of communication and coordination, and wide-eyed astonishment at a just-discovered capacity to produce movements of convergence whose collective power was much greater than the sum of its parts.”[2]

Yet as Noemi Klein presciently warned:

“Our activism has been declared dead before. Indeed, it is declared dead with ritualistic regularity before and after every mass demonstration: our strategies apparently discredited, our coalitions divided, our arguments misguided.”[3]

During the 2008 Republican National Convention, eight people were initially arrested and charged with domestic terrorism for providing a webpage where protests against the convention could be coordinated. From left to right are: Rob Czernik, Erik Oseland, Monica Bicking, Eryn Trimmer, Luce Guillen-Givins, Garrett Fitzgerald, Nathanael Secor, Max Specktor. The RNC Welcoming Committee produced a tongue-in-cheek video We’re Getting Ready (2007) that imagines the Minneapolis community populated by anarchists.
We’re Getting Ready was used as evidence against the RNC 8 in court with the state portraying the parody as a serious threat identifying scenes of an anarchist with a Molotov cocktail used to light a charcoal grill as evidence. The humorlessness of the state and its ability to manipulate video evidence to its own ends should not be underestimated.

Many of us, including myself at the time, mistook quietude for quiescence. But John DH Downing cautions that often dormant moments of social movement activity serve as “a crucial germinal ‘winter’ for reflection, critique, regrouping and redefinition.”[4] The fruits of this latency can be witnessed, for example, in the ways in which Indymedia people established the infrastructure for livestreaming of Occupy Wall Street. Leading up to that movement, Vlad Teichberg, a derivatives trader gone rogue, abandoned Wall Street to form an independent media group called the Glass Bead Collective; this was in 2001 in the wake of the momentum produced by Indymedia and the alter-globalization movement.[5] That group provided video coverage of many counter-summit protests, most notably the 2004 RNC in New York City and 2008 RNC in Minneapolis-St. Paul. During the 2008 RNC, Glass Bead teamed up with Twin Cities Indymedia to produce the film Terrorizing Dissent (2008) that chronicled in detail the repression against counter-summit organizers and independent media.[6]

Eventually Indymedia New York City and the Glass Bead Collective frayed apart due to activist burnout and political and tactical differences. But Teichberg nonetheless cashed in the last of his savings to found Global Revolution in 2011 to provide livestreaming for Occupy Wall Street.[7] How constellations of participants from earlier grassroots media movements might flood into the rising tides of newer ones can take numerous forms—something academics have not tracked well. But what at a distance appear to be dormant moments often reveal themselves as hidden eddies of activity at the micro-level—as media activists and community organizers strategize in basements, apartments, and bars, over the Internet and on the streets awaiting the right moment to stake their ground and make their visions a reality.

This dossier explores some of the core formations digital media activism has used during the last twenty years. Here I primarily explore instances from a Global North and Western context that nonetheless gestures towards wider trends and provides a few instances of analysis of movements beyond my geographical terrain. The mini-essays that comprise this dossier can be read in any order—although readers with little to no knowledge regarding digital media activism should read the first two sections to familiarize themselves with core terms utilized throughout the mini-essays. Similarly, if one wants to understand some of the central causes behind the eruption of digital media activism of the past twenty years, see Part I: Small Media and the Global Eruption of New Digital Movements. It is also worth noting that Part I provides one of the few sections analyzing non-Western media activism in depth; it focuses on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and the Mosireen Collective’s importance in assisting that revolution and offering sophisticated reportage of it over global media.

The remainder of the mini-essays should be read in any order that grips the reader’s interest. Below I briefly summarize each mini-essay and identify some of the core groups investigated within them.

Part II. Connective Action as a New Form of Digital Media Activism

Some communication scholars assert that a new logic of connective action has arisen with digital media activists’ reliance upon “social” media.[8] This kind of connectivity operates within highly individualized forms of digital media activism that relay personal narratives across “social” media to organize protests. Two primary examples are the #Karen videos and elite TikTok participants organizing against Donald Trump’s June 2020 Tulsa rally.

Part III.  Collective and Connective Action: Grassroots Media and Movements

Although connective action provides an important occasion to theorize how digital media activism has transformed older forms of media activism, this section emphasizes the importance and persistence of older forms of collective organizing that still structure much digital media activism. Although this older dynamic is not readily observable online, it becomes apparent when speaking with organizers on the ground. This section focuses on Somali American Youth resistance in Minneapolis against both government repression and Islamophobic stereotypes perpetuated by commercial media. Furthermore, it shows how new community media organizations like Unicorn Riot, direct descendants of Indymedia, provide key assistance to grassroots movements like Minnesota’s Somali American youth.

Part IV. Livestreaming: A New Form of Media Activism

Scholars like Angela Aguayo have posited livestreaming as a new form of mobile cinema that allows underrepresented groups to directly represent their interests and issues. Although much scholarship about and coverage of livestreaming tends to focus on progressive movements, the Alt-Right has enthusiastically embraced this new platform as well. This section once again turns towards Unicorn Riot but here analyzes their livestreaming of Alt-Right rallies such as the “Liberate Minnesota” protests of April 17, 2020. Through close analysis of one of their livestreams I indicate the ways in which anarchist interests (since Unicorn Riot primarily identifies as an anarchist media organization) and the Alt-Right uncomfortably intersect. The section also explores the ways in which livestreaming can offer a much more nuanced understanding of the diverse constituencies and interests of the people who go to such protests.

Part V. Intersections Between Commercial Media and Digital Media Activism: Copwatching

The final mini-essay focuses on Copwatch Patrol Unit (CPU), a group of Hispanic copwatchers located in New York City. Here I want to explore how digital media activists use various media platforms and technologies to assist their organizing. For example, this group utilizes New York City Police Department’s crime-map database to help focus attention against police abuse as well as harnesess YouTube’s archival power to make available their innumerable accounts of police harassment against various local communities. Furthermore, they briefly teamed up with Black Entertainment Television to create a reality tv series, Copwatch America, until executives became uncomfortable with the content and cancelled the show. CPU are not unique in the ways in which their digital media activism utilizes both non-commercial and commercial platforms, but their story exemplifies the fraught terrain that accompanies such attempts.