Free media: issues, challenges and proposals

The Need for an Independent International Media Network

, by Indymedia Montreal

“In August 1996, we called for the creation of a network of independent media, a network of information. We mean a network to resist the power of the lie that sells us this war that we call the Fourth World War. We need this network not only as a tool for our social movements, but for our lives: this is a project of life, of humanity; humanity which has a right to critical and truthful information.”
These were the words of Subcomandante Marcos, speaking in 1997 from Chiapas in the midst of the Zapatistas’ guerrilla information war against the Mexican state and the neocolonialism reflected in NAFTA. Marcos’s powerful statement and Zapatista stories of struggle were circulated from the jungle of Chiapas on mailing lists, listservs, and websites, capturing the imagination of activists around the world and galvanizing a wave of new grassroots media projects.

In the years since, electronic organizing has shifted from bulletin boards and email lists to more public and accessible websites, and more recently to networked “social media.” This shift has amplified leftist messages to a scale unimaginable in previous decades, but it has done so by migrating toward more corporate- and capitalist-controlled platforms – a control that leads to pervasive state and corporate surveillance, and which positions us as free laborers for the advertising industry. This hold on communication by the profit-driven surveillance-industrial complex is the context in which we stress the need for an independent international media network.

In the summer of 2016, a group of media and tech organizers from several continents gathered at the World Forum of Free Media (WFFM) in Montreal to tackle this challenge. Many of the participants were involved in the Indymedia network, both in its early days and its less visible continuations, such as the Indymedia Africa Working Group. Before the meeting we asked participants to consider the following question: “What could a global independent media/tech network be in the era of corporate social media?” [1]

Our discussions hinged on how the need for a network of independent media in today’s digitized and interconnected landscape is intricately linked to the need for an explicit political stance regarding the foundations on which such a network will be built — including both technological and relational networks. In order to take Marcos’s words seriously, we need to be deeply committed to the work of decolonizing these networks.

Lessons from the past

The history of the Indymedia network provides some important lessons on how to approach this work today. Perhaps no project more fully embodied a response to Marcos’s appeal than Indymedia, which sprang to life in late November 1999, when several environmental, labor, and international solidarity groups came together to organize protests against the World Trade Organization. Amidst this unprecedented rallying process, movement media-makers realized we could not rely on the capitalist press to report our concerns. To counter its distortions, we created our own media platform which allowed organizers and activists to deliver their own messages.

A physical media-making center and an open-posting newswire provided experienced and novice media-makers alike with the tools to tell their stories without filters or censorship in the face of corporate media misinformation and police repression. Before distorted accounts hit the mainstream press, on-the-ground reports from “the Independent Media Center” (IMC) showing the view from the street were already online. Traditional media formats, including print and radio, were used in conjunction with the digital interface.

The energy unlocked by this experience was incredible. Suddenly organizers were not only choreographing displays of resistance, but also seeing and hearing them represented in an accessible media forums. We were freed from the alienation of viewing our efforts only through corporate media’s distorted coverage. Corporate media had to backtrack on their parroting of police claims when Indymedia reports countered them directly. The IMC became ground zero for the counter-narrative of the Battle of Seattle.

The roots of this success ran deep. Decades of movement media work had preceded Indymedia, and participants came with experience from the anti-war underground press, labor news outlets, the feminist movement and women-run presses, the pirate radio movement, and many other movements anchored in cultural contestation.

But the level of collaboration that came to fruition in Seattle was largely possible because of a unique confluence of traditional “old” media-makers and a bevy of young, highly-skilled, resourceful technology workers. These tech-organizers worked outside of the profit system to enable people to access cutting-edge technology. The IMC in Seattle and other early Indymedia convergence centers offered regular people, without any links to the academic and the technological elite, a chance to experience high-speed Internet, digital photography, website development, and coordinated use of cellular technology.

More importantly, the tech workers put their expertise into developing a web interface that would enable regular people to post stories immediately. The concept is ubiquitous now, but at the time, websites were mostly managed by a single “webmaster” who coded the sites manually. A decade before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, Indymedia programmers built one of the first fully featured and interactive interfaces, one that enabled a public with minimal technical skills to publish content that was automatically incorporated into a local Indymedia website. It was called open publishing, and it became a hallmark of Indymedia. Originally designed using a codebase called “Active,” open publishing was first developed in Sydney, Australia by the radical tech collective Catalyst. Active was developed for the worldwide Carnival Against Capitalism protests in June 1999, whose slogan was “Our resistance is as transnational as capital.” New versions of the code were developed in the run-up to Seattle and eventually morphed into other codebases and concepts that are the fundamental building blocks of the modern social web: content management systems, blogs, and user-generated content.

Within a year, IMCs were forming on six continents, often in conjunction with protests against the globalization of neoliberal capitalism. By the year 2000, both Indymedia and the Global Justice Movement were at their heights. Whenever the forces of transnational capital held a summit, activists were organizing community-based dissent, and Indymedia was reporting on it.

With such momentum, requests for new IMCs were coming in faster than tech workers could set them up. It soon became clear that organizations operating outside of an autonomous-left, grassroots perspective also wanted to make their own media – including right-wing organizations, political parties, and NGOs. Many IMCistas became concerned that the network would grow without a clear political direction. In April of 2001, around 150 Indymedia organizers from all over the world met in San Francisco to finalize our Principles of Unity and criteria for membership – documents that laid the groundwork for the politics of the network and the process for participating in it. They called for: open publishing; a not-for-profit, decentralized network of autonomous collectives; participatory decision-making processes at local level; non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian relationships; using free and open-source software wherever possible; and non-discrimination based on race, gender, age, or sexual orientation. To those of us who worked on this process, the solidification of the network structure and principles formalized Indymedia’s role as a communicators’ movement for revolutionary change. We clearly rejected corporate journalism’s myth of objectivity by stating we were transparently and definitively non-neutral.

South Africa IMC at work to cover Durban’s COP17. Photo IMC

The politics of technology

For-profit media-makers wasted no time in co-opting open publishing technology. Shortly after its deployment by activists, the code for the site was picked up and incorporated into mainstream press experiments, with adjustments made to give owners editorial control. The basic concept of user participation in content creation quickly became the new standard of website development, and companies and resourced NGOs began paying tech workers to hone these tools. Under the cynical language of freedom of expression, movement software and its ideas were being privatized and repackaged for profit and surveillance, eventually settling under the auspices of “social media.”

Now, through the wild popularity of social media, user data has become a primary tool for transferring money from the poor and middle classes to the elite. The industry term for this process is data-mining: users gain access to free services and in exchange give companies the right to watch their behavior and use it in market research that will then provide them with advertising strategies. This coordinated state/capitalist mechanism for siphoning people’s knowledge turns users of social media into unpaid laborers for corporations.

Ironically, this trend has occurred at the same time that activists have become highly adept at using these social media interfaces to deliver messages of dissent and liberation to a mass audience. Many organizers now actively direct their constituents to these platforms.

The political-economic motives embedded in the development of these user-driven forums have been obscured for many in the Global North/Minority world by the experience of liberatory connection that accompanied the Internet’s early deployment. But the ruling class funders know what they are doing. In 2008, the Guardian reported that Greylock Venture Capital, whose senior partner sits on the board of the CIA’s venture capital wing, In-Q-Tel, invested US$27.5 million in Facebook. Now all Facebook posts, texts, and email are stored in National Security Agency databases, and cellphones serve as tracking and surveillance devices that users willingly pay for. [2] In the Global South/Majority world, where deployment of the technology is still underway, the profit motives are currently front and center: one investor recently referred to the user data captured through social media as “the new oil.” [3]

Recently, repression with the aid of corporate-state surveillance has become evident to a wider audience with revelations of how Black Lives Matter organizers and water defenders at Standing Rock were targeted thanks to data sold to law enforcement agencies by companies like Geofeedia. Less known is the fact that Facebook and the state of Israel have an agreement to “work together” to monitor Palestinian posts. Dozens of Palestinian journalists and bloggers have been arrested and detained for alleged incitement charges stemming from posts on their Facebook pages, and hundreds more have been targeted for arrest and prosecution. The Intercept has reported that Facebook accepts 95 per cent of Israel’s requests for censorship. [4]

Within the Indymedia network, principled tech workers have from the get-go pushed for and applied tactics designed to resist corporate-state co-optation within the structure of our technical platforms. They argued that all IMCs should prioritize using free and open-source software instead of for-profit tools, and succeeded in incorporating this standard into the network’s Principles of Unity. They also made it impossible for Indymedia websites to be used to collect or store data from users — thus making this data unavailable to state or corporate interests — and have even defended this practice against legal threats. These were not easy standards to assert and defend, because companies were constantly deploying new technology in increasingly user-friendly formats, all based on developing the Internet in a manner aligned with the goals of profit and state surveillance.

Both within Indymedia and the wider movement, the political and economic logic of these tech practices were often misunderstood. To those without technical training — and even to some with — they often seemed rooted in an arcane manner of thinking that reified correct technology as a “goal.” Many saw only an elitist desire to create an “alternative culture” and dismissed the thinking as coming from a perspective of privilege. This perception is not surprising given that the tech workforce was overwhelmingly white, male and from the Global North. These demographic patterns often showed up as tendencies toward oppressive and dominating behavior, exacerbated by the very real gap in technology access, created by specialized technical knowledge.

Moving Forward

Nonetheless, this unfortunate and complex misunderstanding has serious political ramifications. For as we are wrangling, corporate social media is propelling the motor of global capitalism from the coltan mines of Congo to the sweatshops of China and beyond. Most recently, the disclosures about the Trump Campaign’s manipulative use of data mining to influence the 2016 US presidential election [5]should eliminate any doubt about how urgent it is that we create a healthy space to discuss these questions.

Creating this space requires that we address the ways privilege and oppression have played out in Indymedia and other media and tech spaces, and especially how the disempowerment of women and people of color has divided tech workers from much of the movement. In Montreal, we discussed the different levels of decolonization that need to happen in order for an international media network to move forward on a strong footing. While we did not make formal conclusions, our discussions identified the need to:
Build autonomous digital tools and online networks outside the corporate-state system.
Critique the ways corporate-state driven social media platforms are used to manipulate poor communities and silence movements.
Build media practices that incorporate face-to-face meetings and traditional “offline” formats.
Prioritize organizing strategies that shift resources to impacted communities, especially in the Global South/Majority world.
Work constantly to identify and counter all forms of privilege and oppression within our movements, especially racism and settler colonialism.

Our discussions were laced with the sad reality that even those who were gathered in Montreal represented a relatively privileged group. The decision to hold the WFFM and the World Social Forum in the Global North ended up playing into Global North/Minority domination when the majority of visas requested from Global South/Majority participants were denied. Many of the participants in the Montreal Indymedia Convergence were prevented from traveling in person due to this barrier. Our Working Group initiated an action protesting the unjust denial of visas, in collaboration with Mayfirst PeopleLink, the Indymedia Africa Working Group, Sahara Reporters, and others. [6] But our efforts were too little too late.

Demonstration against denied visas by Canadian immigration officials, Montreal, august 2016.

In order to build an effective international independent media network, we must prioritize face-to-face meetings that take place in Global South contexts, and prioritize transferring tech resources and training to support the organizational processes already happening in these communities. In Montreal, we looked to the Indymedia Africa Working Group as a model for this sort of engagement. The foundational building blocks of an independent international media network must be cultivated within these contexts.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Briarpatch Magazine on January 1, 2017:
Holding Out for Un-alienated Communication