‘It’s a war of perceptions’, Army Brigadier General John Custer, head of intelligence at Central Command, told CBS News’ 60 Minutes. ‘They [the insurgents] understand the power of the Internet. They don’t have to win in the tactical battlefield. They never will. No platoon has ever been defeated in Afghanistan or Iraq. But it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant’ (Pelley 2007).
In 2007, the most interesting frontline for investigating this phenomenon is what has been called the ‘global jihad’, with its dogged commitment to integrating highly professional media production, particularly on the Internet, into its core activities. The interest is both epistemological and political. Jihad media presents a basic challenge to the will-not-be-televised paradigm, and in doing so encourages reflection on what advocates of global civil society had hoped for, or expected, from a more accessible and pluralised media, whether television or the Internet.
North American Indymedia have undergone important changes as well. One shining example is the large Urbana-Champaign IMC, which conducted a years-long membership fund-drive to purchase the downtown Urbana Post Office building to provide space for a wide array of progressive community projects. Though it continues to court controversy for its non-profit incorporation, paid staffers, and its fiscal sponsorship of the global IMC network, the UC-IMC consistently produces vibrant community journalism via its website, a community radio station, and a monthly newspaper. A stark counter-example is the flagship Seattle IMC, which lost its prime downtown space and much of its membership. As IMCs rise and fall, the earlier rapid expansion of the network seems to have leveled out for the present.
Indymedia Strengths & Weaknesses
While the strengths of Indymedia’s internet-enabled radical democratic practices are considerable, they are also fraught with inherent tensions. Indymedia’s sustainability issues are discussed in greater depth elsewhere (Pickard 2006b), but a number of other pressure points are well documented. For example, some democratic theorists are quick to note persistent hierarchies in consensus-based decision-making (Mansbridge 1983; Young 1996). Gastil (1993) observes that typical drawbacks in small group democracy include long meetings, unequal involvement and commitment, cliques, differences in skills and styles, and personality conflicts. Similarly, Michel’s (1915) ‘iron law of oligarchy’ argues that radical organizations – especially larger groups – tend to become more bureaucratic and conservative over time. In another important critique, Bookchin (1994) argues that beyond intimate small groups, consensus dissuades the creative process of ‘dissensus’ by pressuring dissenters into silence and thereby gravitating towards the least controversial, mediocrity, and defacto authoritarianism. Similarly, Freeman’s (1970) classic critique ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’ suggests such purported non-hierarchy masks power, allows ‘informal elites’ to arise, and renders unstructured groups politically impotent.
Indymedia first distinguished itself as a radical democratic experiment by its ‘open-publishing’ software, allowing anyone with Internet access to post his or her own news stories for immediate upload onto an IMC website’s newswire. Its user-driven news production, collective editing, and open source technology, placed Indymedia in the twenty-first century vanguard for experimenting with Internet-amplified democratic processes. Though the rise of the blogosphere and other facets of the web 2.0 now eclipse some of its early innovations, Indymedia’s radical participatory democracy and global reach continue to make it one of the more significant models to emerge from the Internet. Open source technology and collective editing via wikis further evidence Indymedia’s radical democratic model. But Indymedia’s most remarkable contribution is arguably its commitment to radical democratic practice, exemplified by consensus based decision-making at the local and global network levels.
The Rise of Indymedia
The November 1999 World Trade Organization protests, a series of events known as ‘The Battle of Seattle’, left an enduring institutional legacy in the form of the Independent Media Center (IMC, popularly referred to as ‘Indymedia’). Emerging from within the global justice movement, Indymedia’s roots trace back at least as far as the 1990s media democracy movement, inspired by alternative media groups like Paper Tiger, Free Speech TV, and Accion Zapatista. According to veteran media activist and scholar Dee Dee Halleck, with Indymedia, ‘Many different streams came together: the video activist community, microradio pirates, the computer hacker/code writers, the ‘zine makers, and the punk music world’ (2002: 417-418). Jeff Perlstein, one of the Indymedia co-founders, saw the original idea as using media, especially the Internet, as an activist tool for community self-expression, particularly in under-represented communities. Wanting to challenge the corporate news monopoly on telling their stories, Perlstein says Indymedia’s aim was to create ‘alternative networks’ and a ‘community-based people’s newsroom’ (2001). The original project, then, was to ‘be the media’ based on radical democratic principles and practices. In its expansion across six continents, the Indymedia movement has since merged with a broad array of local and global struggles and developed new variants, though many of its original objectives remain relatively constant across the evolving network.
3. Alternative media and communicative power
As this Yearbook makes clear, the opportunities for civil society actors to create their own communication platforms – often called alternative media – have never been greater. Many examples of these, such as the Indymedia movement (see chapter 10 of this volume), are well documented.
New technologies and the fragmentation of the public sphere
The Internet has created a limitless matrix through which ordinary people can exercise communicative power, establish shared spaces for discussion and dialogue, and where tapestries of communication between old and new media, traditional and twenty-first century communication networks are constantly rewoven.
Online public interest journalism is no longer new, with some of the leading online public interest sites demonstrating a capacity to sustain themselves over time, establish a strong brand rooted in public respect and trust and a lasting influence. Tehelka.com is an independent investigative journalism site in India, founded in 2000, which has been targeted repeatedly by the authorities and equally repeatedly made mainstream news through its exposés. Malaysiakini, another online political website, attracts 160,000 visitors each day, and is celebrating its eighth birthday despite several attempts by the authorities to close it down, including an incident in 2003 when its offices were raided and 19 computers were confiscated, allegedly for a breach of the country’s Sedition Act. When Opendemocracy.net was founded in 2001, there were fears this respected web-based fora would prove unsustainable; such anxieties have, at least for now, been dispelled.
The Mobilisation around the Republican National Convention in New York
The Republican Party held its 2004 National Convention (RNC) from 30 August to 2 September amid heightened expectations of disturbances caused by anti-Bush activists. The run-up to the New York convention was characterised by reports and rumours of planned and potentially spontaneous protests and of how the police and security agencies were preparing to deal with these incidents (Carpenter 2004; Gibbs 2004; Shachtman 2004; Terdiman 2004). Comparisons were made to the battle of Seattle in 1999, when over 40,000 protesters descended on the city from all over the world to protest against the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), leading to scenes of violence and contributing to the breakdown of the WTO talks. What was particularly interesting about these reports was that the central role of wireless communication was taken for granted, not just in the protests but in all aspects of the convention. In the event, several (mostly non-violent) protests were indeed coordinated primarily via wireless communication and the internet, leading to over 17,000 arrests. The convention itself was hardly affected by the protests apart from a few minor disruptions. In fact, President Bush experienced a bounce of two percentage points in the polls (among likely voters) after the convention (The Economist 2004; Jones 2004). These events occurred too recently for any judgements to be made about their immediate or long-term impact. Preliminary examination, however, indicates that this was a case where the use of wireless communication technologies served to enhance efficiency but not to effect change.
Wireless communication and the ‘people who love Roh’ in South Korea
On 19 December 2002, South Korea elected its new president, Roh Moo-Hyun, a major part of whose victory has been widely attributed to Nosamo, an online supporter group known by this Korean acronym of ‘People who Love Roh’. The success of Roh and of Nosamo is now ‘a textbook example for the power of IT’ (Hachigian and Wu 2003: 68), which systematically utilised a combination of the internet and mobile phone-based communication While the internet-based campaign had lasted for years, providing the core political networks, it was the mobile phones that mobilised large number of young voters on the election day and finally reversed the voting result (Fulford 2003; see also S.-D. Kim n.d.; Rhee 2003).
News coverage of the demonstrations invariably highlights the role of new communication technologies, especially short message service (SMS) and the internet, in facilitating the protests. On one account, anti-Estrada information began to accumulate in online forums as soon as he took office in 1998, amounting to some 200 web sites and about 100 e-mail discussion groups by the time People Power II started (Pabico n.d.). A famous online forum is E-Lagda.com, which collected 91,000 e-signatures to support the impeachment through both the internet and SMS (Bagalawis 2001). Besides imparting pure information, many internet and text messages poked fun at Estrada, his (allegedly) corrupted life, and his poor English.
Until recently, in Iran the Internet offered a freer space than the print media. By 2001 there were some 1,500 Internet cafés, and there are now between 70,000 and 100,000 bloggers. Some 7.5 million Iranians are estimated to surf the net, more as a proportion of the population than any other Middle Eastern country except Israel. The government has not been able to enforce its own regulations effectively for a number of reasons, including its own lack of expertise, and because the Internet is largely provided by commercial providers. In addition, the government uses the Internet to propagate its own Islamic discourse. According to several clerics the Internet is a ‘gift to spread the word of the prophet’ (Rahimi 2003).
When combined with the liberalisation of media ownership in many nations, these trends have contributed to an apparent blossoming of alternative media willing to challenge mainstream news organisations, along with a growing sense of basic ‘rights to communicate’ around the world (see chapter 8 of this volume). The ability of ordinary citizens to publish online and to participate in creating and editing news reports using collaborative Wiki software has led to speculation about new forms of grassroots citizen journalism. The success of meet-ups and flash mobs arranged through the Internet or via mobile phones has fuelled predictions of revolutionary changes in social and political organisation (Rheingold 2002; Trippi 2004). An array of e-government and e-democracy initiatives has been launched, with the goal of improving government responsiveness to ordinary citizens and improving public accountability. Advocates of civic journalism and deliberative democracy have been working aggressively to advance a variety of media reforms, including active support for programmes of community discussion sponsored by news organisations, the growth of alternative, community-based and community-operated media and other ways of activating and engaging readers, listeners and viewers.
It is in the practices of activists themselves where we find responses adequate to the challenge posed by that the unprecedented levels of the power of capital. For instance, as Victor Pickard describes in Chapter 10, Indymedia is committed to radical democratic practices in its networks both locally and globally, yet whether this is adequate to the task of democratising global governance is open to question when, as Clifford Bob shows, the same technologies are open to the National Rifle Association and, as Thomas Keenan describes, are central to the idea of global Jihad. Deane shows that activists are now going beyond attempts to practice deliberative democracy within their own spaces, to address global governance structures with the new norm of a ‘right to communicate.’ Yet that right has to be guaranteed in some way and the dilemmas around which the debate between Lippman and Dewey revolved, between management of information, individual participation and democratic decision making are ever more acute in a world confronted with global issues that require collective responses. Global civil society is forced to engage with state structures if it is to secure their democratisation. It has to take communicative democracy to the centre of state power if it is to build global governance and redress the inequalities that stand in the way of adequate action on a global scale.
The new social movements of the 1970s already showed some affinity with this ideal, causing Habermas to revise his view of the public sphere from something once briefly glimpsed in the Enlightenment that could never return, to a ‘less pessimistic assessment’ of an ideal for which one could strive in practice (1992: 457). Since then, the newer global movements that have emerged have even more explicitly sought their salvation in an alternative politics of communication. The ‘hacker ethic’ of the first generation of computer geeks launched a wholesale attack on the foundations of modernity: the work ethic, the notion of private property, and command-and-control structures of governance (Himanen 2001). But the most enduring characteristic of that ethic has been the emphasis on ‘open access’ and free flows of information and communication, which has to date determined the architecture of the Internet. Beside this paramount achievement, the broad movement has spawned numerous other civil society initiatives built on the same norms, including the early email networks, the free software and open source movements, the Indymedia centres, Wikipedia. These are all expressions of, and contributions to, ‘an emerging techno-political ethos’ (Juris 2005) in global civil society. This ethos has now spread far beyond the original western left-wing hacktivists: Box I.2 describes how the resistance of a single couple of Chinese home-owners to the property developers became a cause celebre by moving from the blogosphere into the Chinese and Western mainstream media.