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Monday, October 03, 2011

Hacktivism meets Wall St

The Occupy Wall Street protests are one of the most interesting movements that I have seen emerging in recent times from the US. The furore over whether the protests were important enough or not to cover exemplifies the way that this movement is really quite different from others that we have seen before in terms of the way they began, the way that they are organizing, and the way that they are using technology. These distinctions have made reading these protests and their direction confusing for many people, yet at the same time the message is clear enough to others that the idea has spread both within the United States and abroad. By last Wednesday, the protests had spread from being two or three cities organizing or occupying, to 52 planning protests. By this weekend the list had grown to an additional list of 21 international cities including Tokyo, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney, Montreal, Toronto Market Exchange, Vancouver, Tijuana, Adelaide, Brisbane, Cologne, Cork, Den Haag, Finland, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Manchester, Norwich, Nova Scotia, Stockholm and London.

While it remains to see how many people attend these events, the uptake and reach of this movement would seem to indicate that it is gaining some traction. How is it that a movement can be so unclear to some, yet so clear to others? This post examines some of the background and context of the ideas behind the protests.

1. Why the comparisons to Tahrir Square?

The protestors have stated that their movement is similar to the acampadas in Spain or the popular uprising against Muburak in Egypt. The comparison to Tahrir Square is one that has confused many people looking on, not least because of the small numbers and the target of Wall St rather than government. 800 to at times 5,000 people camping in Zucotti Park hardly looks like it has the hallmarks of a revolution, yet to argue this is missing the point of some of the ideas that motivate the movement.

The inspiration from Tahrir Square has more to do with ideas of democracy, technology and freedom than it has to do with any kind of movement to overthrow the government. It is highly significant that one of the key groups involved in promoting the protests is Anonymous, an organization of 'hacktivists' that were formed in 2003. Anonymous began with a series of actions that were hardly sophisticated, but have become a much more politically motivated organization since the so-called 'Green Revolution' in Iran of 2009. Anonymous have had a heavy involvement in the Arab Spring, working together with other hacktivist and netizen (a portmanteau of 'internet' and 'citizen') organizations to provide information on how to circumvent heavy internet censorship.

Many of the Arab Spring movements were originally promoted by groups of young, educated, middle class internet users. While social networking is only one element to mobilizing people, the role of spreading information in totalitarian states is vital. This cat and mouse game of state versus citizen with technology has seen the growth of citizens using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to access Facebook through the Great Firewall of China, sophisticated mirroring, the development of speak to tweet by Google for Egypt, and Anonymous and other hackers using platforms to circumvent state technologies. It is not an understatement to say that many of the current battles going on in the world are being also fought through the web: take the example of the Israeli state hackers versus the group 'Team Evil Arab Hackers', who took down 750 Israeli servers in 2006; the threat that Wikileaks poses to governments (even if it largely revolves around the obnoxious opinions of diplomats); the online battle going on in places like Syria between DoS (denial of service) attacks from the government run Syrian Electronic Army and so on. Sometimes the state manages to shut the movement down through quelling information spreading, as in the example of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region to quell news of Uighur unrest in 2009, or the shutdown of Facebook temporarily in a bid for control, as in Uzbekistan or Pakistan. More recently, we have seen the use of Facebook for the identification of citizens involved in protesting, as in the online identification of citizens in Bahrain after the unsuccessful uprising of one quarter of their population or London following the riots.

And this is perhaps the point that makes much of the context around the protests difficult for mainstream media to interpret. The way that we assess the traction of movements is very different from the huge numbers that marched on Washington in 2003 - the technology and the techniques of protest have changed significantly in recent years. There is evidence to suggest that the way this demographic expresses their opinion is totally different from earlier movements. While many commentators have critiqued the diversity of the message, the looks of the protestors and the size of the numbers, it is quite possible that what we are looking at is a way of protesting that will become more common in the future.

2. The emergence of 'open source' democracy

It is telling that Anonymous have had involvement in beginning these protests and spreading the word through their voice-distorted messages featuring the V figure from V for Vendetta (2006), a movie that examines a futuristic Britain where all citizens are under constant surveillance and are unable to avoid detection. Based loosely on the story of Guy Fawkes, V fights his totalitarian government through terrorist tactics and eventually blows up parliament on November 5 (Guy Fawkes Day) while enlisting the support of the population. The final scene shows masses of people wearing the V masks to hide their identities, forming a mass too great for the government to control. They have increasingly drawn from the V for Vendetta imagery and its tagline “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people”. It is not insignificant that these masks have been frequently seen on protestors. Given that many of the ‘hacktivists’ that have been arrested have been under 25, labeling groups based on their appearance as some commentators on the US have done is fairly redundant.

There is every indication that the people in these protests have a good understanding of the current tech environment, and perhaps a far better one than many of the people reporting on their development. From the images that are emerging, many of these protestors seem to be skewed towards the younger demographic, a fact that has been mocked relentlessly by journalists but puts them in the category of what Mark Prensky terms ‘digital natives’, a group of people who have grown up around technology are proficient at using it. Many of these 'digital natives' have a greater awareness than 'digital immigrants' (older people who have migrated to technology) and its use in tracking citizens. There is much more suspicion in recent years towards Facebook and its monitoring, not least due to the loose application of the PATRIOT Act (2001) and the rise of Homeland Security monitoring following 2003. This can be seen in the way that the protestors have encouraged people to use Vibe instead of Facebook or Twitter to communicate, a platform that allows for you to monitor both the geographic reach and duration of your tweets, making it harder for authorities to track. Many people have also been migrating to a platform called Diaspora, which is viewed as more secure than Twitter and allows for hashtag following (i.e. someone can follow #occupy, instead of having to search for it every time). The fact that the protestors have also developed their own android application shows that the domain for their perceived action is both online and in real life. While much has been made of the fact that protestors are sitting in Zuccotti Park with a bunch of MacBooks, this shows that the mode of protests are beginning to shift.

Ultimately, whether these tech initiatives translate to numbers on the ground depends on the ability to mass mobilize protestors in the broader domain. There are signs that this is occurring, with many unions now pledging support, some of these including more than 200,000 members. As some commentators have noted, there appears to be greater diversity in those who are involved over the last few days, including the 700 United/Continental pilots using the opportunity to march on Wall St and the small contingent of Marines, which while only numbering 15, have promoted debate within factions that would not usually support such initiatives.

This idea of open-source democracy is not just embedded in the mode of protesting, it is also found in the posting of an open, online document on the goals of the protest where people can offer suggestions. Although for many this has evidenced the lack of unity over protestors demands, it is also a sign of a shift towards alternative models of civic discussion. As the first demand is for a participatory democracy, this seems to evidence the protestors' desire for an open-source model of democracy where civic responsibilities meet in both virtual and actual worlds.

3. Protesting and paranoia: why do we have the development of these techniques?

Using masks, applications that many do not know about and developing a carnival type atmosphere have been read by many as devaluing the cause of their protests, opening them up for accusations of paranoid middle class hippies. However, there are some solid reasons why these techniques have emerged. If you look at the mode of policing and arrest rates of different protests, it is clear that some ideas and movements are perceived as much more threatening than others. For example, the 2009 Taxpayer March composed mainly of Tea Party followers on Washington had no arrests, yet 700 of about 1500 protestors were arrested yesterday on Brooklyn Bridge. There were many tweets yesterday questioning the use of netting on protestors.

To look to the specific situation of New York City (bearing in mind that there have been smallish protests in other cities that have not run into problems), we need to look at previous examples of policing. The Republican National Convention in 2004 saw the arrest of over 1,800 people in New York City. Protestors were gathered with orange netting – like that used on the Wall St protestors last week – and were mass arrested and taken to a giant holding facility where most were held for more than 24 hours, some as long as three days. Cellphones were confiscated, although some people managed to get photos out of the holding pen. Some passersby were also arrested, as in the Brooklyn Bridge protests. This technique often results in people being let off eventually without charge, with the mass arrests providing a mechanism to quickly quell dissent. There were also allegations of NYC police functioning as agent provocateurs, joining the protests to monitor the activists.

It appears that the Occupy Wall Street protests have been organized with the expectation of a heavy state response, as the documentation online places a heavy emphasis on non-violence. There has been some training of non-violent techniques, one of which is the creation of a carnival type atmosphere and use of costumes to appear less threatening to authorities, and also to ensure that any aggression by authorities does not escalate the crowd into retaliatory violence. This might come across as ridiculous and carnivalesque, but it is similar to the techniques used in the Ukraine's Orange Revolution where flowers were stuffed into the barrels of guns or Tahrir Square's kiss a policeman campaign. Such techniques are probably prudent when organizers do not yet have the numbers and are easily controlled by authorities. It also signals that there is a group in American society that feel that while they are non-violent, their opinions are treated as dangerous even in a democracy.

We can also see the idea at work that protests should involve online and offline action. The groups have live streams, and roughly between 20,000 and 30,000 people were watching the mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday. Anonymous appear to have intervened on Twitter to block tweeters calling for riots earlier in the campaign and ensure they are peaceful. There seems to be a direct objective of buttressing offline activity with activism online.

As one Anonymous activist told The Guardian:

"This is a new way to protest. Many of us have done our fair share of street protesting. But they drag us into the streets, and they mace us. Now we have brought our protests into the online social media space. We do it all at once – the street protesting along with our distributed denial of service [DDoS] attacks. We are a bit of an online flash mob."

4. Is it likely that the movement will be successful?

This is a harder question, and there are a few factors that may work in their favor or against them.

a) The decision to occupy: This is a double-edged sword in that it provides the organizers with a rolling set of protests (most cities are still organizing) with which to build momentum, but it also in the short-term results in smaller protests that could either fizzle or be controlled by authorities more easily. Asking people to stay on Wall Street in bad weather on an ongoing basis is a tough call, and one that may result in exhaustion as they run out of money or numbers. Who really wants to be sleeping under plastic in heavy rain of America's fall (they are permitted from building tents), going to the toilet in McDonalds and facing constant police presence, and as some have claimed persecution? On the other hand, their staggered nature may result in the building of a crowd. There are rumors flying around at the moment about large-scale protests on November 5 (Guy Fawkes' Day), which are potentially much more popular than Anonymous' previously stated intention of a DoS (denial of service) attack on Facebook that very same day due to privacy concerns. If they can sustain the movement, we may see the building of much larger numbers of people. The much publicized decision of JP Morgan Chase to donate $4.6 million to the police force shows that they are likely taken quite seriously by authorities.

b) The need for coalition building: The inception of the protests was supported by Anonymous and the Canadian-based magazine Adbusters, which has resulted in a different approach than those built along traditional union lines. While the V masks and symbology tap into globalized imagery of democracy against occupations, they are more difficult to read for other sectors of the American public. The V symbology has been seen in most of the Arab Spring uprisings, and its use here has resulted in videos from Egyptians being posted online in support of the protests. It has also resulted in Al Jazeera coverage and it is likely that if the protests go on they will have a more globalized circulation than if they were merely using specifically American symbology. There is evidence over the last few days that more traditional protest organizers are coming on board, in the form of the unions that have pledged support. There is the possibility that coalitions may dilute the original intentions of the movement, and cause internal frictions.

c) The need for media: The mainstream media largely ignored the protests in the beginning, as they were seen as countering news values in that they were not big enough, did not generate enough conflict, or as NPR bizarrely stated, did not feature enough celebrities. The pepper-spraying incident last week saw marginal coverage in the US but gained the attention of the British media, but the arrest of 700 has finally seen the mainstream American media cover it. However, the use of technologies that subvert surveillance strategies could work against the need for mainstream coverage to build the numbers, even if it leads to a vehicle for the communication of ideas among those that feel that they cannot express in public. The application of open-source ideas of democracy is also leading to confused media sources, who have overwhelmingly argued that they lack a clear vision to sustain the movement. However, the spread of ideas globally indicates that there is still traction for this idea and it may yet be expressed in a form that better suits the media's public relations-styled format of one key demand with three major points.

So in summary, it is difficult to tell at this stage but Occupy Wall St shows a sophistication of earlier protest techniques that has the potential to build much larger. Given that the United States' much heralded new weapon against autocratic states is the development of internet in a suitcase, they appear to be getting some resistance internally over their own ability to represent a comprehensive public sphere in both Congress and the media. It is not uncommon for social networking to build large movements off small amounts of people - just look at the internet penetration rate of 24.5% in Iran in 2009 and you will see what I mean. At any rate, the protests seem to be building what they set out to achieve - greater discussion of the economic system in a public sphere that is built online via citizens where the ideas may persist for much longer.


At 3/10/11 4:37 pm, Blogger Elaine said...

Brilliant! Thank goodness someone in the NZ media is covering what's going on!

At 3/10/11 6:44 pm, Blogger Fusion said...

Thanks for writing this very lucid and thoughtful commentary. Very helpful.

At 3/10/11 10:41 pm, Blogger Marty Mars said...

yes I agree - awesome analysis - thanks

At 3/10/11 11:05 pm, Blogger Wheeler's Corner NZ said...

Thanks heaps your clear and concise commentary leaves me in no doubt that the world is changing,

At 4/10/11 11:54 am, Blogger Dave Brown said...

Great analysis. I think the conclusion is already clear, that capitalism has met its match in Generation Zero. It marks its end by eating its children. Having staked its survival on the new technology it cannot outflank educated youth without using violence, and just like the Arab Spring the system can kill thousands but it can't kill the revolution.


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