Rutgers media studies professor Todd Wolfson talks about his new book Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left, which chronicles the genesis of the “indymedia” movement in Chiapas in 1994 and its birth 1999 at the WTO protests.
In his new book, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left, Todd Wolfson details the birth of “indymedia,” an alternative online media source, at the landmark 1999 WTO protest in Seattle. He traces its growth from a single media center and website to a global network, with activists from Seoul to Sao Paulo building satellite sites around the indymedia hub.
The Cyber Left, contrasted with the Old and New Left, drew much of its organizing philosophy from the Zapatistas, who remarkably used media as a political tool and adopted a “horizontal” or leaderless approach to organization, in which networking was paramount and hierarchy shunned. While some techno-evangelists were quick to hail this new media as nothing short of revolutionary, Wolfson takes a more nuanced view that celebrates the spirit and successes of the Cyber Left, while taking a sober look at its failures.
In the interview that follows, Wolfson explains how and why the indymedia movement had a phoenix-like growth initially, but failed to maintain its promise. Wolfson also talks about his involvement in the Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project, which uses media and communications as a strategy for building a movement of poor and working people in Philadelphia and beyond.
Peter Handel: Your book, Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left, is the first to trace the history of “indymedia.” What is the Cyber Left and indymedia?
Todd Wolfson: Indymedia is a global independent communication network that emerged during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Organizers and activists involved in planning the WTO protests recognized that they could not rely on CNN and Fox News to fairly report on the WTO meetings and the counter demonstrations. So, taking advantage of the internet, activists and media makers founded Seattle indymedia or the Seattle Independent Media Center (IMC).
During the week of demonstrations, the Seattle IMC offered an innovative and far-reaching media platform based on community journalists and activists telling and sharing their stories. Throughout the protests, Seattle IMC gave out 400 press passes, and organizers built a comprehensive media center that included a daily newspaper, a 24-hour FM radio station, and a daily 30-minute video news report.
The crowning achievement of the Seattle IMC was the website, which had an open-publishing newswire, where anyone could publish their own news, photos or first-person accounts of the protests. The Seattle IMC website got 1 million hits over its first week of existence, outpacing CNN during the week, and the participatory and social nature of the website prefigured Facebook, Twitter and blogging.
In the aftermath, Independent Media Centers began emerging across the world, and by 2003, there were over 100, creating news in more than 30 languages on six continents. In effect, the Seattle IMC grew into a global non-corporate news and communication network and became known as the indymedia movement.
While indymedia grew rapidly, since the high point around 2005, indymedia has all but disintegrated. To explain the phenomenal growth and sudden collapse of indymedia and connect it to a broader pattern of political practice in contemporary social movements, I develop the concept of the Cyber Left. I use the term Cyber Left to collect the fragments of social movement logic and strategy that we see around us in Occupy, the Arab Spring, as well as indymedia and the broader Global Social Justice Movement, and bundle them together into a coherent logic of left-based social movement practice.
As a concept, Cyber Left plays an historical and comparative function, allowing scholars and activists to understand the goals, strategies and logic of contemporary movements against a history of left-based strategy commonly understood through the prism of the Old Left and New Left. This contemporary logic, as I argue throughout the book, is a logic of horizontality, where activists challenge all forms of hierarchy in both the world and social movement practice.
As you mention above, a key organizing principle of the Cyber Left is horizontalism, in which power is shared equally and no one is a leader. What are some of the benefits and downsides of this philosophy? How did it help and hurt the Cyber Left?
While there are many benefits to horizontalism, I think there are three important attributes to this logic. First, the non-centralized, self-organizing structure allows for quick growth in social movements-based resistance as we have seen in indymedia as well as the Occupy Movement. A second benefit is that the deep democratic processes allow people to build a fuller identity with the movement as they play a greater role in decision making. Finally, horizontalism challenges some of the problems associated with a highly centralized and bureaucratized social movement structure by compelling activists to enact through their everyday practice the broader world they aim to build.
Accordingly, I will note three potential problems with the logic of horizontality. One critical problem is that horizontality often leads to less formal organizational structures. While this allows for dynamic growth, there is a tendency towards what feminist scholar and activist Jo Freeman once called a “tyranny of structurelessness,” where informal and unaccountable forms of leadership tend to develop. A second, related problem is that horizontality and the lack of clear structures of accountability and leadership tends to favor people with more social and cultural capital. In the case of indymedia, this meant that white college-educated men tended to have more authority and power over the work and vision of indymedia. A final problem with the logic of horizontality is that without strong, transparent and accountable organizational structures, institutions have trouble building power over the long haul. This leads to projects and movements that can collapse as rapidly as they emerged, a problem we see with indymedia, but I would argue we also see it with many contemporary social movement structures.
The first indymedia site was launched in 1999 by WTO protestors in Seattle, yet you begin your history with the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico. Why?
On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took over the capital of the southernmost state of Mexico, Chiapas. Members of the EZLN, largely Mayan peasants, rose up on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, because they said NAFTA was a “death knell” to their way of life.
The Mexican military responded to the uprising with the intent of wiping out the resistance. Ultimately, there was a standoff in Chiapas, and in this moment when the Zapatistas were militarily overmatched, they, along with their supporters, harnessed the internet and other media in new and unforeseen ways. The Zapatistas released a series of communiqués and, utilizing newly developing networks, connected through the internet, they called on supporters to swarm to Mexico City and Chiapas to end the armed struggle. This clever use of the internet was successful, and the Zapatistas and the Mexican government signed a peace accord soon thereafter.
Recognizing the power of the internet and new media in social struggle, a few years later, the EZLN called on organizers, activists and independent journalists to create a global network of communications that will link together struggles across the globe. This call for a “communication network” led directly to the founding of the indymedia movement in Seattle a few years later. In this sense, many of the strategies and logics of contemporary activists around the use of new media were initiated by Mayan peasants in southern Mexico.
One of the problems of the Cyber Left is that they often fail to form strong connections with communities on the ground, yet one of its initial aims was to be a platform for citizen journalists who were engaging with their communities. Why do you think the Cyber Left became so disconnected to people on the ground?
The main reason that indymedia organizers became disconnected from people on the ground was because there was an overreliance on technology within the indymedia movement. Activists believed that technology was the tool to fight for social change, instead of consistently figuring out processes and practices where technology was embedded in local struggle. This problem had far-reaching effects as local indymedia centers became disengaged from local, organized communities fighting for power and therefore became less accountable to those communities. I would argue this often led to indymedia centers that were fringe websites and not deeply integrated into the communities where they were situated.
What are some examples of the triumphs of the Cyber Left and what lessons do you draw from them?
I believe the single greatest triumph of indymedia was that activists involved in that project re-imagined the role of media in social movements. At one level, this was done as activists and programmers created open publishing, which was a novel way for organizers, independent journalists and everyday people to have their voices heard. This was particularly the case before the social media explosion, when people had less access to mass media.
At a second level, I argue that indymedia activists re-imagined the role of media in social change. The old metaphor for social movements was that media was “the arm” of a movement. Here you have an already consolidated movement, and the media is a vestige that puts out the message of the movement. I think that indymedia, and other cyber left activists, see media and communications more like a “nervous system.” In this case, media is seen as a tool that actually connects the different aspects of movement into a coherent whole. In this model, media plays a more central, constitutive role within social movements. While I believe this is an important breakthrough, this logic can be taken too far when activists imagine media and communications as creating the infrastructure of a movement or social movement organization. This leads to weak organizational structure that cannot maintain itself in the long term.
You founded an organization – the Media Mobilizing Project [MMP]. What is this, and how are you trying to build an organization that uses the lessons you found in studying the Cyber Left?
Media Mobilizing Project is an organization based in Philadelphia that I cofounded with a group of organizers and activists in 2006. The goal of MMP at the time we founded it was to take what we saw as the most productive lessons of indymedia and the broader Cyber Left and merge them with the intent of building the power of poor and working people throughout the region.
Since we founded MMP, it has become a cornerstone of both the media ecosystem of Philadelphia and a key player in the organizing and activist community in the city. Over the years, MMP has trained thousands of low-wage workers, immigrants, students and activists in media literacy and media production. We have built radio and TV shows, and we have a vibrant online presence. More importantly, MMP has been dedicated to building the trust of local communities fighting for social change from cab drivers and nurses to students, teachers and sanitation workers.
We have done this work by extracting the best lessons of the Cyber Left, around the model of media as a nervous system, coupling this vision to a process that places technology into relationship with communities struggling for social change. In this sense, community relationships and trust come first, media and technology come second. We also believe in leaders and leadership development, and in building long-term powerful institutions that contest to win power.