Sunday, December 21, 2008

Activism in a Time of New Media

Early Friday morning students stream out of a cafeteria in The New School’s Albert List Hall. Between 50 and 200 of them had been occupying a cafeteria in the building at various times during a 36 hour protest against the university administration. It’s early. The students are tired, but in good spirits after university president Bob Kerrey agreed to most of their demands, including more student voice in university affairs and the creation of a committee on Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) to oversee university capital funds. They declare victory.

But they can also claim a key victory in a less obvious battle—the battle over message. For two and a half days students reported from inside the cafeteria using text messages, email, blog posts, Youtube videos, and Twitter feeds. They responded to New York Times’ City Room blog posts with news updates and fact checks. They countered Kerrey’s labeling of the occupation as a “security risk” by posting videos of security personnel using excessive force on occupiers. They made their demands and their decisions clear and free for all to read. It was all in real time—and it was all powered by the university’s electricity and wireless Internet.

The use of these new technologies marks a new era in fighting and winning a message war during direct actions. Not only were the New School students able to quickly and inexpensively release updates and report on the scene, they were able to respond to accusations in real time, as the events were still unfolding. Getting the message out on a broad platform has never been faster, cheaper, or more accessible—and participants can do it all without leaving the scene.

This is especially important for student organizers who have long been on the margins of mainstream media. For young activists to have access to a national platform in which their voice can be heard unedited is unprecedented.

Compared to student actions in the 1960s and 70s, the New School occupiers have had a breeze. Debra Sweet, National Director of the activist group The World Can’t Wait, remembers the difficulties of message control and information dissemination in the 1960s and 1970s. “It was very hard to get on the national stage at all,” she said about actions she participated in at the time.

“We didn’t have any access to the media,” she said. “You had very primitive technology for making mimeograph fliers. And that was the main way you communicated. You’d hand deliver press releases to the news. There was no other way to quickly get the message to them. It wasn’t easy.”

Of course there was no guarantee that the information relayed to the press was being reported accurately. Sweet said, “There was a lot of shaping of the message and people were vilified.”

MediaChannel’s Danny Schechter draws the same conclusion about his experiences in student actions at Harvard and the London School of Economics. “We used to have demonstrations and we’d all go home at night and watch them do the reports on TV, which were never quite accurate.” “Today,” Schechter says, “you can see it immediately online.”

The New School occupiers could be thankful for that as they used video footage to document their actions and hold the university administration and security personnel accountable. On Thursday at 8PM, the New School in Exile, as the students called their action, posted a Youtube video of a security officer using excessive force on students, throwing one female student to the ground and almost choking another male student. This was posted in direct response to a letter Bob Kerrey sent to the press, labeling the occupation a “security risk.” In posting the video mere hours after the incident, the New School in Exile’s makeshift website stated, “We encourage the public to watch and decide exactly who is using force against whom!”

"This is definitely something that is an emerging benefit of new media technology," says Chris Crews, a graduate student in Politics at New School and participant in the occupation.

"In the case of the Kerrey letter, we got it, were able to upload some video clips showing exactly the opposite was in fact happening, and then could use that to undermine his claims and bolster ours. That isn't something that could have been done even 20 years ago," Crews says, "and hardly even 10 years ago, at least not with this reach."

Sweet asks what some student actions would have looked like if protesters had had the technologies we do today. “What if there had been real time broadcast capability during Chicago ’68?” she asks. “Especially during the various rebellions in the 60s where people were being shot down in the streets by the police. It took years to piece together and uncover what happened.”

Schechter makes the ultimate claim about the value of new technologies and accountability. He says, “Using video cameras monitors abuses and prevents them. People don’t like to be filmed while they’re beating people up.”

Crews said the use of video and other new media technologies was crucial to holding the administration and security detail in check. "It serves to document events in a way that words alone cannot," he said. "We can tell the press and the public that security is over-reacting, but when we show it, it is especially powerful."

We don’t know what violence (if any) might have been prevented by the students’ cameras. But we do know the students were quick to distribute all evidence they had to bolster their case. The New School occupiers can be thankful they were able to document instances of abuse and show clearly the posture of security forces, police, and students. Who was the aggressor? Go to the tape.

As for the actual events, the occupation was far less dramatic and violent than protests and occupations like Columbia University and the Students for a Democratic Society activities in Chicago in 1968. There is no doubt that this action was far more subdued than the 2006 student occupation of the Sorbonne in Paris.

But even as recent as the Sorbonne occupation of 2006 students were still at the whims of mainstream media. The new School in Exile may be one of the first actions in which the participants controlled the message. They were the authors, editors, and publishers of a message that found an international audience. Activists can now counter false reports and assumptions while documenting any grievances and infringements in real time.

Nixon famously claimed that Vietnam wasn’t lost on the battlefield, but instead it was lost in the halls of Congress and the editorial rooms of great newspapers. According to him, Vietnam was a failure of message control, because for the first time Americans saw the atrocities of war on the nightly news.

But now as more and more average citizens find themselves the authors of journalism, even the framing power of the editorial rooms diminishes. Those on the ground check the framing of the journalist with comments left on blog posts and links to videos. They ‘tweet’ about the conditions on the ground, and take digital photographs. And they can do it all as fast as the events unfold.

Labels: , ,

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?