Notes on the #Occupy Media Teams
So far, Occupy has thrived as a prototype rather than a program: an open-source laboratory for activism. What follows is a collection of research notes on how #Occupy collectives have evolved media teams, with a special focus on the original group in Zuccotti Park, NYC. Apologies to the authors pilfered here, but no repentance...after all, this is for Science.
Columbia Journalism Review: I sat down with Brian Phillips, a former Marine, who quit his job in Washington and hitchhiked to Manhattan to participate. He was wearing a press pass, saying he was a field journalist for a company out of Washington state called Cast Media. He described himself as the communications director and head of security within the media team, and said security is there to keep watch on the stacks of donated computers and other equipment that's sitting out in the open October air.
The media team supplies content to post on Occupywallst.org, which Phillips describes as their "frontline for media." This site contains videos, pictures, and short posts, but remains unofficial, as all things here do, to retain its horizontal hierarchy.
Next stop, the internet table, where Drew Hornbein is sitting in front of a sign-up sheet for volunteers. He explains that the internet group is like the media team and press team, a semi-autonomous section of the General Assembly, and their objective "is not the conversation itself, but facilitating it." Horbein says his team runs the New York City general assembly (NYCGA) webpage.
The big project they are working on now is getting Internet to the park as a whole, which Hornbein says will help, "eliminate the information hierarchy." He explains that right now, the media area has the computers and the connection, but because "they have a job to do," it is cut off from everyone else. "We're trying to create this model society but at the same time we're recreating some of the bad things," he says. "Our big concern is to get Internet to the rest of the park."
The Internet table is in its first day, but Hornbein has been working as part of this committee since July, when the call to Occupy Wall Street first went out from AdBusters. He says he used to work as a freelance graphic designer, but quit as soon as he heard about this protest, "I was working on this dinky little e-commerce site that gets 500 hits a day," he said. "Now I am working on a site that is getting 50,000 to 100,000."
History News Network: How did the press tables get started/organized?
Mark Bray: Although there was a press working group before I really got involved, it was only shortly after I got involved in the press group that having a specific site started. At first we made a sign to have by a table, but now with the re-organization of the park we have a table next to the legal, info, and outreach tables. At first press didn't know we existed, but now we are a regular fixture for them and when someone isn't at the table for a moment they really freak out. They have become so reliant on us that they often don't put in any effort themselves to walk around and speak with people but instead ask us for two nurses and a teacher or whatever they want.
Turnstyle: In midst of the frenzy at Zuccotti Park, under a giant pink umbrella, a small group of Occupy Wall Street protesters hover over laptops surrounded by mounds of equipment covered in blue tarps. A beaten up cardboard sign rests at their feet, the word "media" written in Magic Marker. This is the Occupy Wall Street media headquarters.
Colin Laws is a 19-year-old here from Connecticut who came to OWS to help the media team. "We got people that monitor social media such as Twitter and Facebook, people that monitor the news, people that Livestream," he said. "That's a huge thing, actually, because that's how get a lot of our news out to our followers."
A week ago, Laws was one of those Livestream followers, watching the streaming video of Zucotti park over the internet. And then after weeks of just watching the Global Revolution Livestream channel, he sold his TV and all of his video games and bought a bus ticket to New York.
The Observer: Barbara Ross, the eloquent and crunchy-pretty spokeswoman for the environmental organization Time's Up!, told The Observer that the profusion of citizen journalists among the protesters was a mixed blessing. They provided a lot of raw photo and video, which allowed her to be stationary and keep an eye on the equipment. Even in the calm before and after the arrests, security is dicey.
She had to remove one attendee she believed was covering the protest, she said, when she saw him zooming and focusing his lens on the screen of a team member's laptop as they entered a password.
Occupy Wall Street's media output is critical to keeping the demonstration inclusive, accessible, and democratic, but the content of the demonstration is a secondary concern for the live stream, according to Ms. Ross. (How many will tune in for another hour of drum circles and acoustic ballads?) The documentation doesn't really become important until things go wrong.
Vlad Teichberg, a 38-year-old Russian Ã©migrÃ© and self-described "media activist," staged similar media operations at the Republican National Convention and G8 Summit. With Ms. Ross, he helped document the monthly cyclist demonstration Critical Mass. Video footage of the Friday night group rides was crucial in 2008, when it served as proof that the cyclist Christopher Long, who had been charged with assault, was in fact a victim of police brutality. NYPD later paid a $965,000 settlement to cyclists who were wrongly arrested.
With a viral video and a shamed cop, the obscure social event for environmentalists and DIY kids became front page local news. Now, it's a launch pad for bigger targets.
"We've been using the monthly Critical Mass rides to train media warriors," Mr. Teichberg said.
Andrew Katz: At two o'clock in the morning on Thursday, Nov. 3, two members of the Occupy Wall Street media team, Justin Wedes and a woman named Victoria, who declines to give her last name, decide it is time to head to what Wedes calls the team's "super-secret lair." They hail a taxi. Wedes hands the cabbie a small paper with the address.
So few people, both in and outside the movement, appear to know about the off-site media operations center that when journalists are granted access, they are blindfolded with a maroon scarf and told the precise location is off the record.
Ten minutes later, the cab stops outside a rundown building in NoHo. Up the stairs and down a hallway, three men and a woman, all in their late twenties and thirties, are fixated on the monitors in front of them. They're using, at turns, a third-party Twitter application or running a live feed from Oakland, Calif., that's streaming a late-night clash between police and protestors.
The office serves as headquarters for globalrevolution.tv, a live video feed hosted on Livestream that's become a go-to source for national Occupy Wall Street footage. It is a crowded space that looks as if it were thrown together by a bunch of college kids. There are a few desks littered with wires and food containers. Shelving units hold enough laptops and tech equipment to approximate a small newsroom. The room is long and narrow with paint-cracked walls and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the street.
Brooklyn Ink AK: Describe your typical day, from dawn to dusk, with Occupy Wall Street.
Justin Wedes: Well, there's no typical day. But I think if I had to summarize or kind of approximate what a typical day would be, I would say that around 9 a.m., my alarm goes off. I have some tea. I tweet a little bit. I check my email. I try to eat something. Then I usually meet up with the media team, either here on-site or at our off-site location; check in with people with the Livestream, with social media; check in with the PR team to see if they've got any press releases or things that they want me to help push online; and then come through the park; have lunch in the park and talk with people; interview people on Twitterâ€”on the new occupier hashtag so that they get introduced to other occupiers onlineâ€”and then usually in the afternoon we have working group meetings. For example, the media team will meet, or the Arts & Culture committee, or the Community Relations committee.
Later on, we'll have General Assembly in the evening at seven and I try to tweet those, too, or at least help coordinate who's live-tweeting each General Assembly so that people can stay informed. Also helping the media team and tech people put up new forms of interactive technology for the General Assembly, like projection screens and online polling and text responses and all of these things we're trying to build to make it more interactive. And then in the evening if I'm lucky, I'll get a chance to relax a little bit with folks here at camp, or maybe go meet up with some folks, or speak at a forum or a workshop in other places to do outreach, like at local colleges or local events and just kind of get the word out about what we're doing. And then usually in the late-night, I'm back here at Zuccotti and doing like late-night media round-up: looking at the news of the day, doing question-answer sessions on the Livestreamâ€”people like to do thatâ€”and yeah, one or two or three in the morning, or maybe I just stay the whole night, I usually head back to Brooklyn and try to get some sleep.
AK: How do you build engagement and which platform is producing the best result?
JW: You get engagement in a couple ways. One, by telling compelling stories and narratives. So, like the little short jokes that kind of reveal a small truth about the occupation, or about politics in our country, or about the state of our democracy, or whatever. People tend to retweet those and really dialogue with you on these.
We've had some really fun kind of dialogues going, like, for example: Michael Bloomberg won't tweet about us, but he said multiple times in public that he's having trouble finding people to negotiate with and talk with. And it's so ironic because if he just tweeted at us, he'd probably get a lot of engagement. But he refuses to, and so we tweeted that because he refuses to acknowledge us on Twitter, we're going to start negotiating with @ElBloombito, who is the Spanish parody of Michael Bloomberg. And we've had some interesting back-and-forth there.
I think the other point of engagement is when people really feel that rights are being violated. So when like police crack down on encampmentsâ€”peaceful protestorsâ€”that becomes a flash point and a big issue and generates a lot of social media buzz, but also concrete action. People will call mayors' offices, will call police departments, they'll call the Real Estate Board of New York when they learn the Real Estate Board of New York is going to put pressure on the city to close privately owned public parks like this one from one to five in the morning because they see that as a direct attack on the openness of these spaces. Twitter has been instrumental. Early on, it was our best tool. Now, in combination with the Livestream and combination with traditional media, blogging, Tumblr, Facebook, it's a very powerful tool that we have.
National Review: Even as Zuccotti Park has become a sea of troubles, it has been regarded as unsporting to bring up its obnoxious elements, as if to report on the dark side is to tar all associates unfairly with the same brush. But the unpleasant are demonstrably in attendance, and are no longer necessarily in the minority. I asked a "press representative," named Justin, how many of those in the park he considered to be genuinely part of his movement, and was surprised to hear him say "less than 50 percent."
Mother Jones: In San Francisco's Justin Herman Plaza on Monday afternoon, a group of young, ragtag tech wizards sat among a tangle of electrical cords and surge protectors. This was the Occupy SF Media Team, which has been live-streaming video from the downtown location as much as possible in recent days. It has its own website and Kickstarter campaign to raise $5,000 in the coming week. While other protesters wandered around barefoot or strummed acoustic guitars waiting for the next general assembly meeting, the media team provides videos of the event and edited a radio story about Sunday night's police raid for the Berkeley station KPFA.
They work with everyone at the protest, but they aren't always in sync with other participants. At a Monday afternoon meeting of the general assembly, members of the media team were shooed away when they brought their recording equipment. "They booted me out of committee when they saw the microphone," said Kyle Lesley, 30, an audio engineer. "They said, 'We didn't vote on that.'"
Some members of the media team express qualms about the amorphous nature of the protest. "Roles are necessary because they create the movement, they are the movement," said Kames Geraghty, 20, a web developer. "Active participation is important. Talking alone is not participation." Beside him, a white Apple laptop boasted a message in black permanent marker, Ã la Woodie Guthrie: "This machine kills fascists."
Inside the Occupy Boston Media Struggle: Without much infrastructure in place â€” its primary Web site, occupyboston.org, was still in early stages of development â€” the media team found itself the focus of national attention. Swooping in to help, veteran Web activists from groups like the Independent Media Center and Global Revolution, both of which had already helped power Occupy Wall Street's message, also put Boston on full blast.
Despite the viral myth that there was a media "blackout" at the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, there were in fact hundreds of stories posted during the first days that protesters took Zuccotti Park â€” including sympathetic coverage from such mainstream outlets as the Guardian and ABC. So by the time that Occupy hit Boston two weeks later, local, national, and even international media were poised to swarm like paparazzi.
Occupy Wall Street's media ops have come under scrutiny, with a widely syndicated Associated Press story from last week noting a "chaotic and complicated relationship with [outside] media." In their turn, Occupy Boston has tried to learn from New York's PR wins and errors. Gunner Scott, a seasoned activist and executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, has handled the bulk of the press releases. Recently, multiple Twitter jockeys were finally given access to all house accounts, so that they can crowd-source coverage and amplify concurrent happenings.
In the coming weeks, the media team plans to conduct internal demographic surveys in order to help outside outlets get their facts straight. Mazen also says they'll concentrate on disseminating more videos. All this while press inquiries haven't slowed down â€” they still get dozens of calls every day, and spend time correcting lazy journalists and deflecting slanderous conservative trolls.
...they are aware of their shortcomings, the most significant of which is a glaring digital divide among occupiers. Despite the Limbaugh line that they all pack iPhones, most Dewey Square campers lack Web access. Technological inequities have even caused breakdowns; just last week the media tent was occupied by members of the direct-action committee, who demanded more access to electricity.
"For a long time, we were saying that there weren't enough people of color, or enough LGBTQ people," says Mazen. "But overall we're also working with people who barely text, let alone vote on a Wiki. If we really want to represent the 99 percent, we have to think about how we can disseminate through low-tech means. It's like a lot of other things: we're working on it, but we just haven't gotten there yet."