Flameout of the Armchair Radicals

An ugly spat between leftist media factions demonstrates why giving everyone their say isn't always the best idea.

So there are these coked-out white-boy techies, okay? And they’re, like, ruining shit for everybody and being all authoritarian and manipulating the process, and they’d better watch out or someone’s gonna meet ’em in a dark alley, if you know what I mean. But then there’s this stalker chick who can’t get over her breakup and used to spend all night kicking on her ex’s front door while the neighbors threatened to call the cops. And speaking of cops, the people who spread this kind of innuendo just might be feds running a COINTELPRO-style rat-fucking on us, especially those dirty East Bay hippies who hang out at the Long Haul and never bathe, like it’s some sort of revolutionary act. And did you hear about the Long Haul wing nuts who violently threw out that poor guy last month and called him a bitch and displayed an insidious sexism and homophobia under the pretext of “protecting women”?

Welcome to the People’s Media.

The above is just a sample of the elevated discourse you can read on the Web sites of the Bay Area’s Independent Media Center, once the most promising media outgrowth of the international antiglobalization movement.

In 1999, tens of thousands of fair-trade activists, labor and environmental organizers, and anarchists descended on Seattle’s meeting of the World Trade Organization, grinding the summit to a halt and shocking its neoliberal technocrats with the raw power of a mass movement. During those frenetic days, local activists rented a downtown storefront to serve as an alternative media clearinghouse where people could upload their stories directly onto the Web, bypassing the filter of the corporate press. Soon, “Indymedia” offices and Web sites were springing up in cities from San Francisco to Jerusalem, offering news stories with a radical perspective and announcing protest actions.

It was a new, hyperdemocratic kind of media organization, one that could finally break the stranglehold of the corporate media and return information to the people. Leftist activists everywhere were invigorated with a new sense of possibility.

More than four years later, the Bay Area’s Indymedia effort is teetering on the edge of chaos. A group largely affiliated with the East Bay radical scene has split from the San Francisco group and set up its own Web site and organization, and the two warring factions now waste hours posting catty little snipes at each other. Under the cover of Internet anonymity, people who claim to be in the know accuse their rivals of petty slights, internalized phobias of every stripe, and even vaguely worded criminal deeds. Indymedia has degenerated from a radical new form of media into a Fellini-esque carnival of white noise and bitchery. And it’s all democracy’s fault.

If you’re wondering what caused the East Bay group, now known as “Indybay,” to secede from its San Francisco union, don’t bother trying to find out. First of all, the Indybay folks refuse to actually call themselves an East Bay group, and have denounced the attempts by their former Indymedia colleagues to assign them geographic specificity as a plot to dismiss the breakaway faction. So even figuring out who’s who is next to impossible. Second, none of the Indybay volunteers will speak to the press, and no Indymedia members returned messages seeking comment. Instead, people who may or may not be affiliated with either organization post all sorts of allegations on both groups’ Web sites without leaving their names or any way to verify their occasionally libelous claims. So what they’re fighting about remains a mystery.

I tried real hard to figure out why everyone is so pissed off. I even posted a notice on both Web sites (Indybay.org and SF.indymedia.org) explaining who I was and asking anyone in the know to contact me and explain what’s going on. Alas, no one picked up the phone. Instead, various posters called me a “fucking asshole,” a “shitty writer,” a “journalistic parasite,” a “kiss-ass sell-out wannabe yuppie” and, worst of all, a future lawyer. Here’s the money quote: “I move that Chris Thompson be permanently banned from this site. What’s next — will we let him start trying to convince us how great Starbucks coffee is? He’s cultivated himself into a boring hipster neocon, racking up bourgeois credibility while discrediting the possibilities of radical or even revolutionary change.”

Well, I’ve heard worse — even on this site. The point is that no one in Indymedia’s potentially large audience can make sense of why the organization has fractured. Judging from the countless posts about the split, the only clear truth seems to be that everyone is being childish. See if you can follow this: According to a post by one Indybay partisan, a few Indymedia techies moved the site to a new server “so they could bully the group into doing whatever they wanted.” Future members of the Indybay collective got mad and, after a few weeks of professional mediation, the two groups split up. Then, according to another poster, who may or may not be in a position to know, the Indymedia people refused to hand over ownership of the new group’s URL, wouldn’t link prominently to Indybay.org, and locked the Indybay people out of their office.

Meanwhile, people who may or may not be part of the Indymedia collective claim that the Indybay people are saying mean things about them. “It is unfortunate that so many ‘anarchists’ fall victim to the authoritarianism of social pressure and scene gossip,” wrote one man or woman — or possibly someone outside the gender continuum. “If you are going to work with [Indybay] people or projects, you should know that they are intentionally misleading people and trying to get them to be their ‘proxy agents’ — for instance, they will overwhelm someone with gossip and convince them that there is no other side to the story, and they try to get them to send e-mails to lists or talk to people.”

What kind of mean things could Indybay folks be saying to their former comrades? Check out this juicy little post (all misspellings and typos included verbatim): “Ok, so to remind you coked up white boyz of a few things, this is a PUBLIC site, with supposed PUBLIC meetings, made by the people who don’t like and cannot access corperate media … you two slimy fucks are the only ones i know posting shit about people, not respecting the split or your own damn agreements and making and spreading the most insane shit on your own site. your site has never been a public space, it has always been straight white male techi dominated, and if you want to bust on activists, take a look at your own pathetic coked out upper middle class individualist selves! … id watch my ass if I were you.”

Of course, this isn’t the sum total of Indymedia’s character. Both Web sites still post announcements of demos and leftist cultural events, as well as original reporting and news culled from other media outlets. But its many problems are so systemic as to have been replicated across the country. According to Geov Parrish, a Seattle Weekly reporter who has followed the Indymedia movement since its inception, the very first office that inspired this global phenomenon shut down for good last month. The reasons Parrish gives are all too familiar: In addition to hanging on to an expensive office, he says, “the group was extremely cliquish, extremely insular, and they had very poor relations with people who produced media elsewhere in Seattle. They drove a lot of people off. It essentially just devolved into the personalities.”

In fact, overseas Indymedia establishments in places such as Bolivia and South Africa are reportedly thriving, even as so many American offices collapse into infighting and bickering. The reason, Parrish suggests, is that thanks to the relative paucity of Internet use in those countries, Indymedia volunteers are simply more professional and less preoccupied with sectarian squabbles. “They fill a very different role in the online culture,” he says. “Depending on the location, you might have far fewer media than here in the US. You don’t have things like talk radio, you don’t have as much Internet usage, so the audience isn’t so much domestic as it is the rest of the world. You tend to get people who are older.”

A Perfect Storm of personality disorders frequently converges on anonymous online forums. Such communication almost always degenerates into petulant flaming. Political extremists are obsessed with ideological rigidity and horrified by apostasy, and First World affluence has created a leisure class of armchair radicals with plenty of time to dwell on inconsequential details. What makes Indymedia particularly susceptible to these dynamics is the very thing its founders promised to bring to news reporting: democracy.

That’s the thing about the media — it filters. It’s a sieve between information and people, in which unelected, typically invisible folks such as editors and reporters separate news from data, conclusions from pabulum, truth from libel. Removing the sieve creates a cacophony of static, in which facts, rhetoric, and lies blur together — something akin to what happens when you look too closely at a Georges Seurat painting. This is exactly what the Indymedia folks did with their policy of “open publishing,” in which anyone can post anything purporting to be news, without editing.

Even before this little catfight, the Indymedia Web site was top-heavy with Jew-baiting, pro-Zionist hyperbole, and right-wing screeds, all of which volunteers spent hours deleting. But because deleting the offending posts would violate the ethic of democratic media, all the messages are cached on a special Web page, so you still can see what you’re missing. Or take the collectives’ governance structure of “consensus minus one,” in which the group makes all decisions in one big room, and is paralyzed if two people object to any given resolution. I still don’t know why Indymedia split into two irreconcilable camps, but I bet this system has something to do with it.

Last week, New York Times Russia correspondent Seth Mydans published an interesting story about the liabilities of “People Power” movements in Georgia, Serbia, and the Philippines. He noted that while the triumph of everyday citizens over entrenched power can be an inspiring thing — at least in the short term — such popular revolts also weaken the behavioral restraints that hold societies together in the long term. Indymedia is a different kind of people-power experiment and, so far, it seems to be no better off than Manila. Unless the various Indymedia shards figure out that too many unfiltered voices merely poison the well of discourse, they may splinter into yet more pieces. Of course, that would mean abandoning the very principle that created them.

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