Chapter Five. Challenges Facing the IMC Network
Media activist Andrea Buffa has called the Indymedia movement “the most exciting development in national progressive media of the last 15 years” (“National Progressive Media…”). Long-time activist and media producer Michael Albert wrote in a Znet commentary that the network is “an amazing and glorious outgrowth of the anti-[corporate] globalization project” (“New Targets”). Yet these same observers, as well as IMC founders and volunteers at both the local and global levels, also acknowledge that there are significant challenges to overcome before Indymedia can become a viable alternative to mass media. It is one thing to start a media network based on principles of self-management, solidarity, and communicative democracy and quite another thing to sustain it.
Much of what follows is based directly on interviews with IMC organizers and e-mail discussions on global Indymedia lists. I also consulted numerous proposals written by Indymedia volunteers and reviewed articles, essays, and commentaries written by media activists both inside and outside the network. I’ve organized this chapter into 5 sections, dealing with major challenges facing the network. The are: (1) Networking the Network, which concerns Indymedia’s social structure, decision-making processes, and internal communication; (2) Refining Open Publishing, which discusses software and editorial issues; (3) Diversifying Technologies, which examines the need to create a better “media mesh” between the Internet and traditional media resources; (4) Diversity, Empowerment, and Physical Space, which looks at the importance of creating an environment where people from diverse cultures and social movements can develop strong personal relationships; and (5) Dealing with Counter-movement Forces, which covers threats to the network from local and national governments and reactionary movements.
5.1 Networking the Network
This line of thinking recalls Jo Freeman’s aptly titled essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Though Freeman was describing group dynamics in the feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, her arguments have been applied broadly to other activist groups and networks. Her major contribution was the proposition that all groups, even informal “rap” groups, have some sort of structure that determines how decisions are made. The more a group adheres to the “ideology of structurelessness,” she wrote, “the more vulnerable it is to being taken over by a group of political comrades.” Unless structures and decision-making processes are formalized, Freeman argued, elites within the larger group would, by default, make most of the decisions. It is necessary, then, to make structures explicit and to formalize “the rules of decision-making” so that all have the opportunity to participate, according to Freeman.
5.1.2 Global vs. Local Decisions
5.1.3 Internal Communication
There appear to be four levels of communication within Indymedia; (1) communication among global organizers; (2) communication between local IMCs and global organizers; (3) communication between nearby IMCs; and (4) communication within local IMCs.
For obvious reasons, participants at the fourth level have greater opportunities for face-to-face contact—whether they pursue opportunities or not is another matter—are likely to know the same languages, and share cultural as well as political interests, all of which can lead to stronger personal relationships. This is not to say that local collectives don’t have problems facilitating effective communication, but rather to suggest that they are fairly well placed to resolve many of them.
communication on the second level is more easily conducted in a horizontal
manner through face-to-face gatherings among people with similar cultures. On this front, important progress appears to
have been made in Europe, South America, and some parts of the
5.2 Refining Open Publishing
Much like the debate over global vs. local structure and process, there are divisions within Indymedia over open publishing. Specifically, whether or not the network should institute some global speech standards, or at least clarify the Principles of Unity to state more precisely what its political, and hence speech, values are. “The problems with the IMC's vague politics,” writes IMC activist Chuck Munson, “is (sic) not so much what ideology it should embrace, rather what ideologies and content the IMC Network rejects and opposes” (“The Sad Decline of Indymedia”). As a result of this vagueness, Munson argues, Indymedia has left its Web sites open to abuse from “an international network of right wingers and racists” who have periodically flooded the network with hate speech and misinformation. The Principles of Unity clearly state that IMCs “shall not discriminate” with regards to race, sex, gender, age, or economic class, and they require IMCs to use open publishing software so that the editorial process is transparent. In the absence of any explicit rule defining hate speech, or telling local IMCs they are prohibited from removing or “hiding” posts, many locals have implemented their own policies for dealing with offensive material. In several European countries this has become essential due to hate speech laws that have been enforced on some IMCs.53
Matthew Arnison, a member of the technology collective that developed the original Indymedia open publishing software, prefers to let local IMCs fashion their own editing guidelines. Along with giving them the freedom to respond to national laws and cultural norms, Arnison argues that local autonomy enables IMC software developers to improve their code to make it possible for users to perform what he calls “open editing” (“Open Editing”). Taking a cue from Arnison, Dru Oja Jay, an IMC organizer from Canada, describes open editing as an elaborate system of user-defined filters, story update modules, and content ratings that would transform Indymedia stories “into living documents that can be collaborated on” by Web users (“Open Edit Proposal”). Software capable of doing all of this in a manner that is accessible to non-geeks has not yet been developed, at least not by IMC techs, though some have created elements of it in a promising new program called Dada that many new sites are using.
Another argument in support of open editing is the fear that serious inaccuracies, rumors and de-contextualized information, if not corrected, might drive away new visitors or convince them that Indymedia is just a collection of “kooks” and conspiracy theorists. Case in point illustrated by Schechter: During the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia, a story claiming that progressives had abandoned the struggle of disabled people was posted on the IMC web site and stirred up quite a storm before it was finally dismissed as an inaccurate rant (“As Republicans Meet…”). With a more flexible open editing system in place, a fact-checking visitor or local organizer might have been able to correct the post.
Both Jay and Arnison contend that open editing is the next stage in the evolution of open publishing and suggest that it will help local IMCs manage hate speech without resorting to censorship. Others, including Munson, are not so sure that technology will solve what they consider to be a social problem within Indymedia. “This is a project about people,” Munson said in a telephone interview, “If IMC hasn’t explained itself, no technology will solve problems.” Concerning matters of content created by IMC volunteers—the Features columns—many volunteers support the establishment of training programs to improve research, interviewing, and writing skills. The goal would be to teach basic reporting skills to IMC members—or anyone else in the community for that matter—without “beating the voice out of them,” as so often happens in college journalism programs (Rosenbaum, “Columbia’s J-school…”). Such training projects, of course, are largely contingent on local IMCs having physical space. If spaces are secured, IMCs could also tap experienced alternative media producers to teach a whole variety of skills including: Web design; videography; digital photography; and audio production. In the end, this could bring new voices and perspectives to the network, creating more diverse content and going a long way toward the goal of community empowerment. With this in mind, several collectives have sponsored workshops that include sessions such as “The Basics of News Writing,” “Information Gathering,” and how to use the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to obtain government documents.54
5.3 Diversifying Media Technologies
While Indymedia has clearly established itself an innovator in Web-based media production and distribution, opening up new channels for digital discourse, it may be appropriate to ask whether or not it is problematic for a network committed to communicative democracy and the globalization of peace and justice to be relying so heavily on a medium that, according to a report published in late 2002, only about 10% of the world’s population have access to.55 Another survey in 2001 (Bonisteel, “Billions Have…”) indicated that in technologically advanced countries nearly one-third of the people who could be online are not due to either time constraints or lack of interest in the technology. For those who do go online regularly, mainstream commercial sites affiliated with the largest media conglomerates and portals appear to be the most popular destinations by a wide margin. In 1999, Adamic and Huberman reported that the most popular 5% of Web sites accounted for almost 75% of user volume. Huberman (“Patterns in the World Wide Web”) also observed in 2001 that the top 0.1% of Web sites attracted a staggering 32% of user volume. “Such a disproportionate distribution of user volume among sites,” Huberman explained, “is characteristic of winner-take-all markets, wherein the top few contenders capture a significant part of the market share.”
Could it be that much of the democratic hype surrounding the Internet, in both its “information superhighway” and “cybermall” incarnations, was just that—hype? Or is it the case, as McChesney predicted in 1999, that the once wild and competitive Internet frontier has been tamed by a group of vertically integrated media giants, with the help of Washington, knocking out small entrepreneurs in the process and pushing the non-profit, civic sector “to the distant margins of cyberspace” (Rich Media, Poor Democracy 183)?
5.3.1 Digital Enclosure Movement
A string of developments since the mid 1990s appear to confirm McChesney’s predictions and warnings. First, the original Internet infrastructure, which was built primarily by the public sector through the Department of Defense, was privatized against the wishes of many early designers. Secondly, corporate network operators are building the new (broadband) architecture on “center-to-end” rather than “end-to-end” principles (Lessig). For example, download speeds on broadband connections are many times faster than upload speeds and new, discriminatory routing systems and protocols designed to steer consumers to major content providers are being developed. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has encouraged these developments by exempting broadband providers from “open access” requirements that had been the standard for Internet service providers. Finally, major content providers are using hyper-protective new copyright laws to launch what Benkler calls a modern “enclosure movement” (562). Beyond this, it has been reported that a group of corporate giants and conservative economists has initiated a plan to privatize the entire electromagnetic spectrum, over which nearly all communication in the future will be transmitted (Rifkin, “Mayday, Mayday…”).
Might these state/corporate policies help us understand the recent weak performance—in strict corporate terms of ad revenue and profit—and subsequent collapse of several “stand-alone” commercial online news ventures, while those affiliated with major media companies have been able, for the most part, to survive the bursting of the tech bubble (Kurtz, “Is Online Journalism…”)? If so, what will they mean for non-commercial Web-based media, especially those connected to progressive social movements—how much further to the margins can they be pushed? And do these developments herald a call for IMC organizers to become more involved in policy activism aimed at halting the digital enclosure movement?
Whichever direction the Internet
takes, it is clear that even if universal access were miraculously achieved in
the short-term, there is no guarantee that new web surfers would find IMC Web
sites or even venture far from their commercial portals and “gated” online
communities. Thus Indymedia activists
face a critical dilemma: The Internet, as it’s currently structured, has
greater interactive potential than any other medium available, and it has the
greatest distribution, theoretically, yet it is not very accessible to those
whose voices are most noticeably absent from the mass media, and it is unclear
when, if ever, it will become widely accessible in the future. It might even become less accessible, at
least in the broadband form, to the information “have-nots” in both the global
South and in North America and
5.3.2 The Power of Radio
As mentioned in
chapter 3, many IMCs have created newspapers and video documentaries to reach
wider audiences. In many instances
they’ve empowered audiences to become writers and video producers themselves. No doubt those projects should continue to
grow. At the same time, though, perhaps
the most important medium for Indymedia to develop is radio. While many IMCs, including
Finally, from a reporter or broadcaster’s point of view, radio is inexpensive to produce, as well as being more intimate and better suited to logical argument and presentation—there are no images, as with TV, to distract the listener.
5.4 Diversity, Empowerment, and Physical Space
Even if multimedia projects expand and the IMCs reach a greater audience, does that make the network a success? In a mass media sense, yes, it would be considered a success. But Indymedia is not a mass media network; therefore, it does not measure its success in the same manner. The goal of Indymedia is not to be just another audience-producing network, but rather an audience-empowering network. Ideally, each newly empowered audience member would become a regular content producer as well as a more informed and politically involved citizen who would, in turn, reach out to others and empower them, and so on and so on. This is critically important for any network or movement organized and staffed by volunteers.
But can the desired
level of empowerment be achieved if there is no physical meeting space to go
along with the virtual newsrooms, radio broadcasts or newspapers? And what about diversity: are
underrepresented people likely to get involved in a project that doesn’t have a
place for them to meet face-to-face on a regular basis? Co-founder Jeff Perlstein recognizes how
important it is for the IMCs to establish community centers similar to the
5.5 Dealing with Counter-movement Forces
Aside from being
occasionally inundated with posts from hate groups and other reactionary
elements, Indymedia, like other components of the global justice movement,
faces the prospect of increased government surveillance and repression. On at least one occasion state power has been
violently unleashed on IMC volunteers.
In July 2001, members of the Italian state police raided the IMC
convergence center in
There have also been
other less-violent, or non-violent, episodes where authorities have arrested
and threatened violence on Indymedia volunteers, many of whom were covering an
event. In other cases, authorities have tried to prevent IMCs from producing
and distributing dissident content. An article in the July/August 2001 issue of
Clamor magazine documented numerous such incidents, which Indymedia
volunteers say are reminiscent of tactics used by the
In the wake of 9-11, additional concerns about state surveillance and
repression have arisen in discussions among IMC organizers. Of particular concern is the USA-PATRIOT Act,
which gives the
Several widely circulated papers by military analysts Arquilla and
Ronfeldt appear to confirm this sentiment.58 Using numerous case studies, including the
51 The network did accept a $50,000 donation from the musical group Chumbawumba even though the money originated from General Motors. The band had received the money in exchange for allowing GM to use one of their tunes in a car commercial. Chumbawamba, which is organized much like an anarchist collective, wanted to donate their “dirty money” to activist groups involved in anti-corporate work. IMC organizers accepted because they felt the money was coming more from Chumbawamba than directly from GM. See Iain Aitch, “General Motors gets tub-thumped,” Salon, Jan. 2, 2002, http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2002/01/30/chumbawamba/index.html.
53 In early 2002, the Switzerland IMC was taken offline after being sued by an organization that objected to the posting of what it termed an anti-Semitic cartoon. See Roving, “Indymedia Three Years On.”
54 These particular sessions were part of a one-day media workshop in January 2003 presented by the Pittsburgh IMC. A copy of the program guide can be found on their Web site, http://pittsburgh.indymedia.org.
55 See Michael Katz, “Look for 1-billion Web users by ’05,” Media Life Magazine, Aug. 16, 2002 http://www.medialifemagazine.com/news2002/aug02/aug12/5_fri/news4friday.html.
56 Ruggiero (Microradio
and Democracy 43) describes aquascalientes as community convergence
centers used for holding political meetings, cultural events and sharing
news. For more on the Zapatista movement
see Tom Hayden (ed.) The Zapatista Reader.
57 In February 2003, the Pittsburgh IMC, for example, obtained office space in a building operated by a local artists’ collective.
58 The authors are analysts with the Rand Corporation, a California-based think tank that advises government and military planners.