Democratic filters for Indymedia
I observed the birth of Indymedia in 1999 with guarded optimism. I understood the immense need of the progressive movement for a web-based news service to which anyone could contribute (and had proposed that activists take action to create such a news service in the first installment, in May 1997, of my "Party of the Future" series):
I also understood that many obstacles would need to be overcome in order for a news service like Indymedia to fulfill its potential to become, for many millions, a real alternative to corporate news.
... along with its problems
Indymedia has been a striking success -- with more than a hundred locally controlled branches throughtout the world and a section of IMCistas (ie: indymedia activists) working to create a news service which is not controlled by the bourgeoisie. But the obstacles which stand between what exists now -- and the goal of a news service which provides a real alternative to millions -- remain. These obstacles will not go away overnight. More to the point, these obstacles will not go away without struggle.
The obstacles which block indymedia's development are related to (and similar to) the obstacles which are holding back the antiwar movement and other mass resistance movements: a lack of consciousness of the irreconciliable class antagonism which determines everything else in our society. Indymedia will develop as a result of the same social and class forces which will push forward the development of all the mass resistance movements -- for it is these movements which gave birth to indymedia. And the struggle for a news service that can effectively challenge corporate/bourgeois news -- is one front of struggle among many.
2. My experience with Indymedia
I first became directly involved with Seattle Indymedia in 2003. I had gotten pissed off at the increasing amount of neo-nazi spam (and also other kinds of spam -- but the neo-nazi stuff pushed my level of rage over the top) on the newswire. I attended one of the monthly editorial meetings and voiced my complaint. "Neo-nazi shit has no place on the newswire" I told the editorial people. I learned that they did not really give a damn.
What I heard was typical liberal excuses
How could this be possible? Indymedia was not created by a bunch of whiny liberals. Indymedia emerged in 1999 amid a storm of struggle by militant activists who were determined to shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks here in Seattle. This could not be their attitude. What had happened?
I learned that most of the fire that had created indymedia had moved on. What remained was not the fire--but the ashes: people without militancy who had hung around or joined up later out of an appreciation of the careerist potential of an institution like indymedia.
We'll show you censorship!
My protests at the time, however, did have one unexpected result. The indymedia editorial people made use my criticism of their liberal squemishness about censorship -- to rationalize and justify hiding posts related to the struggle of the Palestinian people.
This led to more conflict between the indymedia editorial collective and me (and others) -- on the newswire and at their meetings. It was at this time that I joined the email list that existed to discuss editorial issues at Seattle indymedia. I made my first posts to the list in October 2003.
Not long afterward, by December 2003 -- the local indymedia group collapsed due to the weight of their own incompetence and illusions. The expensive downtown storefront drop-in center on 3rd avenue (rent was $3,000 a month) had to be abandoned. This had never been needed in the first place -- and existed because of typical anarchist illusions in building centers of so-called "dual power". More than this -- the need to constantly raise money for the rent -- had transformed the main priority of the indymedia group to "fund-raising" (ie: crawling on their hands and knees to get donations from rich, guilty liberals and city officials with grant money). The whole thing collapsed once the militancy was gone -- because wealthy local liberals no longer had a class need to nourish these kinds of stupid illusions.
In the midst of financial and organizational embarassment, burnout and scandal -- most of the editorial group quit. The one guy who remained was "locked out" (ie: he came back from vacation and discovered that his password to the indymedia servers no longer worked) and outmaneuvered by the new person (whom I will call "Lady Macbeth" -- because my readers expect me to give them the straight dope) who took over and who now controls Seattle Indymedia.
Lady Macbeth was competent and, for a long while, kept the newswire clean of the kind of neo-nazi spam that had so pissed off me and many other activists.
But the collective character of the local indymedia group was gone -- replaced by an editorial group that appears to consist only of Lady Macbeth and one other person who tends to be somewhat passive. And the character of the indymedia editorial email list changed also. Instead of being a list which reflected and enabled discussion of different opinions -- the list became dead. There is more life in a squirrel on the road that has been run over a few thousand times.
Lady Macbeth gives me
I first met Lady Macbeth in January or February 2005 at one of the monthly Indymedia editorial meetings (such meetings were still taking place at the time). I presented some ideas for how the spam problem (and more generally the signal-to-noise problem) on the newswire could be solved via software that would allow each reader to create his or her own filter -- and to then share that filter with other readers who would have a choice of filters (or who could combine filters -- or could choose to use no filter at all) when viewing the newswire. Since my proposal was difficult to understand, I agreed to write it up in a more formal way. The resulting proposal (and key mockups) can be seen at:
In November of last year, Lady Macbeth, for some reason, gave
In the late January or early February of 2006, however, when the neo-nazis started organizing (or trying to organize) rallies here in Seattle and Olympia and also in Florida -- neo-nazi posts and comments in the newswire started flooding the newswire. I got pissed off at this -- but did not take any action -- until this sorry state of affairs had continued for about a month -- and two people (whose identities remain unknown to me) posted a newswire item with the title: "Boycott Indymedia". They were pissed off about the neo-nazi posts (and the general failure of Lady Macbeth to keep right-wing spam and trolls off the newswire).
Myself and several other people (including many whom I know and sometimes work with) posted to these existing threads and complained about the failure of the editorial person to keep neo-nazi spam off the newswire. Worse than this -- we publically asked the indymedia editors to put a post on this topic in the center column -- so that Indymedia readers would have a better chance to see it and participate in discussion.
This is the point where Lady Macbeth brought out the stick.
Lady Macbeth responds to
Much of what happened from this point forward can be seen in the threads below: rather than reply directly to the criticisms that were being made (and rather than giving this issue center column treatment -- so that more readers would have an opportunity to learn about and contribute to the discussion) Lady Macbeth began to post anonomously (and also under a variety of pseudonyms) and, pretending to be a reader, asked the Indymedia editor (who of course was actually herself) to ban me from the newswire.
Very clever of her: that way -- when she deletes my posts and comments -- she can act as if she is merely responding to the "voice of the people".
Lady Macbeth also, in one instance, created a newswire post in my name, using text that I had written in a previous post (that she had previously deleted from the newswire) -- except that she (1) took my comments out of context and (2) made strategic changes: substituting, for example, "Green Party" in places where I had used "Democratic Party". Many Indymedia readers thought that I had actually made that post -- because the sentence flow and structure and tone were typical of my posts. Other readers were not fooled by this calculated disinformation.
Lady Macbeth also claimed that I was plotting to "hijack" indymedia and that, once I did so, I would not allow trade union activists to post news of their struggles.
She also said that I was a "provocateur" (ie: a word most often used to describe a police agent used against the movement) and that I had a history of attacking and disrupting activist organizations. At one point she even claimed that we might be seeing "tens of thousands of people hitting the street each week" if it were not for my sabotage of the antiwar movement.
As if this was not enough, Lady Macbeth concluded with a statement that managed to be both patronizing and bizarre:
"Be afraid, little children. The Nazis areI could continue and list the various untrue things that she said about me -- but I don't want to waste the time of readers. (Anyone who is interested can follow the links below.) I will only add that she said one thing about me that, from the class perspective of this corrupt gatekeeper -- is completely true.: She said that I was one of a few "out of control locals" (ie: I was neither bribed by her carrot nor afraid of her stick).
The unwritten rule, I have learned, is that the indymedia newswire cannot be used for critical discussion of indymedia policies. For example, comments I have posted that link to this page (ie: supposedly an "anti-Seattle IMC website") have been deleted or encountered mysterious "technical glitches" that left everything else intact while breaking the functionality of all links to this page.
I wrote Lady Macbeth a calm and diplomatic letter in which I made an effort to politely suggest that it would be better if she did not engage in these kinds of childish stunts. Note: my letter was not at all like this essay (where I am obviously not holding anything back) but was a model of self-restraint. As expected, I got no answer.
I engaged in brief correspondence with indymedia activists in two other west coast cities. Both of them recognized that the indymedia situation here in Seattle is not ideal -- but both also made clear (by discontinuing the discussion) that they did not feel comfortable becoming involved in any public controversy related to Indymedia.
That is more or less where matters stand right now.
My dispute with Lady Macbeth is something more than a personality conflict or flame war (and aside from calling her "Lady Macbeth" -- I have made an effort to treat her with respect and to describe her actions objectively). There are politics involved.
I want the indymedia newswire to be a powerful weapon in the hands of progressive activists. I also oppose the influence of the imperialist Democratic Party and understand that the movement can only become powerful when the bottom-up actions and energies of activists are fully unleashed. (We must do everything possible to liberate the energy of ordinary activists -- because no condescending saviors are going to lift a finger to help us build the movement.)
The bottom line here is that this is not a collision of personalities -- but rather is a collision of agendas.
I asked the Portland indymedia activists if they would set up a topic category for Seattle on their site (ie: just as they have for many other topic categories). That way, Seattle issues could be discussed on the Portland site without encountering the friction and restrictions caused by:
The Portland activists did not reject this idea -- and indicated that at some point they might consider this. If you believe that this suggestion would be necessary or useful -- you can write them and let them know.
Indymedia must be run in
The attitudes and actions of Lady Macbeth are similar to to those of an arrogant landlord. She is dishonest and manipulative partly (it would appear) because that is her character. But there is also a more important reason: she acts the way she does because she can -- because it is so easy for her to get away with it.
Indymedia -- which holds potential to expose all that is corrupt and rotten in our society -- to make our society politically transparent is not, itself, run in a transparent manner. This is why this kind of dishonest manipulator can so easily secure an ownership position in such a franchise.
The problem here is not that a dishonest and manipulative person owns the local franchise. That is only a symptom of the problem -- the visible tip of the iceburg (95 percent of which is always submerged).
We live in a class-divided society. This means that any significant institution or organization will attract careerists and opportunists -- who will seek to secure their positions by means of alliance with the dominant political establishment. (In the part of the political ecosystem in which Indymedia exists -- the dominant political establishment tends to be the left wing of the imperialist Democratic Party and its "green" fringes.)
Lady Macbeth was (in my opinion) installed in the local Indymedia -- and part of her job, so to speak, is to keep Indymedia safe from activists who are "out of control" (ie: who do not act with the proper deference to the reformist political trends that, unfortunately, dominate the progressive movements). Lady Macbeth could be discarded like a used kleenex if her political sponsers conclude that she is a liability (ie: too clumsy and obvious in her gatekeeping role) -- but the problems with indymedia would likely remain.
This is one reason I believe that indymedia, in order to fulfil its potential, must be run in an open manner by an open collective -- which activists have a right to join. The content and policies of indymedia (including the rules for what is censored from the newswire and what appears in the center column) must be subject to an open and democratic process -- which is visible to all activists. All activists must have the right to take part in this process of open struggle.
Seattle (and other cities) will eventually have news services that meet the needs of the progressive community -- and the struggle to overthrow the entire system of bourgeois rule. Whether these news services will evolve out of indymedia -- or emerge independently of indymedia -- or some combination of these possibilities -- is unknown to me. But it will happen. The revolution in communications is still quite young. The mass resistance movements are still small and contained -- because a critical mass of activists does not yet understand that irreconciliable class antagonisms form the foundation of everything else.
So development will take time. But it will happen.
Your comments are needed and appreciated. Critical discussion of the principles and policies that must guide indymedia is not allowed on the indymedia newswire. But we can talk about these things here.
Ben Seattle May 9, 2006
3. some links
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