Saturday, February 15, 2003 was an unprecedented day in world history. From sunrise to sunset, an estimated thirty million people in nearly 800 cities across the globe hit the streets in a coordinated effort to stop the US-led war on Iraq. F15, as the anti-war protest became known, remains the largest global demonstration in history.
Like all protests, F15 was orchestrated by a movement. And this movement did something unprecedented for its time: it used the internet to coordinate a coalition of hundreds of popular organizations across the world. In fact, the real mouthpiece of F15 was a grassroots network called Indymedia, composed of around 200 local “independent media centers” (IMCs) that published citizen journalism on the web.
Indymedia had launched three years earlier in Seattle during the protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999. Within a few years, it grew to become a global collection of community-run newsrooms devoted to covering social and political issues from a left-wing perspective. Indymedia maintained a global website at indymedia.org, which aggregated content from the many place-based Indymedia sites that were run by the local IMCs, such as indybay.org, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The project was volunteer-run and committed to anti-corporate journalism. And, prefiguring the explosion of social media, Indymedia emphasized user-generated storytelling, as captured by the slogan: Don’t hate the media, be the media.
On the day of the F15 protests, the headline on the global Indymedia website read: “Millions March Worldwide to Denounce Bush’s War Plan.” The article listed more than eighty protests worldwide, with links to the associated stories from the local Indymedia sites. Following the initial story, there was a regional roundup, which went into greater depth about the protests in different parts of the world, alongside a collage with over 200 photos from across the globe.
“Indymedia, with reports for all of the biggest demonstrations and many of the smallest, wove hundreds of separate actions into a single story,” wrote New York City Indymedia activists Josh Breitbart and Mike Burke in a piece for Clamor magazine. “As popular uprisings from around the world begin to coordinate their actions, [I]ndymedia is proving to be an essential tool for imagining this new community.” As Breitbart and Burke suggest, F15 would not have been possible without Indymedia. It is not a stretch to say that Indymedia gave form to the global anti-war movement in 2003, just as it gave form to the anti-globalization movement a few years earlier.
History has sped up since 2003. In the decades since, the world has witnessed multiple interlocking calamities—from the financial crisis of 2008 and climate change-related disasters to worsening economic inequality, a failed response to Covid-19, and the growing authoritarianism and instability of our flawed democracy. We have also witnessed a powerful organized response to these crises across the world—from the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter and the Umbrella Movement, as well as the growing militancy of the US labor movement.
Yet, in the current conjuncture—with mobilizations proliferating—a visionary, graspable, commonsense alternative to neoliberalism seems out of reach. Why? And why, twenty years ago, was the antiwar movement of 2003 more unified in its opposition, more coordinated and connected in its resistance, and more coherent in its analysis than contemporary movements?
A large part of the answer is that movements are no longer reported on, and sustained by, a vibrant grassroots media network like Indymedia. Instead, organizers have given up on building their own media infrastructure and embraced corporate social media platforms. In fact, two of the biggest US movements of the last decade—Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter—are known best by their Twitter hashtags.
This reliance on corporate platforms has transformed movement media strategy. Rather than devoting energy to a collective enterprise, individual movement organizations prioritize “getting their message out,” a strategy governed by social capital, competition, and a political economy of clicks. This strategy may sometimes be necessary to achieve certain short-term ends, but it is deeply detrimental to the long-term project of building a meaningful and shared resistance. While we have seen a great deal of movement activity over the last decade, movements have generally been siloed from one another, internally fragmented, and fleeting. This is a direct outcome of their overreliance on corporate social media platforms.
The stark reality is that the media strategy of our social movements has regressed over the past decades. Indymedia represented a far more effective way to use the internet to advance political struggles. While we can’t simply go backwards, any strategy for building a better media strategy requires learning the lessons of the Indymedia era and understanding what was lost in the transition to corporate social media.
Don’t Hate the Media, Be the Media (1994–2005)
The roots of Indymedia lay in Chiapas. It was there, in southern Mexico, that a Mayan peasant movement called the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) announced its “dignified rebellion” to the world in 1994. While waging a guerilla war against the Mexican state over land and life, the Zapatistas and their supporters also began experimenting with the internet.
In particular, they utilized email lists called listservs that had been created for the movement against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to publicize their message. Soon, they created their own listservs, which they used to circulate stories of their struggle across communities and borders, gaining global support, and successfully shifting the balance of power away from the Mexican state. In fact, the online activities of the Zapatistas were so successful that the RAND Corporation published a report for the US military entitled “The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico” (1998). In the report, the authors warned that the Zapatistas were redefining conflict in the information age and that it could have dire consequences, possibly threatening US dominance.
Unlike the RAND Corporation, which was concerned with the disruptive effects of “social netwar,” the Zapatistas saw the internet as a new participatory medium that could create linkages across space and struggle, forging a singular front of resistance. The Zapatista strategy was captured by the phrase “one no, many yeses.” This principle—centered on the idea that a diversity of movements and visions of emancipation could be connected into a unified opposition to capitalism—offered a revolutionary way to think about the internet. Movements could attract support and build alliances by telling their stories online.
To awaken others to these radical possibilities, the Zapatistas hosted an ambitious global “encounter” (encuentro) in Chiapas in the summer of 1996. Movement people from across the world attended, and, in their closing statement, Zapatista leaders famously declared: “We will make a network of communication among all of our struggles and resistances… This intercontinental network of alternative communication will be a medium by which distinct resistances communicate with one another.”
Activists and media-makers across North America and Europe began trying to bring this vision to life. In 1997, the Freeing the Media Teach-In was held in New York City, which included a virtual keynote address from Zapatista spokesman Subcommandante Marcos, where he reiterated the call to build a “network of independent media.” Two years later, in 1999, the Grassroots Media Conference was held in Austin, Texas. It became a strategy session for launching Indymedia, which went online later that year with the first IMC in Seattle.
The Seattle IMC included a newspaper, radio station, and a video collective. But the cornerstone of the IMC was an “open-publishing website” where media-makers and activists could post their stories to the website, and see those stories appear in real time. Today, such user-generated content is ubiquitous, but at the time, Indymedia’s use of it was transformative. As Matthew Arnison, an Australian software engineer who played a pivotal role in building the site, explained, “It seemed like we were opening this huge flower, and all this passion and energy and stories were just pouring through because they had been locked for so long.”
In November 1999, the Seattle IMC helped cover and coordinate the protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle. During the four days of the meetings, the new IMC website received over 1.5 million hits, outpacing CNN for the same amount of time. The protests put Indymedia on the map. The model captured the imagination of activists and journalists, leading to the rapid development of local IMCs from Seoul to São Paulo and the birth of the global Indymedia network.
Indymedia was at once local and global, online and offline. At the base of the network were the local IMCs in cities like Seattle or Buenos Aires, each with their own website. The local sites sent their newsfeeds directly to national sites like Indymedia US or Indymedia Argentina, which in turn sent their newsfeeds to the global Indymedia website. At each level of the network there were editorial teams. The local editorial teams would choose stories to feature from the user-generated content in their open-publishing feeds, the national editorial teams would choose stories to feature from the local newsfeeds, and the global editorial team would choose stories to feature from the national newsfeeds.
Indymedia also had a presence beyond the web, with print, radio, and video projects. And, importantly, in many parts of the world, local IMCs had physical offices where activists and media-makers came together to make decisions, create media, and build community projects. Within five years of launching in 1999, the Indymedia network claimed over 200 locally based “citizen newsrooms,” publishing news (internet, radio, print, and TV) in thirty languages on six continents.
The people who took part in Indymedia saw themselves as participants in the social movements of the day. Paying homage to the Zapatistas, they referred to themselves as IMCistas. Building on the Zapatista concept of “many yeses,” Indymedia emphasized building connections between different movements and struggles. The media infrastructure would be a connective tissue, linking a plurality of voices, histories, and visions into a global “movement of movements” mobilized against capital.
Hashtag Revolutionaries (2005–Present)
Indymedia peaked around 2005 and then began to decline. The biggest reason was the rise of corporate social media platforms. These platforms also deployed user-generated content and the power of networked communication. Their primary goal was not to connect people for the purpose of political struggle, however, but rather to monetize these connections.
Faced with a well-funded corporate adversary, Indymedia quickly lost ground. In the decade between 2004 to 2014, as Eva Giraud notes, nearly 70 percent of IMCs previously functioning were offline or inactive, with others posting just a handful of posts per day. Regionally, that left IMCs across Africa and Asia shuttered, and the numbers dwindling in Latin America, Europe, Oceania, and North America. In roughly the same period, adult engagement with social media grew from 5 percent to 80 percent in the United States. In 2006, Time magazine declared “You” as its Person of the Year, celebrating the growth and influence of user-generated content on platforms like MySpace and Facebook. In 2011, Time’s person of the year was “The Protestor,” celebrating the seemingly ubiquitous digital activist as an agent of change.
This same period saw the emergence of a cycle of social media-powered protests—often known as the “Twitter revolutions.” This cycle began with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in 2009 and 2010. The Arab Spring uprisings, in turn, stoked simmering anti-austerity movements across southern Europe and the Mediterranean. In Spain, a mobilization known as the Indignados occupied the main squares of major cities, proposing radical experiments in direct democracy. This, famously, inspired the assemblies that gave birth to Occupy Wall Street in 2011.
While these movements made use of social media, they often also retained elements of the Indymedia model. The Occupy encampments had their own self-organized media teams, which prioritized grassroots journalism and saw storytelling as a means to deepen people’s political commitments and strengthen their bonds with one another. Social media was important, but not yet hegemonic: it was seen as a bulletin board for announcements of upcoming demonstrations and meetings, as well as requests for support.
As such, Occupy acted as a bridge between two movement media paradigms, combining aspects of the Indymedia model with the tactical use of social media. But in subsequent years, as Occupy receded, the last vestiges of the Indymedia legacy would disappear. As social media’s dominance grew, it began to take on an ever greater role in the media strategy of social movements, from Black Lives Matter in 2013 to Standing Rock in 2016, all the way through the 2020 uprising against the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The dependence on social media came to be total.
Social media has obvious advantages for organizers. It can be used to galvanize attention around an issue and scale up a protest quickly. New participants can be inspired to take action as activist-commentators at unprecedented speed and scale, and in the process, generate extensive global solidarity. As Sarah J. Jackson, Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles argue in #HashtagActivism, social media also gives movements the chance to make important narrative interventions. In some cases, movement use of social media can change the very terms used to frame issues, as with the George Floyd rebellion, which ushered in the wider acceptance of “white supremacy” as part of the conversation surrounding police violence.
But social media also exposes movements to many vulnerabilities. The solidiarities it generates are often superficial: movement use of social media can easily devolve into repetitive messaging in echo chambers without collective gains in narrative power—a change in the stories and values that hold sway in society—or a translation to real-world militancy. In all cases, the logic is determined not by a radical politics of participation and organization, as in the Indymedia model, but by the individual user’s decision to follow, like, comment—in short, pick and choose (within the ruse of algorithmic “choice”) which leaders to listen to and which profiles to amplify. This short-circuits the important but slower work of belonging to—and being responsible to—a movement culture. The small doses of interpersonal connection that social media platforms are built to deliver stand in for collective gains of social power.
Corporate social media platforms are governed by a capitalist logic that exists to make profit, while rewiring our emotional and cognitive dependencies toward that end. Social movements may recruit people through social media, but without real relationship-building, without a sense of shared responsibility, the commitments it mobilizes are weak. Moreover, the information that activists share on social media flows within a broader stream of information about anything and everything, which risks distraction, trivialization, and co-optation. On social media, movements must deal with the constant threat of having their agenda and messaging hijacked by corporate interests, politicians, funding foundations, and mainstream media—all of which was on full display during the George Floyd rebellion.
A further challenge is that the attention economy of the corporate platforms is inherently skewed toward promoting hateful and divisive politics. As Safiya Umoja Noble shows in Algorithms of Oppression, the algorithms that organize these platforms reflect and reproduce gender and racial oppression. They also amplify oppression by creating fertile ground for oppressive forces. To take one example, Jack Z. Bratich’s On Microfascism documents how contemporary far-right mobilizations are often preceded by the networked “microfascism” of loner men who find themselves through the “manosphere,” a collection of online spaces that encourages the performance of misogyny and racial hatred. These dynamics are foundational to the success of far-right movements in the US and internationally.
For the left, this means that social media is not simply neutral terrain to be traversed. Rather, it has a structural bias toward hyperindividualism, demagoguery, and reactionary politics. Creating a resilient movement culture that is sustained by strong personal relationships and a spirit of collective action is difficult to do in such an environment.
Most crucially, when movements become dependent on corporate social media platforms, the capacity to build self-determined media power of their own wanes. And without that power, movements that arise quickly often evaporate just as quickly. This was particularly pronounced in the George Floyd rebellion, which initially put police abolition under a mainstream spotlight, only to be swiftly reduced to reformist talking points. Without their own media infrastructure, movements are at the mercy of corporate media systems of one kind or another, which strongly favor the maintenance of existing hierarchies.
Back to Black
If one thing is clear from the last thirty years, it’s that media plays an important role in how movements are made. Social media has offered movements some advantages, but on balance, the disadvantages are far greater. It has impeded the ability for organizers to build lasting relationships between different people and between different struggles. As a result, we see a more fragmented and fragile social movement landscape than the one inhabited by the anti-globalization and anti-war movements of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The different levels of coherence reflect, in large part, the different media paradigms. In the Indymedia era, organizers built their own media infrastructure and created a set of organizational structures to govern it. In the social media era, by contrast, the strategy shifted from “be the media” to “get the message out as widely as possible” on corporate platforms.
Today, social media’s dominance in movement communication and coordination means that we lack the ability to build collective self-determination around narrative, news, and analysis. There are indeed important activist media projects such as Unicorn Riot, but they are few and far between, and their capacity is limited by the lack of movement infrastructure. To build a stronger Left, we need to reimagine our media strategy. In particular, we need to learn from the legacy of Indymedia, and recreate an independent media network that can scale from the local to the national to the global while cohering multiple fronts of struggle into a unified opposition.
But we can’t simply abandon social media. It is too dominant, too ubiquitous, and, occasionally, too useful. For instance, its use in connecting friends and families in a time of mass migration and refugee resettlement, driven by climate catastrophe and war, remains an essential lifeline. Rather, we should aim to loosen our dependencies on the corporate platforms while also rebuilding our autonomy by developing collectively managed media infrastructures—ones that can sustain a new movement of movements and resurrect the old Zapatista dream of an “intercontinental network of alternative communication.” It’s no longer a matter of choice, but necessity.