Indymedia Germany has, as with most other branches of the free media project, been ailing over the last few years (including its UK counterpart, which closed for good in 2016). In the below analysis, members of the de.indymedia collective put G20 Hamburg into the context of the last two decades of media change and find a worrying trend — social media algorithms on State-friendly platforms are locking our stories away from the people we need to see them. They ask, how do we grab back control of our stories?
The G20 summit in Hamburg was the first major summit in Germany since Heiligendamm in 2007. Ten years have passed and the long-lost anti-globalisation movement is back to a revival. Beautiful images and experiences shape us and our vision, what happened in Hamburg will probably be with us for a long time. Indymedia was itself created in 1999, coming out of the protests against the WTO summit in Seattle and was always companion and mouthpiece of this movement. It served as a multiplier and at the time was unique. Indymedia was created before Web 2.0, before Twitter, before the advent of blogs, Facebook and other social media.
It spread explosively over almost the entire globe. The idea of making media from below appeared as the only logical alternative to the traditional (mass) media, which dictated opinions and views from above and left no space for other voices. It became hugely successful, the idea was taken up worldwide with social movements and it eventually emerged as the Independent Media Centers (IMCs) in more than 80 countries. For Europe the idea peaked in Prague and Genoa. In Germany, the IMC Germany was founded with over 300 media activists in preparation for the nuclear waste transports and was for years well supported in Germany, whether it be nuclear waste, the NATO security conferences in Munich or Heiligendamm — Indymedia has always been present and was supported by a broad mass of media activists.
IMC Germany was founded explicitly as a network and there were many discussions held over what such a network should look like and how it should work. Collectives of media activists came together in Germany and jointly operated the site.
Over time, Indymedia and the active participation of media activists changed. The summit in Heiligendamm in 2007 was like a last great gasp of this movement of media activists. It organised several Indymedia Centers in Hamburg and Rostock, which were open to media activists throughout the protest period, allowing their viewpoints to sound in the world and to make active media work. With G8TV the hitherto biggest project of reporting was tackled, which broke the video hegemony of the evening news. With a mighty effort, the server capacity was created to create a counter-media and show: “We are still there.” With considerable research work hospitals were scoured, information researched, creating influence, building self-determined narratives. The local population as well as the demonstrators themselves were informed not only on the internet but also via print editions. What madness, what a power.
Indymedia and Hamburg G20
Compared to the G8 summit in Heiligendamm there is not much on offer. In the last 10 years there has been a continuous decline and a shift so that public dissenters are no longer voiced through Indymedia, but have been tempted into the isolated realms of social media integration. IMC Germany also split, culminating in the creation of new IMC links — which still apparently paralyses much and ensures a lack of understanding which is yet to resolve itself.
However, it would be wrong to identify this as the reason why Indymedia was so weak at Hamburg G20. Neither the left nor in any part of de.indymedia was there even vaguely comparable media work as still existed 10 years ago. The focus of many media activists has shifted: The FCMC media center was created which worked apparently well, but did not want to attach the label Indymedia or hold to Indymedia standards. Admission was only for accredited sources with no anonymous publications, meaning some media activists were deterred from involving themselves where they might have done in an Indymedia Center.
But otherwise the lack of strong voices reaching out to the public was striking: There were no G20 newspaper or similar, there was no wild screenings of video material on squares or in parks. For comparison, at the G8 summit in Scotland in 2005 there were an independent group of 30 people who are already encouraging respect each week before the summit, who went to speak in the affected villages face-to-face with the residents and promote understanding of the protests — as printed newspapers and flyers were not considered sufficient to create a counter-voice. Indymedia as its best.
A focus on Twitter and Facebook
While some groups such as legal aid team G20EA and other autonomous spectra still used Indymedia for spreading information, the public image of many other groups remained scattered across Twitter. Particular mention here goes to BlockG20, but also FCMC and G20Entern and so on. Therefore, external representation was limited during the current Tweet-based protests. The idea was probably to get, using the longer range of Twitter, more overall attention. But those who wanted to get a picture of the protests, during the protests on Twitter had to find that the larger reach of Twitter is not sufficient to reach more people with their own content.
Twitter works with hashtags, a collating of messages from unknown sources reached via their own proprietary categorisation process. The “official” hashtag to the summit in Hamburg was #G20HAM17. In this hashtag the interpretative authority was clearly on the side of the police. Between their tweets retweets it and many many expressions of opinion and newspapers campaigning for their products there was not much to read about the activists. They were just drowned. Under the logical searchable #G2, it looked even worse because there were even more messages, moreover, often in English from all commercial media.
The protesters themselves shifted their public image onto the hashtag # NoG20 meaning that, even if Twitter is used, a niche is again created, cordoning off the output from those we hope to reach. So much already for the basic structure of Twitter and the myth of being able to create alternative routes to the public outside of our own bubble. But even on #nog20 itself, there was such a flood of opinion on the rallies etc that it was hardly possible to find out truly reliable information. Instead, it feels like a big comments battle. Only through frequent retweets — and the repeated adjustment of a message to another person — is it even possible to be heard in this jumble of shit, a partial and heavily interpreted version of what is being said.
Twitter and the first signs of the powers of law enforcement
In addition, we must focus on the other dangers of “social” media. Twitter is not within our sphere of influence. Criticism of moderating behavior on Twitter is mostly ridiculed — unless it becomes dangerous to us. Even before the Network Enforcement Act allowed the German government to threaten huge fines against social media that fails to censor “extremist” content, it was already too obedient.
There were protests recently against both “Shadow Bans” (where testers found that spam filters were wiping out radical posts), and accounts which were closed or blocked “due to behavioral problems” cutting them off from Tweeting. Especially the so-called Shadow Bans are a treacherous and tricky thing here: It doesn’t mean that a user’s messages will no longer appear in the Twitter network, but across certain IP ranges, for example that of Germany, they will be blocked. They will effectively no longer be visible to users from those countries, without ever notifying the account concerned. It happens secretly and quietly, you are just out. It could happen even if the government’s rules are never enforced. What will you do, dear BlockG20, FCMC etc, should this occur? are there backup strategies in place? How do we create our own voice if next time that voice is simply Shadow Banned? To rely on commercial services such as Twitter is dangerous. To use them as the sole means of communication is gross negligence.
We have not yet mentioned the worst aspect of this trend, probably because it is very recent in Germany: Twitter actively cooperates with the repressive authorities. No matter how much Twitter poses as democracy’s savior, it is not. The corporation always delivers for profit using, if necessary, the repressive authorities. This has been true in the uprisings in Egypt and indeed during the whole so-called Arab Spring.
Tickers of short, unverified possible messages are essential for protests of this scale. But we were short of manpower and unable to organise the series of meetings necessary, as was done in the past. We were met with disinterest. This is strongly linked, in our view, to a focusing on Twitter. “Why build even a ticker if there’s already Twitter and everyone uses anyway?” was one response.
Nevertheless, we have decided to make a virtue of necessity, and we still have a ticker structure of another kind for the few forces from the ground. was our attempt to break not only from our own plight but also show that it is possible to offer better structures than Twitter. A first overview and detailed analysis of the ticker can be found here on the side, but we did not know yet how successful we were with the ticker at the time. It was damn successful. Because of our anonymised log policy we can unfortunately only roughly estimate use, but it must have at least have been 50,000 hits. This is in our eyes a win when we had no longer expected success. Of course, we are still far far away from the traffic we saw at Heiligendamm 2007 or the Castor protests of 2001 — but for a short time amid the quasi hush from almost all the other protest groups it was is an immensely high number that encouraged us to expand the ticker for future protests.
We also see, compared to Twitter, how important our ticker was. Its focus was clearly on the people who were involved in the protest itself. We think that it is expandable and available for review and modification, but we hope above all that it shows other alternative media apprpaches are possible and that it makes sense to build such structures. Of course we build on your co-operation. Do not hate the media, be the media!
New here were livestreams, videos recorded directly to the internet. There are only a few seconds or minutes between the recording and its retrieval by media junkies. At previous G8 summits this ability was limited to major TV stations and needed, in addition to ample server capacity, an immense effort on site to help less technically savvy users. But this time, thanks to commercial providers like periscopes and Youtube, a smart phone with mobile broadband was enough. This is a technical progress that has been used extensively not only by media activists but also by commercial media in this G20 summit.
Even if we look at it as a backwards step, that we now have to resort to commercial providers to supply the technical server infrastructure (with G8TV this was the global Indymedia network), we do see a great opportunity in the emergent livestreams, which directly frustrated the police narratives. The authenticity of the uncut live images have put the assertions made by police sources, for example in the Welcome to Hell demonstration, into perspective. The police, were unable to maintain the evil black bloc narrative, and that line was de facto broken. We have the very strong back to being just so many people were able to get a different picture of the situation on the live streams and could raise as direct opposition. The break was so severe that even the most commercial press, the police argue.
Of course, live streams are also dangerous and are not only positive things: Pixelising of faces and similar privacy-enhancing measures is not possible with a live circuit. A similar situation we had at the G8 in Genoa in 2001, when the storms of police of Indymedia Centers could be followed live by thousands. But at that time with a dinky webcam and a fixed Internet connection. What progress, what a potential! Of course, live streams are also dangerous and are not only positive to see: A Pixelize of faces and similar privacy-enhancing measures is not possible with a live circuit. Mostly it provides for the external representation but a fascinating positive-going element is that could be used more in the future.
Mostly it provides external representation but a fascinating future element is that could be used more in the future. We had a similar situation at the G8 in Genoa in 2001, when the police storming of Indymedia Centers could be followed live by thousands — but at that time it was with a dinky webcam and a fixed internet connection. What progress, what a potential!
Multilingualism and dissemination in crisis regions
A past strength of Indymedia was also spreading the message to various parts of the world. In this G20 summit for example, rulers from Argentina and Brazil were represented. Both presidents stand for a rigorously repressive policy towards social movements. But we didn’t see a focusing on the public image of these rulers and their relationship to the protests. In the past pictures from Heiligendamm were transported to precisely those regions through translations and live streams of G8 TV, the picture is this time we failed a little.
One culprit may be that the international Indymedia network has largely collapsed. But it also seems as if this approach simply played no role in the preparation of the protests. Next year the G20 summit is in Argentina — it would have been exciting to seek cooperation with Argentine media activists in advance and also to focus reporting, especially in this country. What remains of the visit of a president Macri, the domestic demonstrations, restriction of media laws and attempts to close free radio stations? A president who is clearly on the side of the old military junta and is neoliberalism?
There is nothing, it seems almost as if he’s not been there at all. Instead, Trump has been moved to the centre stage with Putin and Erdogan. People who are already in the critical spotlight and take attention away especially from outside the G20. We missed the chance to send a signal that radiates to Latin America.
Discourse was dominated by police
One thing is abundantly clear: The discourse, interpretative authority, the narrative — it was determined by Hamburg police. Even if there is nothing new in principle that the police were influential through their active press work, it was a shock to see how successful they were at this summit with their efforts. Months beforehand the police used the issue of violence in protests and managed to shift the focus completely onto this question. They were so successful that all the attempts of alternative media coverage failed to take off. With unprecedented manpower and targeted provocations it has managed to tighten the narrative of the protests completely to this question: yes or no to violence.
Other content had little to no chance at this level. Not only did the police field a social media team of (reportedly) 300 people plus the police unions etc, through targeted provocations and acts such as the question of the camping ban they not only kept the activists in check and on their toes, but they channelled popular discourse. While it had been done before in previous summits, at least then we were about to bring the contents of the protests into public view. This time, the police by the constant and deliberate discussion over the validity of camps, through the legal eviction or coup against campers before the summit, they took over space that would have otherwise been inhabited by protests and demonstrations. What coverage remained about the largest Night Dance Demo Hamburg has ever known? Exactly — it was peaceful.
The police no longer need to be considered as potential opponents on the road — one reputation that she wore in Hamburg thanks to grotesque police violence. No, it has become a huge, powerful political player with its own agenda. The force was given more space in media coverage than NGOs, political parties and other groupings. They determined the direction of the coverage through almost the entire period.
Even as it slipped from the interpretive evening of the Welcome to Hell demonstration or the Camp eviction, they still managed to hold discourse in this same framework, on the issue of violence. In terms of public perception of the G20 we had no chance. That’s a bitter realisation we need to take into account. How is it that we, through the totality of all the protests have not been able to put out our content and make it publicly available?
There were good points: Colour The Red Zone‘s “fingers” tactic for example, in the blockades, should point the way for future similar work. However, the content of our output is not managed, it was not taken up and not good enough to communicate to the outside. A filmed press conference is not enough. Here we are being self-criticism, since we failed or detected too late to mark it in our ticker structure. It would have been nice, to have the different coloured fingers on the map and each of having a link to the content of the finger there.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that the police strategy was not new: in the past the police have always tried to manipulate the protests on their behalf and to represent. But it acted skilfully this time.
At the end of the protests in the public perception there was nothing left except the question “Who is to blame for the violence?” This is something that we could have prevented, so must prevent. It does not help railing against the lust of the press, which always wants to show just burning cars (at the G8 in 2007 in Rostock a single car was burning and was filmed from dozens of angles, photographed and given the title pages). It is a question for us is how we can get around this to make our own content public knowledge.
A shift to the hard right
The summit is over, but the effects are not. Hardliners across all parties have used the narrative put up by the police discourse to finally define their ever-hated enemy: Everything progressive.
Parallel to the camp “violence” discussion they now engage in debate about the “centre-left” and try as much as possible to delegitimise the protests. In Hamburg the SPD and Greens are trying to save their skins and to that end threaten eviction, among others of the Rote Flora. Hardliners nationwide are embracing their chance in the silly season and campaigning for a final clean up. Such open discussion about the residents in Hamburg can reasonably be expected to bring further chaos in the stupid hope of saving their their own skins.
Therefore, the priority right now is not to hang our heads but to breathe and to oppose them with our own media work. Face down our divisions and build a strong, streamlined network that can not only withstand this attack, but also can achieve a lot more. That the will is there has nicely summarised by the spokeswoman for the interventionist left, in which she said that in our hunger for the other world we forget our fear of the police. This is what we can take away from Hamburg as a positive, no matter how much criticism and self-criticism we formulate here. The G20 protests were a strong, consistent, formative experience for us and for all who were there. Let it carry into the world beyond us!
A network of networks, nothing is too late
Indymedia was started as a pure web platform in 1999 and quickly developed into much more. Much of that is no longer present but the remains of the Indy network infrastructure keep on and cope with the daily work. But that “extra” is scattered. A focusing on the Web has meant that more and more activists save their stories via social media and try to place content there. This strategy may be debatable for many reasons but a pure focus on it is fatal (as would be focusing on purely weaving the web of the various IMC’s). To get out of the misery that G20 has led us to, we need to build more of their own media again.
We need to develop networks and it has to be planned in the protests, doing their own public relations. So we don’t just write press releases and integrate with commercial media, but specifically plan to build our own structures again. On the web, in print, in audio and video — and then even force remains in social media. We think that Indymedia had a large share in the success of the anti-globalization movement. We do not mean specifically “us” as a group, but the idea of Indymedia itself. We also think that it is again a global movement that is needed to spit neatly into the rulers’ soup and build alternatives to live. Another world is possible — another world is necessary. This includes a different type of media.
We think that Indymedia can represent the hinge for alternative media still. A platform, a network in which the different currents come together and their contents are transported on an equal footing. Whether in a large context such as Interventionist Left, a bureaucratic trade union or the small autonomous affinity group next door. We think this project, against all odds, stands up.
Carry these thoughts in your relationships and discussed in your affinity groups. Think about how Indymedia and other media of counter-public therein may again play a greater role. Uses the experiences that you have collected and make it usable. Discuss what Indymedia should be and how we can get there. Dream what we want for other media. We are open to exchange and look forward to your feedback.
In particular, we are pleased about newly established or re-established media collectives, local Indymedia groups, Indymedia cinemas, screenings, translations, Indyprints and people who wish to also participate in infrastructural work.