Media, Activism and the World Social Forum, a Conversation with Jamie McClelland of MayFirst/Peoplelink

Posted on February 4, 2011

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Jamie McClelland has been an activist for nearly twenty years, mostly focused on democratizing, de-centralizing and popularizing communications technologies. His time as an activist has seen such technologies evolve from home video, cable access and now internet, social networking and smartphone adaptations. Jamie founded and helps run, along with a group of mutually minded people, a not for profit collective of internet and computer consultants, dedicated to putting the potential of the internet in the hands of organizations with limited resources.

On the eve of the World Social Forum in Dakar, which has been made possible in part by the advancement and democratization of such technologies,  I asked Jamie a few questions about the role of technology in the present and future of activism.

HR: Tell me about the structure of MayFirst/People Link.

Jamie McClelland: May First/People Link is a membership-based organization with about 500 members, most of whom are organizations, all of whom identify asactivists on the left. We have a 10 person leadership committee composedof members representing a diverse spectrum on the left (only a minority of members are technologists). The leadership committee appointed
Alfredo Lopez and myself as the co-directors, responsible for day-to-day
operations.

We are an all volunteer organization. In addition to Alfredo and I,
Mallory Knodel provides regular day-to-day support and organizing work.
We also have a volunteer technology support team composed of about 10
members who handle the day-to-day tech needs and strategize on our long
term technical/political vision.

HR: You have operational goals, institutional goals, but what are your
philosophical and political goals behind the organization?

Jamie McClelland: We have a book called the Organic Internet
(http://mayfirst.org/organicinternet) which provides the long answer.

The short answer is that we believe that the Internet is a movement, a
movement of people who are all doing essentially one thing:
communicating with each other. Despite it’s beginnings with the
military, the Internet’s early development was largely guided by
principles familiar to the left: collaboration, free sharing of all
ideas and software, working toward a common good, etc.

In the early nineties, the Internet opened the door to global
communications just a crack and the world has busted it wide open.

The corporate class has fully recognized this potential of the Internet
and has been investing billions of dollars in attempts to control it and
use it more effectively for profit. At the same time, activists from all
over the world are fighting this profiteering by collaborating to extend
and expand the open, democratic nature of the Internet.

Our political goals are to support the activists online by building
bridges between this movement of Internet activists and the larger left.

We believe that the Internet is more than just a tool for the left to
use, but provides an important avenue for revolutionary change in the
world. In particular, we recognize that the left in the United States
can’t solve our problems or the world’s problems alone. Developing the
Internet is integral to building international collaboration, which is
the only way we are going to succeed.

HR: Let’s talk about the World Social Forum: Obviously, I have to ask you this
question every time we talk, because the media cover it so badly, that I
forget in the meantime. But it’s not only the media…it seems that there’s a
very big blindspot on the mainstream left/liberal radar screen about the
Forum
. Why do you think that is, why does the mainstream left seem so ambivalent about the forum?

Jamie McClelland: It depends on what you mean by mainstream left. With just under 20,000 people at the last US Social Forum and 150,000 people at the last World Social Forum, the social forum movement has had a tremendous
impact on and participation from a very wide spectrum of the left.

In the United States, it’s largely ignored by the liberal media because
liberal politics place little value on movement building.

HR: What’s the purpose of the forum, what do the organizers intend to get out of it?

Jamie McClelland: The purpose of the forum is simple: to provide a space for movement activists from around the world to collaborate. It’s intentionally left
open and vague, to allow participants to shape the content. Any
organization can propose a workshop and all workshops are incorporated
into the schedule. It’s a remarkable example of democratic and
collaborative organizing.

HP: What do you get out of it, or hope to get out of it?

Jamie McClelland: In general, global movement building and expanding and developing the Internet are synonymous for us. They are mutually supportive – each one guides the other.

In Dakar, we plan to build relationships with technology and media
activists in Africa.  Compared with other regions of the world, we have
minimal contact with African movements, either through movement
organizing or for that matter via the mainstream media. We’re cut-off.
Our participation in Dakar is critical toward overcoming this weakness.

HR: Tell me about the Media Convergence Center, and the participation of
American media activists there?

The media convergence center is the third Indy Media Center
convergence in Africa. It will bring together indy media activists from
all around the continent – to eat, sleep and train together for three
days prior to the forum and two days afterward. It’s designed to build
solidarity among African media activists and build strong ties between
African activists and those from the rest of the world.

HR: Let’s talk about Wikileaks…There’s been a lot of controversy about the sexual charges against Assange in Sweden. It obviously makes a lot of people uncomfortable, as there does seem to be a basis of some kind, though no one knows what really happened. Is it possible to support Assange without talking about these charges? Why does the left so easily get split on these issues?

Jamie McClelland: The mainstream media picksup on stories in a way that sows divisions on the left. It’s no conspiracy, it’s an “angle” that comes easily to a politically conservative media. The right, particularly the Christian fundamentalists, are rife with contradiction that is rarely picked up by the mainstream media.

As for the sexual abuse charges, given the history of rape in our
society and the constant accusation that women are just “making it up,”
it’s harmful to dismiss the accusation outright, like we would dismiss
the accusation of espionage or other charges being leveled against
Assange.

Instead, I think we need to turn it around. Most women accusing men of
rape can’t get a local police officer to even listen to them. Why did
the accusation against Assange result in an international arrest
warrant?  What does this say about our commitment to ending sexual
abuse?

HR: Bradley Manning is accused of being the original leaker of the
Collateral Murder video, the
Iraq and Afghanistan military logs and
the diplomatic cables. His role is obviously complicated by the fact
that he hasn’t actually claimed to be the leaker. Given this, why do
you think that people so easily forget Bradley Manning’s involvement?

Jamie McClelland: He’s in jail. We seem to forget about our heroes when the go behind bars, particularly when they were not part of a political movement before they get arrested. That’s a failing of our movement.

HR: How should we talk about Wikileaks in a way that bolsters a left-wing
view–and the legacy of previous work and movements–of the media and the
value of transparency and information freedom?

Jamie McClelland: The Internet demonstrated how you can make information globally available to a huge percentage of the world’s population. The Wikileaks case demonstrates how that freedom is not guaranteed. The idea of freedom of information in the Internet age has been very abstract for
most people. Wikileaks provides an opportunity for people to more
tangibly understand how it works.

HR: How about the parallel and associated organizations. On one side we have
Cryptome which has made a bit of a cottage industry in leaking on Wikileaks.
Daniel Domscheit Berg, a former Wikileaker has broken from the
organizations. Its quite obvious that he’s been a bit careful with the
reasons, and he remains overall supportive of Wikileaks. He plans to start
his own leaking organization that is much less ambitious and oriented
towards bending journalism back to investigative paradigms. And then we have the mirrors, one of which at least has turned out to be a malware laced
scam-site.  And then Anonymous, who, I think kind of got everyone excited
over their denial of service attacks on Mastercard, Paypal and
etcetera…but who have a pretty checkered history of petty and apolitical
attacks, and who on their best day are a completely unaccountable
organization.

What I’m asking is that this entire situation has seemed to highlight a new tool box for political activism, direct action and civil disobedience: but how do we use it?

Jamie McClelland: That remains to be seen. At first the Internet seemed to be an extension of the politics as representation paradigm. If your web site or video
went “viral” you were making a political impact. The anonymous folks, on
the other hand, have quite vividly demonstrated that the Internet can be
an environment for direct action politics that have a real and powerful
impact on the ruling classes.

I think that the struggle between activists keeping these avenues open
and the ruling classes trying everything in their power to limit what we
can do will increasingly define the left.

HR: And how does a person like you or I maximize these impacts or at least get
involved in them?

Jamie McClelland: Use and support free and open source software. The heart of our struggle to keeping the Internet free and open is to support the people who are building software that is free and open. Use Firefox. Use OpenOffice.
Build your own web site instead of relying on Facebook. Apply media
literacy skills, the same ones we developed to understand the impact of
advertising on television and cable to your Internet usage. What does it
mean to rely on Gmail and their ad-supported model for our
communication?

HP: It seems that one of the things the internet is worst at is accountability,
and that’s something that people to people organizations are better at
dealing with, simply because when you lie, you have to lie to someone’s
face, not a backlit screen? Recently, for example, as I’ve noted, we see
Wikileaks taking responsiblity for leaks that it actually prevented from
happening (in
Tunisia) by limiting access to the database. How can we
continue to be skeptical and ask questions, without constantly deflating our
enthusiasm and advocating for these movements?

Jamie McClelland: Confronting someone who lied to their face might make them un-comfortable, but doesn’t make them any more accountable. In many ways the Internet helps us be more accountable by giving us the option to be
transparent. May First/People Link does all support on a completely
public web site (https://support.mayfirst.org/). All of our successes
and failures are there for everyone to see. If you want to know about
how well we answer questions or keep our servers running, you don’t have
to take my word for it, you can see for yourself.

Similarly, I digitally sign every email I sign with a OpenPGP signature
that only I can generate. I do this for accountability – I want you to
know it’s me that said this and I want a way to prove that.

As for criticizing Wikileaks… we have to critique everyone we work
with and admire. And, although people often claim otherwise, there’s a
very easy and clear distinction between destructive and constructive
criticism. If you are receiving the criticism, the distinction might not
be clear immediately, but over time it becomes obvious.

HR: Have there been any new models that have arisen out of this last few
months? For example, could an organization be created around
volunteers for denial of service attacks? That is, rather than some
unaccountable, unfocused group like anonymous, could an organization
build itself from the ground up, with voluntary only ddos direct
action? It seems that would be legal, since no one’s computer is
being hijacked and the pinging is in itself not illegal? Does that
sound fantastical?

Jamie McClelland: We need to think carefully before applying offline direct action tactics to the online world. In the offline world, it’s the ruling classes that
have a stake in keeping all systems running smoothly. Blocking traffic,
shutting down a rail road, just about anything you do will hurt the
ruling classes more than it hurts anyone else.

The Internet is different. Shutting down or seizing servers is a classic
tactic of the ruling classes for shutting down protests or activists
projects. Interrupting the free flow of information hurts us. Most
radical technologists have spent a lifetime in figuring out how to keep
this *running* not shut them down.

Having said that, targeted actions aimed at shutting down payment
processors, for example, have a real and powerful impact.

Like offline direct action, there is huge legal risk. Regardless of the
distributed nature, whoever organizes the action runs a high risk of
prosecution.

HR: You’ve seen some pretty big shifts in alternative media from the days
of your first photo-copied zine. From essentially hand-bills and
direct mail info, an alternative media that had ben around for
centuries, about twenty years ago, alternative media seems to have
undergone rapid shifts in application and perspective, from BBS’s to
cable access television to internet one oh, two oh and the social
networking phase we currently experience.

How can an activist make use of new media, without constantly altering their perspective and methods? Are the old media still viable, and perhaps giving greater impact because of their novelty?

Jamie McClelland: We need to *maintain* our perspectives while we alter our methods. People who believe in global movements and are committed to real, fundamental change in the world have no need to change their perspective with the Internet, just their methods. The Internet lends itself to radical
change. The Internet provides new opportunities for political discourse and
provides us with the chance to sharpen our politics by applying them in
new settings.