Saturday, January 17, 2004

What's Wrong With Indymedia Aotearoa?

Indymedia Aotearoa (AIM) has to be one of the more depressing indymedia projects in the entire world. Too often it’s the preserve of the loony left, arguing about Starhawk or the opression of bicycle helmets. Sometimes you can even shiver in the terrible language of the cold war when some comrade from an unreconstructed communist group climbs aboard.

I don’t spend an awful lot of time over there, but from time to time, I find myself going through the postings looking for the semblance of a political discussion. Why? Well, I need to go somewhere. At heart I’m a left social democrat. In my native environment, I almost flourished. Here in New Zealand, the social democratic project seemed to die as a result of the reforms in the mid-80’s. All that’s left are creepy people who roam the internet with the bitterness of those who lack a political home.

I go on sneaking about, looking for what sustenance I can find. Often you have to pick through some rather distasteful stuff. A good example is some pretty disgusting anti-semitism that was posted on Indymedia Aotearoa recently. Although AIM is alleged to be one of New Zealand’s most popular political websites, these anti-semitic comments passed almost without criticism. For me, it calls into question the entire ethos of the Indymedia project, an ethos that both recalls the circumstances of the project’s birth and the conditions of the internet at the time. Writing in the anarchist webjournal Infoshop News, a guy named ChuckO puts it like this:

It was a great idea when the Independent Media Center opened up its first website for the Seattle anti-WTO protests in December 1999. The first IMC website came out of years of alternative and grassroots media activism. By a strange quirk of fate, the Seattle IMC also included something called the "open newswire," an experiment that allowed every reader to be a reporter, if they wanted to get involved in DIY, participatory media production.

Think about this. It was five years ago. The internet was a very different place. Broadband hardly existed. People still relied, by and large, on the corporate media. So the idea of an independent network of sites devoted to community activism sprang out of a condition of media scarcity, a time when the culture of D.I.Y. was relegated to comics and cassette tapes. It was only natural, then, that the pioneers who staked out this part of the web were a little doctrinaire about the right of free speech. Everyone who had been denied the right to speak were now given access. Indymedia wasn’t just a site. It was a movement.

The insistence on the right to free speech meant that the indymedia sites became subjected to harrasment from the right wing, and as access to the internet grew, from the fringes of loonieville. Racism, particularly anti-semitism, began to find a place on the indymedia network. It became normalised. ChuckO watched as the activist spirit of the indymedia project ran headlong into the abstract demand for the right to free speech:

…the inability of the IMC network to take aggresive action against racist and anti-semitic posts further damaged the Indymedia's reputation with Jewish people and people of color. We understand that some pro-Israel extremists think that any criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, but the IMC network became a hotbed of just plain anti-Jewish articles, opinions, and comments. Part of the problem within the IMC network is that most activists refused to stand up to the free speech totalitarians within the network, who argued that everything posted should stay visible to the public.

The growth of these kinds of posts led to struggles within the indymedia network between people who wanted to preserve free speech and those who wanted to ‘moderate’ hate speech on the indymedia sites. The proliferation of anti-semitic posts resulted in the discrediting of the entire indymedia project. Fights over hate speech led to the disintegration of several indymedia collectives, most recently in San Francisco.

What these ‘free speech totalitarians’ didn’t understand was that the internet in just a few short years became a very, very big place. When the indymedia project began, weblogs hardly existed. Only a small, hard core of computer-savvy geeks participated in usenet discussions. Five years later, and it’s a different virtual world. And because that world has changed, it’s vital to change the ethos of the indymedia movement. What is important now is to support left-wing and progressive politics in the welter of the internet, now no longer a new place, but just as corporate and as commercial as any other media environment. I think this is especially critical in New Zealand.

I call it editing, some call it moderation, while others call it just plain censorship.