Lights, Camera, Activism!
|July 18, 2012||Posted by Coulter Loeb under News|
Livestreamers have come to play a vital role in documenting protests during, and beyond Occupy. Coulter Loeb reports.On the evening of May 20, a police van plowed into a crowd of Occupy NATO protesters at the foot of Chicago’s Jackson Street Bridge, striking several and hospitalizing one. As activists scrambled online for information, they found almost all reports cited a group of citizen journalists relatively new to the realm of political activism: livestreamers. With one click, anyone with an internet connection cnould view footage of the van plowing through the crowd from multiple angles. With another, they were watching live broadcast from the aftermath of the scene.
With viewers steadily amassing, new information surfaced via the video feed. Livestreamer Sky Adams (crossXbones on Ustream) remembers, “Within 45 minutes [of the video going viral] we had freeze frames of the license plates, vehicle identification number, and a photo of the drivers face. If we had been relying on corporate media for our information it would have been impossible to publicize [the incident] so quickly.”
A livestream is a live, unedited video feed generated by any internet-enabled digital camera: a means of mass communication made possible through recent developments in wireless telecommunication technology. Feeds are broadcast across hosting services such as Ustream.com or livestream.com, and anyone with an internet connection can watch for free. Thousands are doing so. The Occupy Wall Street shutdown of the Brooklyn Bridge was followed by as many as 50,000 viewers across multiple feeds.
Many feeds are accompanied by a chatroom, so viewers can discuss events as they unfold. Adams sees the chatroom as central to his experience as a livestreamer. “I sometimes don’t even consider them to be viewers so much as participants – they don’t just watch in a lot of cases,” he said. “They communicate between different streamers, [providing] information about things that might be going on just around the corner. It’s a very interactive format.”
The news media consists of journalistic institutions and entities aiming to inform and educate readers. Citizen journalists have long filled information gaps left by corporate-owned media. Now, they are using livestreams to highlight activities that mainstream outlets tend to ignore or that they cover with questionable bias. Many in the Occupy movement credit livestreamers with forcing broadcasters like Fox News to cover the Zuccotti Park protest encampment. “The mainstream press can’t ignore the stuff if it’s already being distributed. If enough people know about it, they won’t be able to keep the cat in the bag for very long,” says Flux Rostrum (fluxview.com), one of the original Occupy Wall Street livestreamers.
Rostrum, who started livestreaming at town hall forums following BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, notes that coverage showed the actions both protesters and police. He says, “It accomplishes some sense of protection, some sense of accountability, to the police. They can’t say, ‘well, that was edited,’ because people are watching it in real time.”
As members of the citizen media, many livestreamers consider themselves responsible journalists. Some abide by a code of ethics akin to that of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) or the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). When embedded in a social movement like Occupy, citizen journalists must always be aware of the impact of their work. They don’t consider their reports as ‘just another story’ as professional reporters might. “The onus is really on us to cover those who are in power and have the money and the weapons and not so much the individual protestors,” according to Adams. “It’s more important that we hold those in power accountable than it is to get everybody’s face on camera.”
Legally, the line differentiating “citizen” and “journalist” is blurred. “It’s a question that is going to plague us for a long time,” says Mickey Osterreicher, General Counsel to the NPPA and member of the committee to enact federal “shield laws” nationwide. Shield laws, which currently vary from state to state, protect journalists who refuse to testify or reveal anonymous sources. “The problem is that, if everyone is entitled to that qualified privilege, then they will strike the shield laws down as being overly broad. To define who is and who isn’t a journalist will continue to be our greatest challenge,” says Osterreicher, adding, “the law is always trying to catch up to technology.”
Despite their professionalism, livestreamers have not been immune to the style of police harassment which has plagued independent media for decades. During the Occupy NATO actions in Chicago, livestreamers Luke Rudowski (wearechange.org), Tim Pool (timcast.tv), and Geoffrey Shively faced constant harassment from members of the Chicago Police Department and Department of Homeland Security. Shortly after a friend was hauled to a DHS facility and interrogated on their whereabouts, says Rudowski, “we were pulled over by multiple squad cars, multiple undercover cops, and three whiteshirts. They ran at us with guns drawn – and we streamed the whole thing over uStream.” Rudowski claims that the police, after deactivating the recording devices, purposely damaged their equipment.
Regardless of how many citizen journalists are harassed, beaten, or arrested, Shively points out: “There’s so much work [being done] on the reporting side, the hardware side, the organizational side … they can’t get us all”.
Despite efforts to suppress free information flows, citizen journalists continue to provide independent viewpoints. Many are already preparing for the next technological evolution. Only a week before Occupy NATO, when Ustream was shut down by a DDoS attack originating in Russia, Shively stated: “We need software that can run on home servers and phones so we’re not reliant on a small number of online services. Sure, anyone can use [the technology], but those bottlenecks will still remain a critical point of failure. We need to decentralize.”
Kevin Zeese, a lawyer and participant in Occupy Washington DC, sees the path towards the decentralization of media as already well-paved. He says that, while the corporatized media continue to concentrate their power while laying off swaths of employees, “[the independent media] are going the opposite direction – we are growing bigger, more dispersed. The decentralization of our media promotes both diversity and creativity while at the same time making us harder to attack.”
In the United States, fiscal interests govern both the mass politic and mass media. It seems to be falling to citizen media to investigate those issues ignored, or obscured by both. As horizontally organized citizen media becomes more robust and increasingly stable, the public is well-placed to turn away from vertically-organized corporate outlets. The rise of livestreaming suggests this transition is already underway.