Occupy Wall Street’s Tips on Digital Media, Organizing

Updated: October 24, 2011 at 10:23 AM

The "Digital Communications" panel included an Occupy Wall Street spokesperson, Bill Buster (second from left). The panel talked about both proven strategies and current roadblocks to political organizing through digital means. Photo courtesy of Andrew Schwartz.

Techie government types, business leaders and advocacy groups looking to bolster support shared tactics and swapped stories with a spokesperson from Occupy Wall Street at a panel discussion on Friday about how to use digital tools to mobile people and organize movements.

The dynamic conversations was part of a City Hall News panel discussion, “Online Organizing, In and Out of Government,” co-moderated by MetroFocus.

WATCH VIDEO: Occupy Wall Street Joins Digital Communications Panel Talks

On Oct. 21, a spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street joined the “Digital Communications” panel to discuss political organizing. MetroFocus/Daniel Ross.

The event was the third of a four-part City Hall News-hosted series, “Digital Communications,” which brings together leaders in government, business and the nonprofit world to discuss the future of new technologies in effecting change. In addition to Occupy Wall Street representative Bill Buster, the other panelists included Jeremy Heimans, founder of the participatory political website Purpose.com; Sara Horowitz, founder and director of the Freelancers Union; Jonah Seiger, founder of the interactive management company, Connections Media; and Michael Turk, digital organizer for three presidential campaigns and founder of Craft, a company which consults with politicians about digital media. The panel was moderated by Adam Lisberg, editor of City Hall News, and Laura van Straaten, editor in chief and executive producer of MetroFocus.

“Occupy Wall Street has given me a voice and a place,” said Buster, who decided to lend his publicity skills to the Occupy Wall Street movement after he was inspired by the arrest several weeks ago of 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Most of the panelists have each dedicated years to organizing political agendas and movements through technology, but were curious about Occupy Wall Street’s ability to bring thousands of participants together in the real world through digital media, without formal leadership structures.

It wouldn’t be the same thing if we were an online forum. We needed a physical place.

“Pre-Internet, social media was limited,” said Turk, a longtime political operative. “Now, because of the net, you can find people who feel the same way you do.”

Others, particularly Heimans, an experienced organizer of grassroots movements through digital technologies, noted that the locus of power is shifting from traditional political forces and media – the campaign’s faxed press release to the local newspaper, the letter to the editor –  to round-the-clock, peer-to-peer active self-mobilization by the public, thanks largely to social media.

Turk, whose company creates digital strategies for clients like Bush/Cheney and the Republican National Committee, noted that there is a major generational gap at play, which in some ways limits the Internet’s organizational power. According to Turk, the 18-25 year old demographic is most receptive to social media and least receptive to the political establishment, while older generations still engage through traditional channels and are more likely to invest in the might of the vote.

Discussion of the generational gap inevitably led to a comparison between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, which the New York Times explored in depth. The panelists wondered whether Occupy Wall Street could be co-opted by the Democratic Party, as the GOP did with the Tea Party.

Social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been instrumental in helping Occupy Wall Street’s members have a dialogue and spread their message to more then 200 cities around the world.

Buster, however, emphasized that the greatest significance of digital tools is their ability to bring people together; people still yearn for that real-life community feeling.

“It wouldn’t be the same thing if we were an online forum. We needed a physical place,” said Buster, who added that in order for the movement to sustain itself, people need to remain actively engaged in the real world, which Occupy Wall Street does through coordinated actions, like the recent 30,000-person occupation of Times Square.

Seiger and Horowitz agreed that sustaining a movement is more difficult than starting one. Maintaining regular relationships through email has been crucial to the successful operation of the Freelancers Union, explained Horowitz.

Listening to what’s being said by others through social media, said Heimans, is just as important as talking and sharing information, particularly with Twitter.

While Occupy Wall Street’s participants use email and Twitter to coordinate everything from their general assemblies to donations of food, Turk pointed out that video has been the most powerful tool in authenticating the movement’s message to the mainstream media and thus drawing in new members.

“Where would Occupy Wall Street be without the pepper spray incident? Authentic video is most effective,” said Turk.

There was general consensus that authenticity is highly important to the growth of a movement and that in some cases the anarchic nature of the Internet can lead to a loss of control over the message.

Buster wasn’t particularly concerned about the notion of losing control of a message, given the bottom-up nature of the movement.

“We are working very hard to define ourselves, but we don’t want to fit in one box,” said Buster.

However, Buster agreed that it’s been problematic to have so many of the protesters have so little experience talking to the traditional media.  For example, one protester hurled an obscenity at Giraldo Riviera on Sunday, while Fox News was taping live at Zuccotti Park. But, Buster said, that inexperience has reinforced protesters’ urgent desire to represent themselves online.

The question of demands, and Occupy Wall Street’s refusal to give them, inevitably came up in the discussion. Buster said “The only thing we’re against is systematic corruption.” He added that he thinks the American public is too smart to believe what he said were false messages about the movement.  Heiman noted that it’s easier for opposition movements to mobilize against something rather than for something.

Regardless of strategy or end results, Horowitz voiced a sentiment with which everyone on the panel could agree: “We are at a moment of trying to understand a new era.”

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