Agitprop 2.0: On Occupy Wall Street's Social Media Revolution

Agitprop 2.0: On Occupy Wall Street's Social Media Revolution
Participants of "Occupy Wall Street" attempt to hinder financial workers from getting to work
(Courtesy of Getty Images)
More than the ability to share photos with friends or keep everyone posted on your eating habits, the massive protests and resulting political change of the Arab Spring has driven home the point that online social media is the defining reality of our era. Now, the power of this new medium of communication has come to roost in New York City with Occupy Wall Street, a protest against the economic crisis and the excesses of the financial industry that has gone viral in much the same way that the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt did (albeit on a much more modest level).

Hundreds of protesters began meeting around Wall Street on September 17, and have since focused on the occupation of Liberty Park Plaza, across the street from finance hub One Liberty Plaza. Protesters have created a media hub in the park's center — not to meet with press, but to provide the infrastructure for protesters to broadcast their own motivations, critiques, and causes. The protest is occurring in digital and physical space simultaneously, as it has in Egypt, Libya, and Britain, as well as in youth-driven protests currently in progress all around the world, in Spain, in India, in Greece, and in Israel — this is revolution 2.0.

In an article on these global protests in the New York Times, Nicholas Kulish writes, "Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web." A Reuters article noticed the same phenomenon. It is the capabilities of the social web — instant communication, money transfer, media sharing — that are disrupting the traditional routes of communication and politics in New York City as much as in the Middle East. Here is how Occupy Wall Street has occupied the Internet even as it has occupied Liberty Park Plaza.

Occupy Wall Street began on the Internet with calls from the activist coalition General Assembly and alternative publication Adbusters. The Wall Street protesters have made themselves known online by creating presences on traditional social networks. An @occupywallst Twitter feed currently has 18,133 followers, while the #occupywallstreet hashtag has provided an active venue for people both inside and outside New York to participate in the protests (Twitter has even been accused of censoring the #occupywallstreet hashtag from its "Trending Topics" list). An Occupy Wall Street Facebook page has 29,563 members and has seen 15 wall posts in the past 10 minutes alone. Page members post encouraging images, link to the latest press coverage, and share inspirational quotes. We Are the 99 Percent, a Tumblr blog, posts images of individuals holding up signs with their own complaints.
The online infrastructure of Twitter and Facebook has made it easy to pass along newsworthy documentation of the protests, which includes a now-notorious video of policeman Anthony Bologna spraying a female protestor in the face with pepper spray. Anonymous (the hacktivist group who pledged early support of the protests, though it did not come up with the idea) dug up Bologna's identity shortly after the video was released. It turns out the policeman was accused of civil rights violations in 2004. The incident has touched off even more controversy, and heightened mainstream media attention on the protest. This wouldn't have been possible without the protesters' own efforts — as the Observer noted, "Because the protest was continuously documenting itself, it was hard to tell who was participant, who was reporter, and who was tourist, snapping photos for their Instagram feed as they would of their cat or their breakfast." (NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly has since said that he will "look into" Bologna's actions.)


In the initial round of mainstream media coverage kicked off in a cynical piece by the New York Times, the protests were represented as a hippie-leaning crew still not united by a single cause or desired outcome (see the photo that accompanies the piece: an absurd marching band with a sardonic suited man strolling by). How the protesters represent themselves is much more urgent, and much more earnest.

Images of Occupy Wall Street posters and portraits of protesters have become popular ways of covering the events. Portrait series — like this extensive feature at the Observer and a Facebook album by Adam Nelson — show young people, professionals, students, and others, who identify with the idea that the financial industry's actions and the government's inaction have disrupted their lives. As Observer portrait subject Lou Panico says, "This is what everyone is always thinking about, but no one does anything. Glad it's finally happening."

Homemade signs have also provided a direct platform for protesters, as photos of the signs and posters have been distributed as internationally-consumed images. Art blog Hyperallergic has documented protest signs, with photos showing a quilt of signs laid on the ground. Others can be found in Nelson's album. They read, "Thank god for YouTube, cause my mom can't afford to send me to a good school," "This street is our street," and "do I look like a corporation?" Hyperallergic has also started an international call for artists to send in posters for the protesters. The results including a group of masked figures from the movie "V For Vendetta" (also Anonymous imagery) underneath the words #OCCUPYTHERICH. YouTube videos uploaded by miixxy document daily selections of posters and images, while one by Korgasmx documents violent protestor arrests. These clips and images are the medium through which Occupy Wall Street's message spreads, far more than the mainstream media.


In the past week, the mainstream media has paid ever-closer attention to the protesters and several significant public figures have visited the protest site in support. Noam Chomsky and the Atlantic's James Fallows have written backing the protests, while rapper Lupe Fiasco wrote a poem for the protesters and has tweeted his support. Documentarian Michael Moore visited the protest on Monday, as did Brooklyn city councilman Charles Barron on Tuesday.

A constant refrain in today's coverage of the protests is that Occupy Wall Street "could spark a movement." I would say that the protest has already created a movement — and it doesn't matter who notices. Now that the message has taken hold through the avenues of social media, and as long as participants are passionate enough to keep the tweets and signs and photos coming, it's going to be difficult to stop.