Warning – Online video journalism can be bad for your health!

6 02 2011

The police continue to haul in young student protestors from the series of tuition fee’s demo’s in November. Interestingly, the police seem to be relying on photographic and video evidence – some of which was made by the protestors themselves.

Instead of recording for posterity an exciting jape or providing evidence of police brutality, ‘citizen journalist’ video, captured on mobiles and Flips and uploaded onto social networking sites by the students protestors are now being used to shop other demonstrators.

What was surprising to me was the naivety of the young demonstrators at the student tuition fee demo’s, some even stopping halfway through putting a boot through a window to smile and wave to their friend –  who was videoing the event with YouTube in mind. As a former activist who was active before the information revolution and internet activism, this seemed bizarre. If you are going to do that kind of shit – then wear a mask.

It was no surprise to me that protestors, identified by photo’s and stills from video clips, began to be picked up in the months following by the police and charged with violent disorder and other crimes. Maybe the soon to come  trials, the two years and eight month sentence already given to Edward ‘fire extinguisher’ Woollard, and the discovery of the police using deep-cover techniques to infiltrate the largely middle class and peaceful anarchist environmental movement, will wise everyone up. Civil disobedience combined with unnecessary carelessness and ignorance of the risks that you run can seriously f*ck up your life.

This was a point raised by Fitwatch, http://www.fitwatch.org.uk the activist blog that monitors the police forward Intelligence teams that video protestors and trawl social networking sites for incriminating clips. The Fitwatch site advised demonstrators to wear masks and to wipe any photo’s or film off their phones and change their appearance if they think that they may have been caught on camera.

In a recent press release to the socialist blog “Where Cowards Flinch”, Shane from the anarchist/environmental organisation Green and Black Cross said: “What we are noticing is a huge concentration of police resources being put into information gathering, especially around the student demos this month. The concern for us is that students, particularly school or college students aren’t aware of this tactic and make it easy for the Police to monitor them by talking about everything they did or saw at the protests on Facebook.” thoughcowardsflinch.com

This recognition of the downside of citizen video journalism is the argument that Evgeny Morozov, a former information worker turned liberal analyst and academic, makes in his latest book ‘The Net Delusion – How not to Change the world’. In it, Morozov argues that the Internet, with its potential use for propaganda and surveillance purposes by repressive states, is just as much a tool for oppression as it is for grass-roots liberation and progressive activism. He also says that ‘slactivism’ – or the belief that you can change the world by pressing a button while munching on a pizza in your bedroom is enough to change the world, may drain energy from protest movements – slacktivism breeds inactivism, in other words.

This is the dilemma that I am going to look into in the next few blogs  – How are activists dealing with increasing video and online surveillance? What techniques and tools are governments using to spy on activist networks? And the biggie – is online video activism effective?

As Morozov says himself: “Knowing that they might be watched by government agents but not knowing exactly how such surveillance happens, many activists might lean towards self-censorship… Understanding the full gamut of risks and vulnerabilities that activists expose themselves to require a bit more investigative work…”

By Mike Doherty

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