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#OccupyWallStreet …? I’ll be there, but on Twitter

The numbers in Manhattan streets are far outnumbered by those on social media. Don Emmert/AFP

On Saturday, hundreds of protestors congregated in the Wall Street area of New York at the start of a protest dubbed #OccupyWallStreet.

The aim? To “flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.

"Once there, we shall incessantly repeat our one simple demand until Barack Obama capitulates.”

And the demand? Well …

Initially organised by Vancouver-based media activists Adbusters, the campaign has set out to establish a protest presence in Wall Street for an extended period.

Adbusters was joined in August by hacktivist group Anonymous in rallying supporters for the start of the action and spreading the word through websites and social media.

Although the aim was to replicate the protests of Egypt’s Tahrir Square, it’s clear NYC is not Cairo.

What was similar, and possibly of more importance though, was the activism that accompanied the protest being played out on social media.

September 17: Wall Street

As protestors started congregating in Manhattan, police closed Wall Street and, in a slightly comic way, moved to protect the bronze icon of Wall Street, the Charging Bull.

Fears for the Charging Bull of Wall Street appear to have been unfounded. Twitter

The bull was never in any danger: the protest began, and continued, peacefully with speeches, chanting, yoga and tai chi.

Probably the most serious problem the protesters faced, and reflective of the media-supported nature of the event, was when police allegedly switched off the power in one location restricting protestors from recharging laptops, phones and cameras.

Although not reaching the initial target of 20,000 protestors, it’s estimated between 1,000 and 2,000 protesters attended on the first day with fewer staying through the night, camping in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

Meanwhile, online …

September 17: The internet

Tens of thousands of people started following and interacting with the protestors via Twitter, live streaming, chat rooms and blogs. Organisers were coordinating the protest via the Twitter hashtags #OccupyWallStreet and #Sep17.

Concerned that Twitter was effectively blocking the tag #OccupyWallStreet from appearing in the top trending list, they switched to #TakeWallStreet, which then went into the top trending list.

Protestors and supporters monitored police radio and provided live streaming coverage of events not only in NY but at other parallel protests in Spain, Greece and other locations.

By 9:30 pm EST, #OccupyWallStreet had nearly 71,000 tweets with 18,000 contributors and approximately 105 million views.

Chat rooms set up by Anonymous and livestream were buzzing with global dialogue. The #hashtag distribution of #OccupyWallStreet is a global and virtual phenomenon as much as a physical protest in NY City.

A global snapshot of #OccupyWallStreet activity on Twitter, September 18. (18/11/2011)

Mainstream media’s silence

This activity on global social media was not matched by traditional media. Apart from a few exceptions, such outlets have so far chosen not to cover the protest.

Following events as they unfolded on Twitter, it appeared there were only three mainstream journalists in Wall Street: a crew from Al Jazeera’s The Stream, Julianne Pepitone of CNN Money and Colin Moynihan of the New York Times Cityroom Blog.

Articles that have started appearing on sites such as MSNBC appear to be taken from secondary sources.

The issue of lack of coverage by mainstream media has continued to dominate on Twitter, even though the reasons for this may be more prosaic than conspiratorial. They include:

1) The protest happened on a weekend, when it’s conceivable mainstream media hadn’t paid journalists to cover it, or had staff on standby pending “developments”.

2) The protest was peaceful and, so far, non-disruptive, which lessens the newsworthiness.

3) The organisers had not done the journalists’ jobs for them by sending copy/press releases to them.

Protestors aim to turn mixed messages into “one demand”. Don Emmert/AFP

The question has been raised as to why there should have been so much interest by organisers and others on Twitter about the involvement of mainstream media.

Perhaps there’s a misguided belief that coverage in this way somehow legitimises the protest and would cause politicians, corporate executives or the public at large to take more notice.

Tied in with the above is an assumption that if the mainstream media does cover the occupation, they will do so in a way that reflects the protest accurately and in a positive light.

But this type of coverage is more likely to come, as it is increasingly does for events such as these, from bloggers, independent media sites and social media – principally Twitter.

Concerns over lack of mainstream media coverage may yet have a secondary effect, which is to prompt online attacks. Potential targets as part of #OccupyWallStreet were being discussed for just this reason.

Has the peaceful nature of the protest been a turn-off for mainstream media? Don Emmert/AFP

What are we fighting for?

A further aspect of the protest that prevents realistic comparisons with those in the Middle East is that the aims, although legitimate, are much more amorphous.

The Adbusters’ website claims there is one demand to be agreed on by the end of the process and made to the US Government.

This demand has been variously translated into:

  • reducing the undue influence of corporate lobby groups on Washington
  • regulating the finance industry
  • addressing the disproportionate ownership of wealth in the hands of the few
  • punishing banks and corporations for their part in the Global Financial Crisis.

Finding people in the US who are happy with the political and economic situation is becoming increasingly difficult; finding consensus on what to do about it even more so.

We will need to wait and see whether the protestors of #OccupyWallStreet achieve a consensus over the coming days and weeks.

If they do, it won’t just be a product of those that are physically in Wall Street but the tens of thousands participating online.

In the words of American rapper Lupe Fiasco, who wrote a poem for the occasion:

“Hey Moneyman poor Moneyman you should slip out the back. Cuz the forces of greed are under attack. No bombs or bullets or rocks or guns. Just hashtags and voices at the tops of their lungs!”

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