September 29, 2010

Facebook and the FBI Raids

The outrageous FBI raids on international solidarity and anti-war activists in the Mid-West has triggered a heartening outpouring of solidarity on the left. It also demonstrated that we are in a new stage in the development of the ever-changing Internet. This was the first major attack by the FBI in the Facebook Era, when social networking reportedly comprises almost a quarter of every hour spent on the Internet, more than games or email or any other single use.

I’ll start with my own involvement. By a fluke I was not only online but on Facebook last Friday morning, September 24. I saw a status update posted five minutes before by Stef Yorek, a friend and a former comrade in FRSO/OSCL. It read:

The FBI is executing a search warrant on our house right now. The claim to be looking for evidence of material support for so-called Foreign Terrorist Organizations. The FARC and PFLP are mentioned by name. This is taking place in multiple cities across the country. I have been served with a warrant to appear before a Grand Jury. It's an outrageous fishing expedition.

I immediately posted it as my status (out of consideration to those who are not familiar with Facebook's structure, terms of art there are here italicized) and then, at the suggestion of Kay Kersplebdeb, posted it here on Fire on the Mountain and linked to it on my Facebook profile so that others there could share it more readily. In the first ninety minutes, at least six other people I know of shared the link and there were well over 200 visitors to this site.

Others were, I am certain, spreading the word as well. Thus, thousands of people around the country were alerted to the attack even as FBI agents were still in the activists’ houses, stealing their files and computers!

The story continued to dominate Facebook for the next few days, or at least the admittedly politicized corner of it where my friend list is based. In the course of tracking it, I noticed a few things I want to summarize here.

First, I saw the process of posts, reposts of the first articles from the mainstream media, and comments around the attack very quickly jell into a political consensus, a line which could be used to understand and organize around the raids. The attack was seen and summarized as aimed at solidarity activists rather than members of a particular organization. It was seen as a deliberate and unjustified move by the government (and in most people’s view the Obama administration) against the left and the anti-war movement.

The raids were seen as using the excuse of “fighting terrorism” to demonize activists and undercut basic Constitutional rights, and as posing a threat to anyone fighting this government’s foreign policy now or in the future.

As it shifted into the blogosphere--the previous center of gravity in the development of the Internet--this was reflected in almost all the pieces I read. (One site did initially choose to spotlight the presence of open members of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization [Fight Back] among those targeted, a mistake on two counts, I would argue. Factually, by no means all of those active in the solidarity groups named in the warrants are members of any group or even socialists. Politically, unless those attacked themselves decide to emphasize organizational matters, doing so tends to make it easier for the state and the media to slander and isolate them.)

As the activists targeted in the warrants, raids and subpoenas regained their footing, they produced a statement and a couple of YouTube videos like this that underscored the line arrived at on Facebook and in the blogosphere.

And in the final stage, this consensus was reflected in the commendable spate of statements produced by socialist, anti-war and progressive organizations, much faster than they might have been even a few years ago.

Second, I saw a very disparate group of individuals--liberals, progressives and revolutionaries, even some libertarians--move to inoculate themselves and their milieu against further attacks. Within the first hour, people were widely posting and linking the Center for Constitutional Rights pamphlet and then the ACLU's slightly shorter equivalent. Folks got the message:
If the FBI knocks: 1) Clam Up. 2) Lawyer Up.
Over the ensuing hours and days this was continued but also deepened and given nuance by further posts and comments. On the nitty-gritty end of the spectrum, at least one friend pointed out that anyone expecting to hear a Miranda warning these days has been watching too many cops shows. Far above street level, others pointed out the menacing effects of the Supreme Court decision only a few months ago in Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, which rules that speech alone can constitute “material aid” to groups on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.

Third, this spontaneously collective process, while it produced an admirable consensus response and trained thousands in the appropriate stance for dealing with possible contact with the Feds, did not produce a program of struggle around the raids. At least it didn’t do so before those hit by the raids put out a call (or perhaps endorsed some existing ones—I’m not sure of the timeline) for folks to bombard Attorney General Holder’s office with phone calls and emails and to hold local demonstrations at FBI offices, Federal Buildings or similar targets. So far more than 30 protests have been held or called and I’ve spoken to at least three friends who went to one based directly on an announcement they read on Facebook.

Now, a couple quick words on the downside of the Facebook-centric rapid response that I’m general citing as a good thing here. For one thing it’s like trying to drink from a firehose if you have many friends or ones who post frequently. It’s decentered so there’s no way of ensuring that there is a common body of knowledge or practice--for instance, I learned in the last day of three demonstrations which were not on the best maintained list, that of the International Action Center--in Memphis, San Diego and Portland, OR. It has a wicked short shelf life--in the last half hour I have seen only six raid-related posts, while on Sunday that would have been dozens. The space for political discussion and education is limited--almost nothing on Facebook or in the blogosphere has dealt at all with the corrupt and brutal government of Colombia and the reasons the FTO-listed Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaria de Colombia (FARC) have waged a decades long guerrilla war to smash the rule of the oligarchy.

Finally, a caution, which should be obvious. I am, of necessity, like Mao Zedong’s frog in the well here:
A frog in a well says, "The sky is no bigger than the mouth of the well." That is untrue, for the sky is not just the size of the mouth of the well.

For one thing I don’t use Twitter, and I’m sure a lot of this spread there as well. I hope that folks who have made it this far will chip in observations and thoughts based on what the sky looked like from the bottom of your particular well…


mike ely said...

Just to add our little piece of the picture:

On Kasama, we posted the announcement of the raids that appeared on Twin Cities Indymedia site. It went up about 10 am -- within hours that posting had about 600 page views. All day we posted updates as they appeared and then started posting solidarity statements. Quickly we started receiving emails from people wanting to publicize their own solidarity statements. Over the next few days we had 18 different posts on the raids -- and about a 1,000 pageviews a day more than usual.

Philip Keaton said...

We are publicixing the raids and the aftermath, including the protests, on Please send any info on protests or news about recent developments to us.

On the question of whether we should have identified FSRO by name: the warrants did that, and this information was put out by virtually all major news organizations covering the raids. There are no secrets on the internets.

== Justin R

Candace Dem said...

Interestting thoughts