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Tech and protesters at #occupysydney
On 5 November I joined a large crowd of other Sydneysiders at the Occupy Sydney protest. As at many other protests over the last half decade, the crowd was full of people either documenting the protest by filming and taking photographs or tweeting.
These days it's the norm for demonstrators to be self-documenting, enabling protesters to document possible police misconduct and to bypass a media establishment that is often unsympathetic to the issues that have brought people into the streets.
During the rally following the #occupysydney hashtag provided people with blow-by-blow accounts of what was happening, including photos, and Occupy Sydney also runs a Facebook group that lets people know about upcoming events (as well as hosting sometimes vituperative debates with both supporters and detractors).
During the rally I ran into freelance journalist and activist Kate Ausburn charging her iPhone at a power point she had discovered in the Martin Place train station, below the site of the protest. "Most of my time down at these protests I have my iPhone and a D-SLR with me," Ausburn said.
"So I take decent photos for publication on my D-SLR, but having a smartphone with me means I can take photos videos and audio and put it online straight away. So for me that's really handy — it means my content can go around the world before the protest is even over."
Power points are vital tools for the modern protester.
Ausburn has several thousand follows on Twitter, "so when I send these photos out from protests I can share something that's happening in Sydney with the US or with the Middle East immediately".
Simon Butler, one of the participants in Occupy Sydney and a co-editor of radical newspaper Green Left Weekly (where I worked for quite some time), says the rise of 'citizen journalism' is one of the important impacts technology is having on protests.
"Every person at a protest today is potentially also a video journalist or can take photos or take part in the protest in a very different way than what was possible previously," Butler says. "So people can take part in protests in many more ways; they can take part and they can be part of the media coverage of what they do."
In the lead-up to events such as Occupy Sydney, access to technology such as the internet has also had an impact on how people go about organising and promoting protests. That's not to say you no longer see young activists dodging police while pasting up posters around Sydney. But as Butler told me, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are vital tools for promoting protests — especially on short notice.
"What drew that home for me a lot recently was when [Wikileaks founder] Julian Assange was first put in custody in London a year ago," Butler says. "The rallies to support him were built entirely on the internet, entirely on Facebook. So it is becoming a more and more important way for activists to spread news and to organise protests."
Stuart Munckton, Butler's co-editor at Green Left Weekly, said that the internet "has changed the ability for people to get a whole lot of information that they couldn't previously have accessed". "There's a reason why [ousted Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak shut the internet down in Egypt. And that's because it was such an important organising tool."
But although technology has changed how people learn about protests, Butler says that there is still value in face-to-face meetings when it comes to actually organising social movement. In a meeting "you have a much more flowing discussion."
"There are times where conversation or political debate on things like Twitter can be quite unhelpful because it's very hard to get the nuances of different people's positions in a way that you can do much more easily face to face. So it's certainly not a substitute for some of what you might call the older styles methods of organising. But used well it can complement that and make political organising much easier overall."
Munckton says that technologies like internet "have made it a lot easier to communicate with people, and also for people to find information". However, "it's a bit double-edged, in the sense that it's also given rise to a type of 'internet activism' promoted by groups such as Get Up, whereby they send out their mass emails and they organise people to send emails in and all the rest of it. [This] has a certain value but it's quite a passive form of organising. I think that can be a bit of an illusion — the idea that you can just organise in that way to achieve change…
"You still need to get people out onto the street. These things can be very, very useful ways to do that — but you can't storm a barricade on Facebook."
Follow Rohan Pearce on Twitter: @rohan_p
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