Tactical Media After 9-11

It is tempting to portray '9-11' as a turning point. Gore Vidal warns that, since September 11, the US is in danger of turning into a "seedy imperial state." Make war, not politics. The new patriotism requires: "Disruption, including obstructing the view or hearing of others, will not be tolerated." The list of measures to restrict civil liberties, freedom of speech and privacy, or what?s left of it, doesn?t stop. A recent conference in Perth concluded that post-September 11 reporting adds to divisions and stereotypes. "The media's failure to provide more perspectives to news consumers and ask critical questions is fuelling a culture of fear and blame around the world, experts say."

There seems to be an abundance of easy-to-digest stories portraying normal people as victims of the Weapons of Mass Deception, fuelling a general state of uncertainty. One can read about media blacking out a documentary on war crimes in Afghanistan, calls to "nuke Mecca," "Why it is right to be anti-American," 9-11 as "Information Warfare" and the New McCarthyism, about the U.S. Army luring youths with video games, Homeland Insecurity, the Pentagon hiring secret PR gurus, its Office for Strategic Influence, "U.S. on verge of electronic martial law," and find out why "New York is starting to feel like Brezhnev's Moscow." So, please do not forget to type in the pledge, "One Internet Under God," before you log on next time--or Microsoft?s Palladium and FBI's Carnivore will notify authorities.

In this climate of fear, the once celebrated Internet is no longer perceived as a free haven. There is a proliferation of the "Singapore model." In Singapore, high Internet usage and control are no longer a contradiction. The cyber libertarian promise that the take-up of the Net would create democracy doesn't quite work. Recognizing the economic importance of the medium, governments are no longer afraid that the Internet will foster freedom of speech. In 2000 the IT Security Unit of Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs quietly wandered into the files of 200,000 private computers in what was later explained as an effort to trace a damaging virus. Trapped into the dense fiber-optic network of monopolist Singtel, there is little room to 'route around' watchful government eyes.

While China's Internet traffic is growing at an unprecedented 6% a month, so is the grip of the state. After a fire in a Beijing cyber café on June 16, 2002 that killed 24 people, authorities announced the closing of about 150,000 unlicensed Internet cafes nationwide. At the same time, access to some of the blocked Western news sites has been lifted. Within a few years China has become the second largest Internet user. Instead of interacting and contributing, they are the downloading Other, the perfect consumer. Filtering is, in any case, no longer an exclusive matter of authoritarian regimes. It's now a standard feature in intranets of both corporations and universities. On top of that, search engines and directories such as Google and Yahoo! appear all but transparent.

Parallel to the alarming stories of increased surveillance, the Internet recently has developed in interesting directions. The crash of the dotcoms has created space for new, non-commercial approaches to come to the surface. I would mention the steady rise of free software and open source concepts, making their way into the cultural sector; peer- to-peer networks, maturing beyond the Napster music file sharing craze; and the rise of weblogs, easy to use open publishing platforms. We could add to this list the use of PC- based video and audio editing systems spreading like wild fire and 'tactical' SMS messaging on mobile/cell phones. All these tools add to a democratization of the media sphere which, despite growing corporate control and government regulation, is undoubtedly under way worldwide. It in this techno age, post 1989, that we see the rise of "tactical media." This virtual casebook bears witness to the multitude of stories and viewpoints these tactical media are recording and distributing.

Attempts by Bin Laden and Bush Jr. in 2001 to highjack all media under the one sign of Terror (and the war against it) effectively lasted only a few weeks. Retrospectively, the 9- 11 War on Dissent has had remarkably little impact on tactical media. Quite the opposite, they have thrived. According to former Internet operator of the independent radio station B92 in Belgrade, Drazen Pantic, now a researcher at NYU, tactical media groups are much better suited for conflict, while they usually decline in less turbulent times. "Independent media thrive in times of "war" while losing out to the corporate spirit in peace time." These have indeed been times of extraordinarily lively debates, with so many raising their voices, expressing their concerns. Warnings of a New Dark Age however tend to blend out the paradoxical situation we face between a growing media control and a flourishing independent news and dialogue structure.

Remarkably, conspiracy theories have moved out of the underground and into a new, quasi-mainstream media sphere. From there they fuel paranoia. Bush conspired to create the September 11 attacks for his own political gain and has been using Osama bin Laden as a scapegoat. Never heard of the American Legislative Exchange Council or mind control programs that turn soldiers into zombie robots? Because of the anti-Semitic and racist undertones of many of the conspiracy theories, alternative channels have long distanced themselves from such mythologies. Suspicions about an ultra-conservative US- led World Government elite that would be behind all the misery in this world, including "9-11" are not mobilizing new segments of society towards dissent. Instead of reductionism, tactical media break open monolithic analyses and introduce new, personal voices and 'cool theory' that do not fit into yesterday's political schemes.

Despite all the criticism, globalization has had an overall positive effect on the awareness of the issues people deal with around the world. Conflicts are no longer just regional, local or personal. The global news industry, of which the independent or alternative channels are only tiny mirroring particles, are great ways to enter alternative stories of everyday life. Instead of complaining about mainstream media censoring, hiding the truth etc., we can use them as 'portals' that lead to other news sources and opinions. In that sense tactical media are post-oppositional. They are more driven by their own energy and desire to mediate, rather then unmasking corporate and state-controlled media outlets. Get blogged and webcast the night away! Any subversive news to swap?

Once we have switched channels we can learn about opposition websites in Pakistan; dissident views on the ethnic violence in Gujarat (India); ordinary Cubans, sick of politics on both sides, longing for a better life; Venezuelans, debating the pros and cons of the Chavez government; alternative voices in Palestine. Globalization, the once mighty, disputed signifier of our time, is therefore neither a holy cow nor the devil itself but can be twisted as an opportunity to hear about drought and salinity problems in the Australian outback; Kurdish migrants crossing Europe's new borders; worsening water supply shortage in Lagos; declining wages; global power tricks of the pharmaceutical industry; the dramatic decline in education levels; and the army of unemployed in Argentine. CNN is not providing this dialogue, obviously. But the opportunity is only a few clicks away, and already millions are finding their way to alternative news sites such as Indymedia and other "modern day muckrakers." Tactical media do not amplify the obvious. Instead they point at cracks in the armor of the power to be, thereby creating new alliances, both in the 'real' and the 'virtual'.


The Virtual Casebook project on Tactical Media at NYU: