The Revolution Will Now Be Digitised

The revolution will not be televised

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down

Brothers in the instant replay.

There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being

Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.

There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy

Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and

Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving

For just the proper occasion….because

The revolution will not be televised

Gil Scott-Heron wrote those lyrics in 1971 based on a Black Panther Party slogan. These revolutionaries’ argument was that, due to the establishment’s control of news media, their revolution’s message would be near-impossible to spread until it arrived upon the doorstep. In the end, they never saw the revolution they were expecting. However, Scott-Heron lived until 2011, long enough to see the birth of a new kind of revolutionary activism, one which did not need to be televised.

In the 21st Century, media access has been revolutionised by the explosive growth of the internet. Research shows that young people (aged 18-35) in the West gets their news less and less from television and increasingly from social media – over 60% get political news from Facebook. Another trend that challenges the dominance of traditional news outlets is the growth of ‘citizen reporters’ who have taken advantage of modern technology to film, edit and broadcast their own message, independent of any corporate media group. Thanks to platforms like Twitter and especially YouTube, these reporters can gain a large following and even generate revenue to sustain their work. Controlling the public’s perception of events is now approaching impossible for established elites.

Citizen journalism during the Occupy Wall Street protests on Brooklyn Bridge, by Nick Gulotta

These new media forms have inspired and covered new protest movements. The Occupy Wall Street Movement from 2011 was inspired and coordinated through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter; Black Lives Matter and the protests against police brutality across the US since 2014 were informed by videos posted to YouTube of incidents of police violence and injustice; the Democracy Spring marches on the US Capitol in recent weeks have been covered almost exclusively by online media, with cable news networks devoting literally less than a minute to the protests.

Perhaps the most revolutionary of these new reporters and activists come from the Middle East. In Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, access to the internet is re-moulding Palestinian models of resistance to Israeli occupation, leading some to dub the recent unrest the ‘Digital Intifada’. The protests and attacks are leaderless, anarchic, and almost impossible for the Israeli government to repress. Videos of the protests are spread rapidly through social media by young reporters, some as young as nine years old, who film protests and confrontations with IDF troops. More disturbingly, online videos instructing Palestinians to ‘stab a Jew’ have motivated hundreds of seemingly random attacks, which have led to dozens of Israeli deaths, and almost two hundred Palestinian deaths.

Perhaps the most widely covered examples of this dark use of online media is that by the Islamic State group. The group’s main propaganda outlet is through the internet, in a constantly shifting battle with intelligence agencies, social media corporations like Twitter and even online groups such as Anonymous. The group attracts recruits by publicising slick propaganda videos of an idealised version of their caliphate through the use of social media and messaging services. They also put out videos of their atrocities, an effective form of psychological warfare against IS’ alleged arch-nemesis, the West.

Boys in Raqqa, Syria, by Beshr Abdulhadi

Islamic State have shown the dark side of online activism in a manner that is both horrifying and unprecedented, and many casual observers of the digital revolution could be swayed into believing that the future of online activism is headed to an extremely dark place. However, perhaps the most revolutionary online activists in the digital revolution are a group that are combating IS extremely effectively using online platforms. Soon after IS took control of Rappa in 2014, an underground movement of young activists and reporters (many of whom had been filming since the start of the civil war) sprang up. Adopting the name ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ (RBSS), these activists spread videos showing IS’ brutality in the city and, perhaps even more effective, the group’s everyday incompetence in governing a city in near-permanent chaos. Given the fact that prior to RBSS’ efforts no other information comes out of the caliphate’s capital besides IS propaganda, the activists’ message is a powerful counter to the extemists’ material. Amateur videos of enormous food queues, squalid hospitals and overcrowded and under-resourced schools undermine IS’ slick propaganda campaign. RBSS’ effectiveness as an online activist group stands not only because of their powerful challenge to IS, but also because of their resistance to IS’ crackdown on their activities. When militants began confiscating the phones of those observing their events, activists used software to hide their material from casual searches. When the Islamists banned the use of wifi in order to stop footage getting out of Raqqa, the activists devised a new (and still secret) method of getting their footage to fellow activists in Turkey.

IS has engaged in a campaign of intimidation and murder in order to stop RBSS. By late 2015 they were even resorting to sending assassins across the Turkish border to hunt down activists. In October two young activists, aged 21 and 18, were beheaded by a team of killers in Sanliurfa, a Turkish border town. In December an experienced filmmaker, Naji Jerf, was shot dead in a drive-by shooting in Gaziantep. These murders drove RBSS underground in Turkey, and many members have fled to Europe; but they continue their work. They have thwarted hundreds of IS attempts to hack their website and are even in the process of expansion. The group’s coordinator for activities in Raqqa, a 24 year old named Sarmad, is recruiting media activists in the IS-held city of Mosul, Iraq.

The activities of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently and the continuing failure of the world’s most powerful terrorist organisation to put a stop to their activities shows how effective an online revolutionary movement can be. RBSS’ message against IS has proved resilient to every measure of repression; confiscation and prohibition (traditional government measures), online attacks and hacking, and even terrorist intimidation and attacks. Their revolution is not being televised, in the way that IS’ atrocities are constantly splashed over the headlines of CNN or the BBC, but their resilience as a group proves that their revolution no longer needs the help of television to get the message out.

For more information on ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, visit their English-language site here.

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