Social media enables Occupy DC protests and defines them too

The mishmash of different principles and goals floating around the Occupy DC protest's headquarters near lobbyist-heavy K Street is a lot like the near cacophony of Tweets streaming under the movement's #occupyDC and #occupyKst hash tags, said Kelly Mears, a leader of the group's social media outreach.

"Twitter would be the digital analogue or parallel for this space," he told Nextgov this week. "Everyone has the same 140-character burst transmission and if it resonates, then you're heard."

That decentralized and democratized form of messaging is confusing for some older people and for many mainstream media outlets, which want the movement to have a central platform they can assess and official spokespeople to call for comment, Mears said.

And yet it would be difficult for the movement to be anything else.

Occupy DC sprang up quickly and organically, first on social media and then in-person after the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which launched Sept. 17 in New York. Since then, Occupy movements aimed generally at frustration over the nation's long-standing economic woes and income inequality have sprouted up in dozens of cities nationwide.

That loosely bound, ground-up, social media-driven organizing model, which occupiers often compare with the Jan. 25 uprisings in Egypt's Tahrir Square, would fit poorly with the top-down management and messaging structure of traditional protest movements. And the outfit would risk losing many supporters if leaders tried to impose a broad set of standard principles or positions.

"A lot of people here refer to [the movement] as the American Fall in response to the Arab Spring," Mears said. "And I think that's an excellent way to think about it. Without social media and without new media, then it's the '90s and we're all disconnected and disparate entities. We may have problems with the way things are and we may see things that are appalling to us, but there isn't a forum to discuss those things."

Mears, 24, was a Washington-based Web developer before joining the Occupy DC movement when it first launched Oct. 1 following the success of Occupy Wall Street. Now he's considering leaving his job and deferring his student loans to stay with the movement long term.

He has spent much of the past two weeks at a folding table in Washington's McPherson Square where five laptops are plugged into a donated generator that members of the movement's media team regularly lug across the street to refuel because of local ordinances prohibiting uncovered gas cans in public parks.

From one of those laptops, Mears sifts through a slew of Twitter streams, publicizing Occupy DC marches throughout the city, re-Tweeting links to news articles, Tweeting at reporters to correct errors and communicating with Occupy movements in other cities.

He also manages the movement's live video stream, which beams several hours a day from the McPherson headquarters and elsewhere. During marches, the group streams from an apparatus it affectionately calls the droid, a baby stroller with a webcam clipped to the handle and a laptop, mobile Wi-Fi hot spot and heavy-duty battery secured in the carriage.

Mears and others at the laptop table also manage donations by Tweeting under the #OccupyDCNeeds hash tag, which he said has brought the group everything from food, tents and asthma inhalers to the laptop-powering generators -- usually in just a matter of hours.

The group has solicited and responded to service donations through Twitter as well, including from some Washington security consultants who are helping isolate and protect against a series of denial-of-service attacks on its website. Most of those attacks are transmitted through computers in Russia and Eastern Europe, Mears said, though that likely isn't their true origin. The site went down for several hours Tuesday, but that seems to have been caused by a technical error, he said, not a malicious attack.

The occupy movement also has won numerous endorsements from Washington-based organizations, including from the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE President John Gage said in an Oct. 7 statement that federal employees "know firsthand what it's like to sacrifice while millionaires and billionaires avoid paying their fair share."

About half a mile south of Mears in Freedom Plaza near the National Mall, Udi Pladott is doing very similar work, but under a tent and with more stable sources of electricity and Wi-Fi.

Pladott's group, known both as October2011 and Stop the Machine, is something like Facebook to the McPherson group's Twitter. A small group of leaders began organizing the event early in the summer, applying for permits, gathering supplies and drumming up online support. Power has become more dispersed since the event's Oct. 6 launch, but a core group still is doing most of the organizational and media work, similar to Facebook's post and comment structure.

Most people visiting the group's website are linking through Facebook according to Google Analytics, Pladott said, which tends to have a slightly older user group than Twitter.

In contrast to the McPherson group, October2011 reserves part of its site for registered users. The group collected about 9,000 of its 10,300 registrants before the event launched, part of concerted outreach to supporters and possible donors, said Pladott, a Richmomd Va.-based Web developer.

The difference in origin and philosophy has caused some tension between the two groups, especially when media organizations conflate them in news stories. Members of both groups are quick to say that their differences are organizational, not personal and that most of their members agree on most issues.

"They see us as these old -school, top-down organizers. And there's some truth to that. But there's also some benefit. This looks like something different from McPherson," Pladott said, gesturing at the stable media table and to a makeshift stage with a backdrop designed to look like an unscrolled Bill of Rights. "We have a whole operation here."

The October2011 group originally intended to Tweet using the hash tag #Oct06, referencing the protest's Oct. 6 launch and following a form established by Egyptian protesters who Tweeted under the #Jan25 hash tag for the day the Tahrir Square protests launched.

After the launch of the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy DC protests, though, the organization changed course and began using the #OccupyDC hash tag as well, one source of the confusion and tension between the groups.

Neither Pladott nor Mears claimed to know where their protests would lead or even if there is a consensus about the most important things to achieve. Pladott did say the occupations might encourage more third-party and progressive challengers to Democratic candidates.

Not having a clear goal shouldn't hold back the movements, said Dania Gharaibeh, a Cairo-born and Washington-based international development worker.

Gharaibeh was in Washington when the Tahrir Square protests broke out but flew home to participate. During the past week, she's spent time at both Washington protests and spent the weekend visiting Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York.

"When a group of young Egyptians decided to go down to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, they had no idea what they wanted," she said. "There was no clear agenda, but there was an intense sense of empathy. There was an intense sense of 'something isn't right and we need to speak out.' And the same accusations that these people faced from the [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak regime are being faced by the people in the square here."