We are witnessing the advent of social movement warfare: the deployment of social protest as an effective alternative to conventional military conflict writes Micah White, one of the co-creators of Occupy Wall Street
I have sometimes been approached by persons that I suspected were either agents or assets of intelligence agencies during the 20 years that I have been a social activist. The tempo of these disconcerting encounters increased when I abruptly relocated to a remote town on the Oregon coast after the defeat of Occupy Wall Street, a movement I helped lead. My physical inaccessibility seemed to provoke a kind of desperation among these shadowy forces.
There was the man purporting to be an internet repair technician who arrived unsolicited at our rural home and then tinkered with our modem. Something felt odd and I was not surprised when CNN later reported that posing as internet repairmen is a known tactic of the FBI.
I’ve had other suspicious encounters. A couple seeking advice on starting a spiritual activist community, for example, but whose story made little sense. And a former Occupy activist who moved to my town to, I felt, undermine my activism and gather information about me.
Those few friends that I confided in dismissed my suspicions as mild paranoia. And perhaps it was. I stopped talking about it and instead became highly selective about the people I met, emails I responded to and invitations I accepted.
I hinted at the situation by adding a section to my book, The End of Protest, warning activists to beware of frontgroups. And, above all, I learned to trust my intuition – if someone gave me a tingly sense then I stayed away. That is why I almost ignored the interview request from Yan Big Davis.
Yan Big contacted me for the first time through my website on 18 May 2016. He wrote that he wanted to interview me about protest for an organization called Black Matters, an online community that he claimed had 200,000 likes. His email was strange. His English was awkward. I’d never heard of Black Matters but it sounded like a copycat of Black Lives Matter.
My intuition told me to stay away. And initially I did. But two weeks later, on a lark, I wrote back and accepted his request. In a sign of my residual wariness, I scheduled the interview for nearly a month after his original email.
The interview with Yan Big was immediately uncomfortable. The phone quality was terrible: it sounded like he was calling internationally or through a distant internet connection. He had a strange accent and an unusual way of phrasing questions. He was obviously not a typical American.
I rationalized that he must be an African immigrant living in America and that was why he was interested in protesting against racism and police brutality. His attempts at flattery set off more alarm bells. I finished up the interview as quickly as possible and got off the phone.
Yan Big posted the interview on the Black Matters website and for the next few months he emailed me to ask for help promoting protests in America against the continued incarceration of the MOVE 9 and Jerome Skee Smith. I never replied again.
I actively forgot about Yan Big until 18 months later when a reporter with Russia’s RBC informed me that Black Matters was a frountgroup run by the nefarious Internet Research Agency, a Russian private intelligence and propaganda firm – a “troll factory” - with deep ties to Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Black Matters was one of many fake activist groups, such as Blacktivist and the police brutality tracker DoNotShoot.us, created to mimic and influence American protesters. RBC discovered around 120 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram frontgroup accounts with a combined total of 6 million followers and likes.
As a revolutionary American activist I’d been on guard against domestic intelligence agencies, not foreign governments, and Russia exploited that posture.
The American media started calling me within hours of RBC breaking the story. Russia had attempted to use me for their anti-democratic agenda – rather unsuccessfully as I had stopped replying to their emails – and now the American corporate media was vying to use me for theirs.
BuzzFeed rushed out a report. CNN sent a car to transport me to Time Warner headquarters for an on-camera interview that was instantly uncomfortable in a way oddly reminiscent of my brief encounter with Yan Big.
CNN’s interviewer and producer seemed to want me to play the naive victim: angry at the US government for not protecting me and furious at the Silicon Valley tech companies for allowing this to happen. I got the tingly sense and refused this disempowering and anti-revolutionary narrative.
Instead, I gave a nuanced reply and told them I wanted a revolution in America, not a clampdown on social media’s role in protest. CNN did not air the interview. The same thing happened when I spoke with a producer of NPR’s flagship show All Things Considered.
So what is the American media unwilling to consider?
First of all, Russia’s efforts are part of a larger shift in the nature of war in which activists are becoming the pawns of superpowers. We are witnessing the advent of social movement warfare: the deployment of social protest as an effective alternative to conventional military conflict.
Russia’s attempts to foment, stage and manage social protest in western democracies is a strategic response to allegedly American-funded “color revolutions” like the Rose, Orange and Tulip revolutions against Russian-allied governments in Georgia (2003-2004), Ukraine (2004-2005) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) along with, arguably, the Arab Spring (2010-2012) and Euromaidan Revolution (2013-2014).
The Russian ministry of defense hosted an international conference in 2014 whose primary focus was developing counter-strategies against these color revolutions. And, although this has never been publicly disclosed, it is reasonable to suspect that sparking a color revolution in America was discussed in the backrooms.
I am reluctant to respond to this trend by calling for a ban on foreign support for domestic activism. This kind of meddling might be a necessary evil. I can think of very few successful revolutions that did not rely on foreign aid.
France supported the American Revolution beginning with the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1778. Germany, which was at war with Russia, helped Lenin return from exile to lead the Bolshevik Russian Revolution in 1917. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa received significant international support. Or here is an example close to my heart: Occupy Wall Street, a global movement that ostensibly began in New York City, was actually created by a Canadian magazine.
In fact, although it is rarely discussed, the Occupy movement received substantial support from Russia. I remember how the state-owned RT television station (formerly Russia Today) aggressively supported the movement with hyperbolic coverage of police brutality.
RT even rewarded one prominent Occupy political comedian known for YouTube tirades with his own show, Redacted Tonight. A recent profile of that former activist revealed his now complete reluctance to criticize Putin. And during the height of the movement, RT invited David Graeber and other prominent founding Occupiers from New York City to London to film an episode of Julian Assange’s show.
These were all obvious attempts to co-opt our social protest by amplifying it and becoming the movement’s primary mouthpiece and media source. But it still helped Occupy spread to 82 countries.
What is qualitatively different about the situation today, and reason for genuine concern among activists, is that Russia now seems less interested in supporting authentic movements and more concerned with outright control.
Russia never tried, as far as we know, to splinter off a fake Occupy frontgroup. Back then Russia wasn’t seeking to create American movements directly led and controlled by Russian citizens.
Today, on the contrary, we know that Russians created fake Black Lives Matter protests and fake Standing Rock social media accounts. This shift from providing support to actively establishing groups under their total control is the real danger activists must resist.
From co-opting Occupy to cloning Black Lives Matter, the next step will be the creation of new, previously unheard of, contagious social protests in America that are conceived, designed, launched and remotely controlled entirely by foreign governments.
Many activists might join these protests because they believe in the cause being espoused without realizing who owns the leadership. But if the suspicion becomes widespread that tomorrow’s social movements are actually Russian, Chinese or North Korean frontgroups then there will be a profound delegitimization of protest that significantly bolsters the anti-democratic forces in western democracies that already want to clamp down on activism.
Both outcomes represent truly terrifying future scenarios that lead to the most pressing question of all: what can activists do?
The way forward begins with an honest acknowledgement from American activists that we were complicit in Russia’s ability to mimic our protest movements. We allowed our techniques of protest to become so entirely predictable that a fake Black Lives Matter group can gain more likes than the real one and an agent in Moscow can organize a plausible protest in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Activism has become scripted and this has increased not only the ineffectiveness of our protests but also our susceptibility to mimicry by external anti-democratic forces. The indistinguishability between fake and real protest is a wake-up call for protesters and must be the catalyst for a profound rethink of contemporary activism.
That is how we protect ourselves. Here is how we fight back.
Genuine social protests tend to boomerang around the world. So let’s ensure that foreign governments fear that the protests they create abroad will return home. To protect against fake activism in America we must insist that every protest be globally oriented.
That means exporting our protests to every country, especially those suspected of supporting, co-opting or controlling our movements. If Russia wants to create civil rights protests in Oakland then they must be prepared to deal with those same protests back into Moscow. From this point forward, our best defense is a global offense.
Social movements will put an end to war as we know it
Could social movements replace conventional warfare?
The idea might sound far-fetched. But President Obama’s steadfast refusal to send occupation forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria may be evidence that the old methods of regime change—boots on the ground—are being rendered obsolete.
Going forward, governments will increasingly rely on catalyzing contagious social protests to topple terrorist states and influence autocratic regimes. Russian military theorists were the first to openly discuss this shift in the art of war—and to accuse America of pioneering techniques of fomenting viral protests abroad. Whether or not their accusations hold water, social movement warfare may well be the wave of the future.
Last year, defense ministers and high-ranking military personnel from several less-than-democratic societies, including Belarus, Iran, Egypt, Myanmar, Vietnam, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and China, gathered in an opulent Stalinist-era hotel in Moscow to discuss a grave threat to their governments. The occasion was the third annual Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS), an event hosted by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Unlike previous years, not a single military officer or official representative from a NATO member country participated in the two-day event.
The reason for the conspicuous absence of NATO representatives became apparent during the opening speech by Russia’s minister of defense, army general S. K. Shoygu. He announced that the focus of the gathering would be “on the problems of how so-called ‘color revolutions’ … affect global security.”
Pointing to the social protests that rocked the world from 2011 to 2014, beginning with the Arab Spring and continuing through Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution and Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, Shoygu argued that Western powers are deploying social movements as a technique devised “according to the rules of the art of war” for overthrowing unfriendly governments.
Shoygu’s allegations are a prescient vision of the future. Similar accusations of engineering protests have been made in the past against, and variously denied by, non-governmental organizations such as George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institute and the Serbia-based Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). What is different today is the implication that state militaries could shift toward creating, training and deploying civilian activists in a bid to create disruptive movements.
A turn toward social movement warfare could be a strategic response to the impracticality of direct confrontation, or conventional war, against great militaries and nuclear-armed states. As one scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies explains, the Russian military now considers social movements to be “a new US and European approach to warfare that focuses on creating destabilizing revolutions in other states as a means of serving their security interests at low cost and with minimal casualties.”
The idea that seemingly disparate social movements involving millions of people around the world could be manufactured—or “staged and managed,” as one Russian general puts it—to influence geopolitics will probably dismay many movement participants. Most protestors experience uprisings as organic phenomena. However, rather than rush to ignore or refute the accusations levied by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, activists would be wise to understand the implications of casting social movements as a new form of warfare, and the impact this shift will have on the next generation of protests.
At the very least, we might assume that, as philosopher Jacques Ellul once proposed, “The accusation … clearly reveals the intention of the accuser.” In other words, Russia’s accusation might reveal its own intention to manufacture social movements in America and beyond.
If true, this would explain the hyperbolic coverage that Russia Today, a government-funded station, lavished on Occupy Wall Street. It went so far as to fly prominent Occupiers from New York City to London for a televised interview with Julian Assange.
So is this good or bad for social justice? Placing social movements within the context of military science contains two dangers—and an opportunity—for activists worldwide.
The first danger is that authoritarian societies will use the excuse that protests are a form of war to justify cracking down on domestic dissent with military force.
However, democratic and repressive regimes alike are already responding to protests as if they are a form of social movement warfare. Witness, for example, the conspicuous deployment of a Long Range Acoustic Device, the notorious sound cannon often used in war zones, during the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park in 2011 and during the protests in Ferguson in 2014. Activists who understand, rather than deny, this change in how their protests are being interpreted by authorities will be better equipped to develop effective counterstrategies.
The second danger is that repressive societies may try to create social movements in a bid to negatively influence democratic societies.
Every new protest invention is ultimately a double-edged sword. Jihadists use hashtags to spread extremism. Anti-immigrant movements in Germany co-opt the “We are the people” slogan that toppled the Berlin Wall to push a negative agenda. The leaderless organizing style of Black Lives Matter might one day too be appropriated by reactionary forces.
It is worrisome to consider how repressive authorities could use nonviolent popular protest tactics. But even this is preferable to destructive conventional warfare that relies on brute force.
Fortunately, social movement warfare also offers reason for genuine optimism. Any government that tries to spark social movements abroad while suppressing protests at home is in for a nasty surprise. In our hyper-connected world, revolutionary events are akin to a tsunami that crashes against every shore. Movements have a tendency to spiral outside the control of their creators, spreading across all borders and swerving in democratic directions where participants dictate the outcome.
Ultimately, the ascendancy of social movements, and their coming adoption by militaries as a method of social change, gives me hope that this is the end of war as we know it. And it could be the beginning of a planetary uprising for democracy that the people have been dreaming of. A revolution anywhere brings us one step closer to a revolution everywhere. So any repressive governments that choose to create social movements abroad are digging their own graves.