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Coping with disruptions in indymedia and other networked organizations

by Evan Thursday, Jul. 18, 2002 at 9:30 AM
evan@protest.net

The history of a persistent and difficult person who nearly destroyed Indymedia

In indymedia and related projects where we've used the net for organizing and faced a few difficult situations. We have a new form of decentralized networked organization and as such we are facing new challenges in terms of stability and with standing intentional or unintentional disruption.

Although we aren't perfect at dealing with it by any means it is interesting to look in to one particularly extreme case and a few techniques which we've come up with.

The case of Biodun Iginla is the most persistent and difficult person who has graced the history of indymedia. I first ran in to Biodun back when I was working on DAMN (Direct Action Media Network) with Jay Sand and others in the pre-indymedia world. He basically tore apart the organization by creating flame wars and distracting the work list into a debate about the leftist credentials of Deleuze and Guattari. Biodun had a tactic of creating multiple personalities and having them stir up controversy in the community. By the end of DAMN he was three of the six people still duking a flame war which killed the organization. More often than not he'd be arguing against himself under another name to draw people in. Once the signal to noise ratio has been upset the work of the group grinds to a halt. It turned out that nobody was too upset about DAMN falling apart because we were all spending out energy on organizing indymedia by that time.

Biodun reappeared as a member of the Twin Cities IMC. There he both engaged in online disruption as well as attending meetings in person. I haven't followed the detailed back and forth in depth but just the general flow. To be effective Biodun engages in a number of activities which he uses to booster his own credibility. First off all he claims to be a former reporter with the from a corporate television network. I don't know if it's true, but the effect is to create the impression that we should value his participation because he has come over to 'our side.' Biodun's alternate personalities all are setup with phone numbers attached to voicemail, addresses, job titles, and manufactured histories. This creates depth and weight behind his disruptive actions. A single email with no name, information attached to it, or background in the community does not get much attention. This is especially true if they format of the email is more spam like where the author doesn't use complete sentences, has lots of caps, inconsistent paragraphs, punctuation, and grammar.

That Biodun did was craft his actions so that he builds up his credibility by having the right form of his emails. The other critical component of his tactics was that he built upon existing sensitive areas within the community.

The issues Biodun choose were effective for creating controversy within indymedia. He would accuse people of taking power or control, making decisions in closed doors, of being racist, sexist, or authoritarian. To add extra strength to these righteous denouncements of people or processes in indymedia he used the fact that he is black to cry racism. Many of his alternate fake online personalities are minorities or women. In short he would create dysfunction by questioning issues that people are most concerned about. This makes it really difficult to just kick this person out of the community or discount them because their emails will resonate with people. Not knowing the history or that they are dealing with a disruptive person, many naive people will send supportive emails demanding answers to the questions Biodun raised. The issues actually are things that need to be addressed in the community but Biodun raised these issues not to resolve them but to bring the group in to organizational paralysis.

To take it a step further Biodun provided references and did everything he could to make himself and his fake online personalities seem real. Once he had created a fair level of disruption in the organization he found a way to ratchet it up to another level. He used forged email and the fake accounts to libel the real Biodun. With the libel as 'evidence' he sued in small claims court the other members of the group. This legal angle caused increased stress and tension in the group. The lawsuits were baseless but process of going through the legal trouble can be truly distracting for somebody who has a full time job, kids, and activism projects. At least once I ve heard that Biodun got people to just buy him off in order to drop the lawsuit so that he would go away.

While Biodun's actions have been disruptive and caused us problems I do not believe he was paid by anyone. He is by all accounts truly mentally ill and delusional. He has written many publish yourself books in which he attacks indymedia and wraps up people he's met in long bad cyber romance novels. Often he talks about traveling around the world and being a jet-setting media activist even though it is clear that all his email is written from the same computer lab at the University of Minnesota. What is interesting about whole thing is that the most disruptive acts where not somebody directly attacking the network, but rather somebody who under the guise of well meaning critique was able to drive parts of the network in to near paralysis.

Biodun and other disruptive people like him have been able to have such a large effect on indymedia because of our networked organization and working style. We are creating a new kind of organization which is very strong in some ways yet also incredibly weak in others. For example there currently somewhere between three and six major legal battles involving indymedia. The network has been able find lawyers who do probono work and generally cope very well with this kind of threat. A more traditional organization might be quite distracted by these potentially serious legal issues but because of indymedia's decentralized networked based autonomy these lawsuits barely register above background noise. It's not that we ignore the power the courts can have over us, but that we are able to develop relationships horizontally with lawyers on a local and adhoc basis in such a way that it simply has no noticeable impact on the rest of the network. The same can be said for our ability to organize for major events. Last January there were three major actions happening on the same weekend in New York, Porto Alegre, and Munich. Despite the huge coordination involved the weekend of coverage went quite smoothly. We have tremendous bandwidth for parallel and simultaneous action.

On the other hand there are some things this highly coordinated, adhoc, end to end network has huge difficulties resolving. One place where we run in to problems is when people intentionally manipulate the network communication by stoking tensions in to flame wars. Instead of addressing problems in a constructive way it is easy to push people in to misunderstanding and conflict. When a community member takes the step of 'becoming' two or more people they can stake out multiple sides of the issue and drive people in to opposing camps. This polarization is used to stop constructive dialog and refocus the work towards following and addressing the conflict. The flames turn people off from following the discussion and reduces interest in the group.

The difficult part about this form of disruption we are facing is that it relies on the very things which we do legitimately need to address. There are problems of classism, racism, and sexism in our groups. We all want to find a way to work towards addressing them. The reality is that making horizontal democratic institutions work when have had a life time of acculturation in to authoritarian power dynamics is a truly difficult process. It is precisely because of it's difficulty that this form of disruption can be effective.

If somebody tried to pull this kind of disruption in a traditional organization they would get nowhere. They might send in a letter of complaint or stand up at a public meeting to address their grievances. If they were a more core member then they could disrupt internal meetings but they could quickly be told that what they were saying was not the current topic on the agenda. If the issues brought up had some legitimacy then an appropriate space could be created to address them. On the whole what is disruptive for a networked organization has very little effect on a traditional institution in the same way that what could cripple a traditional organization finds the network immune.

There are ways to address and cope with this disruption of our networked organization. Many of them are already in the process of being implemented within indymedia. We start to know the people who have a history of being disruptive and when they post to a list we simply don't bite. If nobody responds usually the troll will get bored and search for other places to make trouble. Their actions only become a problem when we give them an echo chamber where other people can take up their 'cause.' To prevent the echo chamber from forming it is necessary to quietly inform people about the person's history of disruption. When ever Biodun posts to indymedia lists now most people ignore him. If somebody does respond then they are send a private email explaining the situation off list. This acts as a dampening force against disruption. By providing the context of the

disrupter it takes away the constructed legitimacy of that person. Some people have tried to ban the offenders from lists but that is practically impossible because it's too easy to create a new name and email and pretend to be somebody else. We just have to accept that these people will be able to get in to our workspace and find ways to continue functioning with them mucking around.

To address the question of legitimacy we are starting to take other steps. Everybody on lists are required to send in a roll call. This is a way of finding out background of other people on the list and creating a true form of legitimacy from which trusting working relationships can be built. Ideally we will have a way to easily find out background connected to an email address so that instead of simply being a random string of letters and numbers it represents a person and their context in the network.

We need to think a lot more about how to effectively combine legitimate questioning and dissent with in our dialogs with the knowledge that it is also our greatest potential weakness.



in solidarity,

evan

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me. Ed R. Friday, Feb. 28, 2003 at 10:11 AM
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