Yesterday, the almost 200,000 followers of @OccupyWallSt — viewed by many as the original and even “official” voice of the movement — were in for a surprise.

Along with this announcement, the Twitter icon changed to an image of a creature from Doctor Who called an Adipose. An account that purported to speak for a national movement now suddenly spoke very much in first person. Access that had been shared with a select sampling of Occupy activists nationwide now dwindled to just a single voice.

A white blob-like creature with a humanoid shape known as an Adipose

The new white face of Occupy Wall Street?

As a flood of critical tweets began, Tunney justified her drastic actions by saying she’d felt excluded from the OWS conversation since the beginning and was reclaiming the account ‘for a week or so‘ to share her voice.

Tunney’s viewpoints included calling out activist philosopher David Graeber, espousing vegetarianism and non-smoking, and insisting that the movement was only anti-Wall Street, not anti-corporation. She defended her employment with Google while simultaneously calling out the liberal middle class for their moral bankruptcy.

I was the founding organizer of this movement. But prejudiced people have always tried to deny me a voice in this movement. –Justine Tunney

The movement lost the way. So I’m helping people learn about its founding principles which lead to its success. –Justine Tunney to @YourAnonNews

Tunney’s tale of exclusion stems from being a transgender woman, a class of people often oppressed and silenced in our culture. Yet she plays this card without hesitation in response to her critics. This afternoon, as nearly every activist on social media held their breath in anticipation of the NATO 3 verdict, Tunney shared a sob story of emotional abuse on her personal account. As I pleaded with her to use her new soapbox to share solidarity with three activists that face decades behind bars, she responded by calling me a transphobic bully and temporarily blocking me on Twitter.

The fiasco spawned the humorous #IFoundedOccupyWallSt hashtag, but many who invested months of their lives — or even went to jail for the movement — responded with outrage and a sense of betrayal. It’s sad to see a leaderless movement so diminished in numbers and tarnished in the media further devalued by the bizarre personal agenda of a singular egotist. On one hand, this appears to be a sudden digital coup by a self-described anarchist turned movement dictator.

But looked at another way, this seems like the sad yet inevitable result of how the Occupy media team formed. Viewed this way, it’s a problem exacerbated by technology ill-suited to horizontal movements, a problem that played out at perhaps dozens of encampments and Occupy subgroups before coming home to Zuccotti.

While I spoke at length with a former media team member, Tim Fitzgerald (@DiceyTroop) today about the early days of @OccupyWallSt, his words were supported by many communications I’ve had over the last few years with Occupy members, and documented in multiple sources which I will link to where possible. I engaged with Justine Tunney for her side of things until I was blocked. Priscilla Grim, one of the team members ousted on Thursday, told me she’d be unavailable to comment on this matter until Monday.

Occupy The Media or Occupy A Park

Yesterday’s hijack was possible because Tunney did create the @OccupyWallSt account on Twitter and obtain the original domain name OccupyWallSt.org — the about page of which is currently a hagiography of Tunney and her friends. To take over, she presumably just changed the password and shut down whatever services were allowing other activists to tweet from the account.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of the origins and structure of the Occupy movement knows it’s ludicrous to claim leadership, but I think we can learn a lot about how activist media goes wrong from her example. Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy (previously on the FDL Book Salon) tells Tunney’s side of the origin story:

Because of the General Assembly’s early hiccups in setting up a website during the planning process, the occupation’s online presence was left to the whims of improvisation. A transgender Internet security expert, Justine Tunney, registered the OccupyWallSt.org web domain anonymously on July 14 and started assembling a team to populate it.

[...]

[Tunney:] ‘… Right now I’m trying to get more developers to help me out with this. So far I’m the only person developing it, and that’s bad. I’m a firm believer in collective responsibility, because if I get hit by a bus, people are screwed.’

Others disagree with the notion that she tried to create a collaborative atmosphere. Activist and journalist Alexa O’Brien called the takeover “three years in the making,” and implied that Tunney had acted to seize power from the start:

Though O’Brien did not respond to a request for further comment, a trans activist named Laurelai Bailey wrote today on her blog about how Tunney tried to exclude anyone who disagreed with her, often by claiming they were undercover police (‘snitch-jacketing’):

There was a group who helped run one of the more popular occupy websites and the twitter account thats become well known to OWS. This group was a group of friends and anarchists a lot of them trans that joined the call to arms and setup the web presences that became associated with the movement.

Justine was one of these people and the owner of the occupywallst.org domain. What she did was one by one she eliminated people from this group by snitch jacketing them.

Anyone who disagreed with Justine wound up getting kicked out of this group, no kind of process or consensus was ever followed and anyone who ever tried to call her out on this was removed also. I’m not even close to the only person she did this to either.

She also once snitch jacketed another comrade who had been in the hospital and had almost died when they finally recovered and came back to the group. This person had piles of medical records proving what happened. Justine decided that because this person had disagreed with her, that they had to be a fed, despite them just struggling to survive.

The media team which formed around Tunney was insular and often accused of being disconnected or openly hostile to the Zuccotti encampment and the daily work of occupation (and she assured us yesterday there’d be no more free lunches in her movement). At one point, the team caused controversy by changing the donation link on the website from the one which led to the General Assembly to one which only they controlled. While voicing her opposition to the consensus process last year, Tunney wrote on Google+ that:

Consensus process is the tyranny of the individual. It is the most anti-social of all processes because it allows any one person to assert irrational authority over an entire group of people and block any sort of decision making.

A viewpoint that seems somewhat ironic today.

As the movement dwindled, activists from Austin to Australia complained that @OccupyWallSt seemed to increasingly ignore their requests for solidarity for local causes — today was far from the first day a major Occupy trial went unremarked and unretweeted. To outsiders, the account seemed to assume the role of most Occupy social media accounts which stayed active after eviction — part theory and link sharing, part motivational calls for revolutionary change, with occasional livetweeting of an action peripherally tied to the movement. It spoke with a collective voice, but its tweets came primarily from Priscilla Grim and Micah White, another member of the remaining trio. However, access was shared with a handful of other activists in places like Oakland (Grim invited me to join, but I did not accept).

Last fall, the team took the mic to propose a kickstarter to form a nonviolent militia to oppose police, with Tunney telling Betabeat:

Crowdfunding is a democratic model for creating large projects in general and creating new institutions in society. So I’m thinking, ‘Why can’t we apply this idea to create a militia or an army?’ In many ways I think that if this works it could be the first true people’s army. The militia would seek no political power for itself other than to dismantle power structures.

Despite the appearance of speaking for the remains of the movement, @OccupyWallSt received increasing criticism as the 2013 Christmas season approached. The account began heavily advertising prints of the iconic Occupy Wall Street poster, with events coming to a head when Micah White hijacked the Twitter account of Canadian culture-jamming magazine Adbusters, source of one of the original calls for occupation.

In communications both publicly on Twitter and privately to me on the phone, Grim assured me that the poster sale directly funded necessary work, and later tweets added caveats suggesting buying a poster would pay an occupier’s phone bill.

About two months later, @OccupyWallSt was seized in turn by White & Grim’s own erstwhile comrade, Justine Tunney.

Who Holds the Keys?

@Diceytroop lost access to @OccupyWallSt when he objected to the militia proposal, but he remained cautious about putting the blame solely on Justine Tunney for the situation. A bigger problem, he suggested, lies with the technology of social media. Though social media empowered the political movements of 2011 as thousands followed associated accounts or hashtags, their nature also empowered bullies, trolls and infiltrators to steal the soapbox.

When Occupy Austin members woke up one day to find a former member had seized control of their Facebook page, the experience was uncommon in only one way — they got the page back after a few hours. Many other Occupy camps were forced to create new Facebook pages and new Twitter accounts after they found the original stolen by a social media volunteer gone rogue. As Occupy Austin’s “Twitter magnet,” I begged others to help me get the word out on Twitter — but I also knew every time I handed out the password, I risked losing access for everyone. No solution seems to work for long — Hootsuite is too expensive for even a small team, Grouptweet is unreliable and Twitter shut off access to IFTTT months ago. IndieGogo, WePay and other sites used for fundraising present the same problem: as long as access rests in a single password, any one bad apple can run off with the whole bushel.

Twitter is powerful, but Justine Tunney and her ilk prove we’ve found it (and everything else of its technological generation) wanting. We need new tools to socially empower leaderless uprising.

In the end, a social network’s power and relevancy is not about the number of digital followers or friends on any given account, but your ability to activate that network to generate meatspace action. Twitter’s power is in its ability to document, communicate, and mobilize actions in the real world.

Since anyone can launch a livestream and then be retweeted to millions, relevancy is fleeting. While a lonely adipose speaks to an echo chamber, the real struggle continues.

Maybe @OccupyWallSt’s only remaining relevancy is as an archive of the last 3 years and a lesson for the future.

Photo by Joshua Smith released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.