There are three main forms of hijacking in protest. First, a group may try to hijack your protest to use it for their own purposes, or to discredit you and your group. Second, an organization or group may try to hijack a person and use them for their purposes. Third, a website, facebook, or comments section may be hijacked by those trying to subtly undermine the purpose of your group or to stem the flow of useful communication or to discredit those contributing productively.
All three of these forms of hijacks can be largely prevented with one simple rule:
Know who you are dealing with.
This was taught to me many years ago by a man who had decades of experience in activism. He looked at a flyer for a protest march run by a long list of groups with acronym names. “Who are they really?” he asked. Don’t associate until you know who they really are, he warned me. He was right. Years later, at one point, I failed to heed his advice, and found myself in a bad experience from which I had to extricate myself. Do your research. Know who is who and what is what before you agree to go to any meeting, event, or protest.
Let’s go through each of the forms of hijacking:
I) Hijacking your protest. This happens when other groups come to your protest and take over leadership, or when they show up with inappropriate signs, flags, or banners. They may show up with a sound amplification system and begin shouting things or lecturing on things that are inappropriate to your message. They may pass out flyers for their own ideas or events. They may break your protest march into splinters, leading parts of your group off from the planned route. They may bring drums and drown out your planned speakers or turn your event into a noisy fracas.
What you can do:
1) Issue invitations only to individual people or leaders that you actually know. Tell them your plans. Tell them what you do and do not want participants to bring or do. Tell them specifically what is not acceptable. This is not so much to instruct them, but to make it clear that you do not welcome hijackers.
2) If people volunteer to help, don’t accept everyone. Check them out and be sure you actually want their help. Have them show up at one meeting and decide if you want further contact from them.
3) Train your own group in how to march closely, how not to follow an infiltrator leader, how to maintain order. That takes a lot of discipline and practice. It is worth doing. If someone shows up and tries to lead marchers into the street, or off onto a bridge, or down a different route, make sure in advance that your people are smart enough not to follow.
4) Have group officials who have special T-shirts or hats. Station them at the entrance to your event and make sure they have the power to ask people to leave or to call police to remove people. That is where it is helpful to have a permit. Tell them your permit does not include their group or message or activity and that therefore it cannot take place at your event, and that if they do not leave, you will call police. And then do so.
5) Have your group officials tell people who arrive with inappropriate signs or flags or other such items that those things are not part of your event and that they must stow them. Plan in advance to have a storage space for such items. Do not let anyone carry such items saying them will keep them, but not use them. if they insist, tell them their activities are not included in your event or on your permit and that they must leave or you will call the police. And then do it. Your permit is for you and your group and not for anyone that happens to come along.
6) If you are marching, have your special officials with easy-to-see T-shirts or hats stationed along the route. In advance of the march, tell your participants that these people will have correct information and not to follow others.
7) Publicize your agenda, activities, performers, speakers, route, timetable. Publicize the tone of the event. Publicize what is acceptable and what is not.
8) Bigger is not always better. it is better to have a smaller activity of people on-message than to have a larger group with mixed messages or with bad behavior.
9) Caution and train your participants in advance that if someone is doing something disruptive or illegal, not to follow. Step back and get away. Make it abundantly clear that your group is not associated with those actions.
Example: Years ago, it used to be very common for serious groups to plan anti-war protests and for the whole thing to go quite well till the last few minutes. At that time, a few people from some fringe revolutionary or anarchist group would sprint in and do something to bring disrepute on the whole group, such as burning a flag. And mainstream media would always use the dramatic photos of these few fringe people doing their sideshow. That is one reason it is SO important for your participants to step back from such actions — because you do not want it to appear in photos and videos as if your people are watching in approval.
10) Be loud and clear. Tell certain people and groups they are not welcome. Make sure everyone knows you do not associate with those groups or people.
II) Hijacking a Person. Fringe groups will often try to hijack a person. How? They will tell you they are having a press conference and ask you to speak at it. Often, the only press present is their own internal group. Or they will do the same with a website or blog – either asking or using without permission. Or they will make sure you get arrested and then use you as their pawn, their poster child.
Keep in mind that if you let yourself be hijacked by a political group or cause, you can end out arrested, in prison, accused of terrorism, etc. Make sure you are making your decisions. Do not fall for a group mentality, because that is no excuse. In fact, in the eyes of the law, you can be held accountable for what others in the group do.
1) Ask questions, lots of detailed questions.
2) Don’t get hooked into a cult of personality. Most fringe groups revolve around a leader who is larger than life. If it sounds like a cult, and acts like a cult – it is a cult.
3) Sometimes a group will use a person as their pawn, “poster child,” or martyr. For example, a group may conduct a protest in such a way that it is sure to result in arrests. Then they use the arrested people as examples of protest martyrdom.
I strongly encourage anyone who is being told to engage in “civil disobedience” or trained in such, to seriously question if this is civil disobedience or if it is merely acting in such a way that assures being arrested or brutalized. Don’t let people guilt trip you into this type of thing. Don’t let peer pressure or group dynamics be used on you to convince you to do something that you know is not what you want.
Some people believe that the way to “grow a movement” is by provoking confrontations with police. Others know that the surest way to discredit a group is by provoking confrontations with police. In any case, confrontations with police are, I think, almost always ultimately counterproductive in that they marginalize you, your group, and your ideas.
Think very carefully when persuasive, smooth, group-think people try to lead you into such activities. It is okay to challenge such people and in fact, the survival of your group probably depends on you doing so.
People trying to convince you to get arrested will tell you that civil disobedience was used in other past movements, such as the Civil Rights movement. True Civil Disobedience was used, but pointlessly being arrested was avoided. What's the difference? Civil Disobedience is when a person intentionally disobeys an unjust law. This is usually done by a carefully-selected front person, in concert with lawyers and financial backing. If you are being arrested for walking into traffic, that is not Civil Disobedience, that is just being arrested for walking into traffic.
4) If you have gotten sucked in, get out. Do not let anything or anyone lure you to stay.
III) Hijacking your website or comments forum. Right now, group websites, facebooks, and comments are being overrun with posters with an agenda to discredit a group, discredit valuable contributors, or to lead a counter agenda. This is especially true in the Occupy groups. MANY of these are paid trolls or are fake profiles. Please see my blog post about fake profiles – these are being used by individuals, organizations, and even by the government. Many fake profiles are obviously fake, though some are not.
What to do:
1) Don’t allow comments on a site if you do not have time to moderate them. Give an email so people who sincerely want to contact you are able to do that.
2) If you allow comments, moderate them. If a poster is using a fake name or fake profile, do not allow them to post.
3) Be wary of people who do not identify themselves as fully as others do. Newspaper and magazine Letters to the Editors and guest Op-Ed sections always required a name, address and phone number. The speed of the internet makes such verification difficult. You should still attempt to verify and cross-check each and every participant. If you notice people trying to discredit useful participants or posting things that are likely to scare off useful participants, delete and ban those users.
4) Check other sites nationwide. If the same profiles show up all over posting the same negative stuff, you know you are onto a troll.
5) If a facebook profile is obviously fake or obviously a front for a political trolling organization, do not allow it to post.
6) If “likes” come from people not otherwise posting, or from profiles that seem suspect, delete them and block the users.
7) Do not allow personal attacks.
8) Read my blog post about Fake Profiles and download and read the linked study from the University of California Santa Barbara. It will make you more aware of how fake profiles are used. You will be better able to spot it when it is happening.
9) Less is more. It is better to have 2 intelligent comments than a flurry of trolls.
10) Negative commenters often use mean, juvenile tactics. Personal attacks, racism, and sexism are common.
11) On Comments sections about Occupy protests, there is a series of trolls/ fake commenters posting Comments that say that Occupy protesters “pee” or “poo” on the ground (yes, often using such juvenile wording), or are “dirty.” These posters are trolls, probably paid trolls, trying to appeal to readers of limited social depth. OR they may be used to poison a comments section by scaring off intelligent, productive contributors. Whichever it is – these are the kind of comments that you delete and block the user.
12) On the chat or social networks Comments that run with live streaming video of protests, I have often seen posters who should be removed off the chat and banned much faster than they are. These are often people posting lurid, vile comments about sex or about defecation and urination. Sometimes they post links to unrelated topics, even to sex sites. Anyone running live streaming should get a friend to volunteer as a moderator and the first such comment, ban the person. Such Comments poison the flow of intelligent communication exchange.
ALSO BEWARE: The other night on TimCast's OWS stream, several sincere-sounding trolls kept posting saying to donate to Tim -- and posting a link to an account that used Tim's name but was not his account. In other words, trolls came onto Tim's stream to try to divert donation money away from him. Have a moderator! Tim told the viewers that the links were not to his accounts. They persisted in posting the links. Finally the moderator stepped in.
13) Keep in mind that there really are counter-organizations paying people to be troll Commenters on facebook, youtube, livestream, websites, news comments, and other locations. It’s for real.