Saturday, August 13, 2011

Towards A Financial Model For Protest

The Problem:

Big Business funds propaganda (esp. media and advertising) that promotes their business interests. This leads to increased business profits, which leads to more money for business propaganda. Its a self perpetuating cycle where everyone involved profits. No wonder so many people love it.

Unfortunately, Big Business is destroying the planet. The rampant Capitalist model demands endless profits, leading to an inevitably smaller and smaller group of elites amassing more and more wealth. It's a path to ruin for all but a select few, and even they will ultimately inherit nothing more than a dying planet overpopulated by uneducated, angry, hungry masses.

Das Kapital means whoever has the most money wins the big pile of ashes at the end of the game. Campaigning against this system is extremely difficult, largely because nobody will pay you to do it. Therein lies the dilemma.

Meanwhile, a lot of decent, honest people believe the business propaganda because they have never had a good look at the alternatives. Their perception is based on lies, so the shocking truth sounds like a lie to them. How do we reach these people and change their way of thinking? We need to be able to compete on the Public Relations (PR) level, combating propaganda with truth. This blog post urges readers to consider how activist PR can be properly funded. It takes a quick look at 5 existing solutions, 5 other options, and 3 mainstream media models, then draws some semi-conclusions. Your thoughts are appreciated in the comments!

PART A - Five Existing Solutions

A number of financial models currently exist which allow people to compete (to some extent) against Big Business propaganda.

1. Donations

This is the simplest model. Websites like and ICH, and organisations like Wikileaks, are excellent examples. But who donates to these sites and why? Why are they always struggling to just keep going? Surely there must be a better model.

2. Community + Advertising

Websites like Daily Kos and FDL began as community sites where people contributed their time and energy for free. Some have now incorporated advertising to cover the costs of a small, dedicated team. It's efficient, especially for targeted campaigns and disseminating news, and those who choose to participate seem to enoy participating in the community model. But it doesn't seem to work so well outside the USA, and even there results are a work in progress. The promise of the "Netroots" is still to be fully realised, despite all the hype.

3. Sales

Online sales of T-shirts, printed mugs, and other merchandise can sometimes supplement a news section. Eg. Cafe Press. But few such sites survive for long against the demands of web marketing in competition with Ebay & Co. The perception that a news story is trying to sell you something doesn't help.

4. Charitable Foundations

Wealthy donors sometimes set up a charitable foundation with a noble agenda (e.g. the Knight Foundation). The scope and daring of these foundations is usually rather limited in practice. While some founders may have been free-thinkers, those overseeing their foundations tend to be less courageous.

5. Paid subscription

Sites like rely on paid reader subscriptions plus (usually) some advertising. But limited access leads to limited readership on sometimes excellent writing. People just won't pay for news and opinion while they can still get it free elsewhere. And there are plenty of other voices demanding attention.

PART B - Five Other Options

6. Crime

The Robin Hood model involves robbing the rich to pay the poor. This model could be used to support propaganda but it is riddled with problems. Eg. it cannot work if everyone is in jail, or the site is closed down, or if the public are overwhelmingly against it. Non-violent criminals could be urged to donate money anonymously through a proxy site, with money forwarded through the same tax haven routes as used by Big Business. No evidence this has been attempted.

7. Direct Action

Direct action (street protests, civil disobedience, etc.) foregoes the need to raise money. The propaganda element is supplied by media reporting on the actions (albeit they can interpret those actions as desired). But the media tend to ignore or distort the message. Groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd have some success here, but individuals are discouraged by the threat of fines and detention.

8. The Armageddon Option

The ultimate direct action would be to destroy the system, rendering existing wealth and power obsolete. For example, destroying all bank records, property titles, sharemarket functions, etc. But this would almost inevitably have a negative impact (at least in the short term) on millions (if not billions) of innocent people. And what new system would replace it? Those with guns and weapons would be best placed to profit from the ensuing anarchy.

9. Switch Off, Walk Away

Refusing to be part of the system, returning to nature. Sounds like a nice option, if you can get away with it. But ignoring problems doesn't make them go away. OTOH what if everybody did it? What if we all stopped voting, stopped paying taxes, turned our backyards into vegetable patches and our street corners into bartering market-places? Could we all AFFORD to do that? Is there enough land for us all? What about climate change - will over 8 billion people be able to survive off the land 50 years from now? Not likely.

10. Art

It is possible to make money from art that carries a propaganda message, be it writing, painting, performance art, movies, etc. Again, government funding has been severely limited so only a select few manage to succeed. Street art, youtube videos and similar efforts have some impact but again there is no funding model to support on-going efforts.

Part C: Three Media Models

11. Western government-funded media

We should pause to consider the potential of government-owned media in relatively free societies like UK and Australia. Could outlets like the BBC and ABC save the day? Sadly, no. These institutions have been ruthlessly politicized, had their funds cut, and are now minimally effective. Certain programs (e.g. 4 Corners, DateLine) are capable of occasional great work, but mostly these news outlets provide bland, minimalistic reporting.

12. Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera is also worth noting. They publish opinion pieces from writers like ted Rall and Dahr Jamail, who offer radically alternative viewpoints to Western media competitors. Recent access into the NYC market hopefully presages a full-scale move into the US market (which would cause many US citizens' brains to explode). But then we should remember who finances Al Jazeera: the Qatar government's ownership is often blamed for bias. And while AJE is having a positive impact in many areas, the general dilemma of making money from online news remains. OTOH if more governments followed the AJE model, would the bastards be able to keep each other honest?

13. UK Guardian's Trustee Model

The UK Guardian newspaper's trustee-ownership media model is also worth considering. Arguably the best of a bad lot in UK newspapers at the moment, it has done some excellent work on issues like the Murdoch phone hacking scandal. Still, the recent campaign of cheap anti-WikiLeaks snark shows the Guardian is only as good as the journalists and editors it employs. Again, there are hopeful signs, but (despite the CIF section) it remains a relatively closed shop for citizen journos and unorthodox viewpoints. In any case, the newspaper division of Guardian Media Group continues operating at a loss, sustained by profitable divisions like Auto Trader. So it's not a model that can be easily copied.


Existing solutions are having only limited success. Things are still getting worse, not better. While many wonderful people freely contribute many hours of their time in the hope that the balance will soon be tipped, success remains far from guaranteed. We need a game-changer.

Those who get their news over the internet are becoming more educated, but the real effect of this change in news-gathering habits is still barely noticeable in wider society. If things get really bad in the global economy, and conventional news sites either shut down or lose all credibility, the existing "alternative media" may experience a boom. This MIGHT quickly turn them into critically important social hubs. Meanwhile decent news organisations are cutting back staff or going bankrupt, and even Murdoch is threatening to put his news behind a paywall (yeah, I know: good luck with that).

From an activist's point of view, what is needed is a funding model that allows top quality activists to work full-time on changing the system. Aside from the options described above, I just can't think of any such funding model. For me personally, that means (sometime soon, probably) I just will not be able to continue tweeting and writing. It's a pity, because this is what I really want to do. And I am sure there are many good, capable, hard-working and intelligent people out there who feel the same as me.

More broadly, we need to encourage an economic model where a financial value is placed on things like peace and transparency in government and business. There is an economic cost from corruption, as even the World Bank concedes. War is a racket where everybody loses except the arms manufacturers. Our planet has 7 billion people living on it right now, and we are only going to survive if we can all work together in the most peaceful and efficient ways possible. Setting up a working model to fund anti-business protest would be a good start.

What do you think? Have I left anything out? Am I being too sceptical? Where do we go from here?


  1. Ethical advertising is a niche that is overlooked. Many 'clients' don't mind advertising as long as it's ethical. I have no numbers on this but advertising for companies that give an ethical product (e.g. no slave labor) for a fair price would be very appealing, as the green attitude is now.

  2. Actually most leading blogs and community style news/opinion websites now use some kind of targetted (ethical) advertising. They started off using Adwords but readers complained about ill-fitting ads. So now they get more $ from advertisers, who also get a better return on their money.

    I hope ethical advertising continues to grow. But I certainly don't see it as a "game-changer".